Kwame Brathwaite is a documentary photographer who chronicled the cultural, political and social developments of Harlem and co-founded the African Jazz Art Society and Studios. He staged a series of pageants that featured only black models, which helped popularise the phrase "Black Is Beautiful". This is also the title of his upcoming book.
Born of a Caribbean background in 1938 but growing up in the Bronx in New York City, Kwame Brathwaite was determined to use his art to elevate depictions of black life. He got his start documenting jazz music uptown in the 1950s. "[Jazz] is a feeling, a drive, an emotion that can be totally captivating. I have tried to capture that same feeling in my work," writes Brathwaite in his upcoming book, Black Is Beautiful.
In his youth Brathwaite became a part of the Garveyites, named after the early-1900s political leader Marcus Garvey, who sought to unify people across the African diaspora. He formed a club called African Jazz-Art Society (AJAS) to promote a "Think Black" message, according to The Cut website. The AJAS was a radical collection of artists, playwrights and dancers who celebrated the African roots of black American culture.
Towards this message, AJAS recruited women, mostly from Harlem, to showcase their natural hair in a series of pageants at a time when it was rare for black women to be seen with Afros and bold African-inspired clothes. Known as "Naturally '62", the event was billed as "the original African coiffure and fashion extravaganza", featuring an all-black cast of models resplendent in Afrocentric designs and natural hairstyles with performances by jazz musicians, as reported by Vogue magazine.
Africana studies Professor Tanisha C. Ford explains in the book, "The models ranged in complexion from light brown to medium brown to dark chocolate; most had full lips and noses; all had curvy figures that proclaimed onstage the difference in black and white America perceptions of the ideal body type."
She writes that Brathwaite used his images as protest against publications that only featured lighter-complexioned, straight-haired black models, saying, "He wanted viewers to see the range of shades of black skin; the vibrant colours of the garments; the red, green and black of the Pan-African liberation flag."
The Black Is Beautiful series
As photographer and activist, Brathwaite's work is enjoying newfound attention as the result of a renewed Afrocentric renaissance period. First the Aperture and Los Angeles' Skirball Cultural Center are celebrating Brathwaite's legacy from April to September this year with an exhibition titled "Black Is Beautiful: The Photography of Kwame Brathwaite". It is the first ever exhibition dedicated to Brathwaite's remarkable career and tells his story as a key figure of the second Harlem Renaissance. The show will feature more than 40 of his most memorable photographs.
In a different medium and true to the essence of Brathwaite's work his Black Is Beautiful book showcases and details the highlights of his life and work. The cover features a photograph of his wife, Sikolo Brathwaite, wearing a beaded crown by Carolee Prince, the woman behind many of Nina Simone's most iconic looks.
"Back then everything on the newsstands was Eurocentric. There was no Essence," Kwame Jr, who began digitally archiving his father's work last year, putting it before a wider audience for the first time, told Vogue. "My father gave the movement a visual language that never existed." According to the publication, Brathwaite would incidentally end up shooting his wife Sikolo for the cover of Essence in 1974, when she was pregnant with Kwame, Jr, essentially bringing his efforts full circle.
For the photographer, the most exciting response to his work has come from a new generation of politically conscious black women. "Looking back on that time, I remember every second of it. There was so much joy in making those shows. It was all about cooperation and working together," says Brathwaite.
"My goal was always to capture the beauty of black women, to restore black pride and the spirit of black women."