Even William Shakespeare, widely regarded as the greatest writer in the English language, couldn’t clearly define beauty. He wrote, “Beauty is bought by judgment of the eye…” (which is rendered today as ‘Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.’)
For Black Americans, it’s even more complicated, yet not left unexamined.
A new photography exhibition at the New Jersey State Museum (their first new exhibition since the pandemic shutdown) is titled ‘Posing Beauty in African American Culture.’
“This powerful exhibition explores the beauty and complexity of Black culture while also discussing beauty as a political act,” said Museum Executive Director and Curator Margaret O’Reilly. “The photographers in the show are renowned and we are particularly pleased that three of the artists featured – Anthony Barboza, Gordon Parks, and Wendell A. White, are also represented in the State Museum’s Fine Art collection.”
Based on a 2009 book by Deborah Willis, “Posing Beauty: African American Images from the 1890s to the Present” the exhibition is divided into three thematic sections: Constructing a Pose, Body and Image, and Modeling Beauty & Beauty Contests.
Featuring more than two hundred penetrating images, many previously unpublished, the exhibit highlights everyday people in settings like the barbershop, the bodybuilding contest, and prom night. Also featured are historical subjects from the past, including Billie Holiday to Angela Davis to Muhammad Ali, and the present, including Denzel Washington to Lil’ Kim to Michelle Obama.
An ancillary aspect of the show is that it provides a history of photography of sorts.
“I think 1891 is the earliest photograph, to the present,” said New Jersey State Museum Curator Sarah Vogelman.
There are also two video screens running.
Vogelman added, “And you know, these things all become both personal and political depending on who’s taking the picture, or what the circumstances are.
“I think it really shows how these beauty standards are both challenged and dictated by Black culture at different points and have an effect on mass culture in the United States as well.”
Toni Callas, of Hamilton, visited the exhibit. She is Black and grew up in Newark.
Currently employed as Coordinator, Corporation and Foundation Grants at the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen, she holds a Master’s degree in Interior Architecture and Design, and also does residential design work while working toward NCIDQ certification.
Callas has a singular sense of style, evident not only in her interior design work but in her personal appearance.
Her clothing harmoniously pulls together a palette of colors and textures, and perhaps the most striking thing about her look is her long, flowing blonde hair.
“I enjoy it,” she said. “I think it’s fun… Who knows, ten years from now, twenty years from now, I might decide to do something different.
“You have to be able to look at yourself in the mirror and be okay with what you look like, despite what other people think, you know? Because I know not everybody agrees with my blonde hair, but I don’t care. (laughs) I don’t care. MY life. Keyword: my.
When asked for her thoughts about defining the particular idea that even “The Bard” grappled with, she revealed that she found it uncomfortable to talk about the subject of beauty, and her own beauty.
“If I go back to when I was a kid, in my household, we always had Black baby dolls.
“My parents made sure that we had all, every single one of my dolls from Rub-A-Dub Dolly to, you know, Christie where I learned how to curl and braid and do my own hair (were Black).”
Callas still does her own hair, her own way, today.
“And so my perception of beauty, I think it was pretty solid. I didn’t feel like, that I was prettier or not as pretty as other girls,” she said.
While visiting the museum exhibition, the most poignant moment for Callas was one of the exhibit’s two video elements documenting a beauty contest where a woman Callas described as “stunning” came in 2nd place.
“She was a light-skinned Black woman,” said Callas, “And it showed how she was a runner up to a White contestant. I think that the artist was trying to capture her disappointment, how she tried to hide her anger.”
Beyond that primary dynamic, she also found it interesting that the 3rd place finisher, who was White, seemed aghast that a Black woman had finished ahead of her.
Another thing Callas said she appreciated about the exhibition was that it’s not just about feminine beauty. “You saw men in there as well,” she said. “And you know, what we determine is what’s masculine, what’s, you know, sexy for a Black man. I really enjoyed that too.”
Diane Bellamy runs a hair salon, in the city of Trenton, along with her husband Antonio, called “In His Image Hair Studio” where on a daily basis, she is immersed in her own and her clients’ impressions, judgments and knowledge of the interplay of beauty and Blackness.
“Beauty in itself for the African American person, is defined within, but also is external as well,” she said, while between clients in her salon.
Bellamy pointed to “What we’ve been told – The skin isn’t light enough. Your eyes aren’t blue or green enough. And your hair isn’t straight enough.
“As a professional in the hair industry I deal with women and men on a day-to-day basis who come in with marred views of beauty because of society’s standards, but I also see a fight to grow in their understanding.”
And like Callas, not surprisingly Bellamy also has a story about dolls and perceptions of what is beautiful.
“Oftentimes as a Black woman myself and raising two young Black girls, I see them struggling with their own identity, and what they define as beauty as well,” she said,
Bellamy recalls a day when her two daughters were fighting over Barbie dolls. “They both had their own, but they fought over one,” she said. “And me and my husband sat down our children to find out why were they fighting over this one doll.”
The core of the conflict was that they both wanted to play with the “prettier” doll, the one with long, straight, blonde hair and the lightest skin tone. Bellamy said that incident led to some deep discussions about what true beauty is.
Diane’s husband, Antonio is the lead pastor at Transformation Church and what they told their girls is reflective of that background.
“Some of the things we said to them was that you are truly, fearfully and wonderfully made in the image of God,” Diane Bellamy said. “That you’re beautiful brown skin is nothing to be ashamed of and just because you might be darker than what this Barbie doll skin color looks.”
Bellamy spoke from the dual perspectives of supportive mother and professional stylist when she praised her daughters’ “brown skin” and “kinky hair” pointing out, “Everybody can’t do everything you can do with your hair, You can rock the braids, you can rock the ‘fro, you can do whatever you want with your hair.
“And it’s a beautiful crown for a princess like you.”
So as impressions of contemporary understandings of beauty evolve, Bellamy sees the expressions of people of color duly emerge, in the workplace, in the corporate world, and looking at social media as a barometer, she states, “Black women and Black men are really empowering each other to walk in all of who they are.”
Posing Beauty in African American Culture is on display through May 21, 2022 in the First Floor Gallery of the New Jersey State Museum, located at 205 West State Street, in Trenton.
This touring exhibition was organized by the Department of Photography & Imaging at New York University, Tisch School of the Arts, and curated by Deborah Willis, PhD, University Professor and Chair of the Department. At the New Jersey State Museum, the exhibition has been made possible by the Lucille M. Paris Fund of the New Jersey State Museum Foundation.
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Michael Mancuso may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org