Even William Shakespeare, widely regarded as the greatest English-language writer, could not clearly define beauty. He wrote: “Beauty is bought with the judgment of the eye …” (which today is rendered as “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder”.)
For black Americans, it’s even more complicated, but not left hanging.
A new photo exhibit at the New Jersey State Museum (their first new exhibit since the close of the pandemic) is titled “Posing Beauty in African American Culture”.
“This powerful exhibit explores the beauty and complexity of black culture, while also discussing beauty as a political act,” said Margaret O’Reilly, executive director and curator of the museum. “The photographers in the exhibition are renowned and we are particularly pleased that three of the artists in attendance, 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.
With over two hundred insightful images, many of them unpublished, the exhibit highlights ordinary people in settings such as the barber shop, bodybuilding contest, and prom night. There are also historical subjects from the past, including Billie Holiday, Angela Davis, Muhammad Ali, and the present, including Denzel Washington, Lil ‘Kim and Michelle Obama.
A secondary aspect of the show is that it provides a kind of history of photography.
“I think 1891 is the first photograph to date,” said Sarah Vogelman, curator of the New Jersey State Museum.
There are also two video screens running.
Vogelman added: “And you know, these things get both personal and political depending on who’s taking the picture or the circumstances.
“I think it really shows how these beauty standards are both challenged and dictated by black culture in several places and have an effect on mass culture in the US as well.”
Toni Callas, from Hamilton, visited the exhibition. She is black and raised in Newark.
Currently employed as Coordinator, Corporation and Foundation Grants at Trenton Area Soup Kitchen, she holds a Masters in Interior Architecture and Design and also does residential design work while working towards NCIDQ certification.
Callas has a singular sense of style, evident not only in her interior design work, but in her personal aspect.
Her clothes harmoniously combine a palette of colors and textures, and perhaps the most striking thing about her look is her long flowing blonde hair.
“I like it,” he said. “I think it’s fun… Who knows, in ten years, twenty years, I might decide to do something different.
“You have to be able to look in the mirror and be comfortable with your appearance, despite what other people think, you know? Because I know not everyone agrees with my blonde hair, but I don’t care. (laughs) I don’t care. My life. Key word: mine.
When asked what her views were on defining the particular idea that “The Bard” was also grappling 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 family, we always had black dolls.
“My parents made sure we all had, every one of my dolls from Rub-A-Dub Dolly to, you know, Christie, where I learned to curl, braid and do my hair (they were black).”
Callas is still doing her hair, in her own way, today.
“And so my perception of beauty, I think it was pretty solid. I didn’t feel like I was prettier or less pretty like other girls, “she said.
While visiting the museum exhibit, the most touching moment for Callas was one of two video elements in the exhibit documenting a beauty contest in which a woman Callas described as “gorgeous” ranked 2nd.
“She was a fair-skinned black woman,” said Callas, “And it showed how runner-up she was to a white contestant. I think the artist was trying to capture her disappointment as she tried to hide her anger. “.
Beyond that primary dynamic, he also found it interesting that the third place winner, who was white, seemed horrified that a black woman ended up in front of. his.
Another thing Callas said she liked about the show is that it’s not just about female beauty. “You saw men in there too,” she said. “And you know, what we determine is what is masculine, what is, you know, sexy for a black man. I had a lot of fun too. “
Diane Bellamy runs a hairdresser, in the city of Trenton, together with her husband Antonio, called “In His Image Hair Studio” where she is immersed daily in her impressions, opinions and knowledge about her clients and her clients. interplay of beauty and darkness.
“Beauty itself for the African American is defined on the inside, but it is also on the outside,” she said, as she stood among the customers in her salon.
Bellamy pointed to “What we were told: the skin is not fair 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 daily with women and men who have altered views of beauty due to society’s standards, but I also see a struggle to grow in their understanding.”
And like Callas, it’s no surprise that Bellamy also has a story about dolls and the perception of what’s beautiful.
“Often being a black woman myself and raising two young black girls, I see them grappling with their own identity and also what they call beauty,” she said.
Bellamy remembers a day when her two daughters were fighting over Barbie dolls. “They both had theirs, but they fought over one,” she said. “And my husband and I sat our kids down to find out why they were fighting over this doll.”
The core of the conflict was that they both wanted to play with the “prettiest” doll, the one with the long, straight, blond hair and the fairest complexion. Bellamy said that incident led to some deep discussions about what true beauty is.
Diane’s husband Antonio is the primary pastor of the Transformation Church and what they have said to their girlfriends reflects that past.
“Some of the things we told them were that you are truly, frighteningly and beautifully made in God’s image,” said Diane Bellamy. “The fact that you have beautiful brown skin is nothing to be ashamed of and only because you may be darker than what this Barbie doll’s skin color looks like.”
Bellamy spoke from the dual perspective of a supportive mother and professional stylist when she praised her daughters’ “brown skin” and “kinky hair” remarking, “Not everyone can do everything you can do with your hair, you can rock the braids, you can shake the ‘fro, you can do whatever you want with your hair.
“And it’s a beautiful crown for a princess like you.”
Thus, as impressions of contemporary understanding of beauty evolve, Bellamy duly sees the expressions of people of color 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 authorizing each other to enter everyone whose I am “.
Posing Beauty in African American Culture is on display until May 21, 2022 in the First Floor Gallery of the New Jersey State Museum, located at 205 West State Street, Trenton.
This traveling exhibition was organized by New York University’s Department of Photography & Imaging, Tisch School of the Arts, and curated by Deborah Willis, PhD, university professor and department chair. At the New Jersey State Museum, the exhibit was made possible by the Lucille M. Paris Fund of the New Jersey State Museum Foundation.
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Michael Mancuso can be reached at email@example.com