Inspired in part by the writings of Marcus Garvey, Kwame Brathwaite, his older brother, Elombe Brath, and the African Jazz Arts Society and Studios (AJASS) popularized the phrase “Black Is Beautiful” in the late 50's and early 60’s. “Black Is Beautiful” is one of the most important political and cultural ideas of the twentieth century. Brathwaite and Brath did their part to spread this idea through Brathwaite’s writings and photographs and the activities of the two organizations they helped co-found: AJASS and Grandassa Models.
Kwame Brathwaite’s photographs were specifically intended to shape the course of American visual discourse. His photographs foreground how artistic and political vision can affect change in popular culture and how popular culture can affect change on culture at large. The subjects of Brathwaite’s carefully crafted photographs invoke the power of a range of objects, such as books, musical instruments and artworks. The dress and hairstyles of his subjects point to their sense of themselves, while the environs of his subjects direct the viewer to a community of artist activists—writers, painters, playwrights, fashion designers and musicians. Brathwaite’s work demonstrates the power of photography as an essential cultural tool in the dissemination of new political ideas, its power to stage visual rhetoric and its ability make language visible.
The 1961 Garvey Day Celebration’s “The Miss Natural Standard of Beauty Contest,” was a catalyzing moment for the brothers who saw clearly that the same models who eschewed make-up and wore their hair “natural” for the contest would, by the following Sunday (when they came to pick up their prize money), have straightened their hair in order to feel comfortable going back to school, work, and their everyday lives. Brathwaite and the other members of AJASS felt that African Americans needed to feel comfortable in their own skins and to be proud to display their natural beauty. He and Brath led the charge to establish a studio and office space next to the Apollo Theater for AJASS, and started the Grandassa Models (named after ANPM leader Carlos Cooks’s term for the African continent, “Grandassaland”).
AJASS’s first fashion show, “Naturally '62,” headlined by Abbey Lincoln and Max Roach, and initially planned as a one-time event, proved so popular that a second sold-out show was held that same night to accommodate the crowd. When traveling to other cities for concerts, AJASS members Abbey Lincoln and Max Roach helped spread the word and make contacts with other progressive organizations that lead to “Naturally” show bookings in their respective cities. In February 1963, AJASS followed with shows at Robert’s Show Club in Chicago and Mr. Kelly’s in Detroit and continued to spread the “Black Is Beautiful” theme nationwide.
Brathwaite’s regular reporting and pictorials for leading Black publications such as “The Amsterdam News,” “City Sun,” and “The Daily Challenge” beginning in the early 60's, helped set the stage for the Black Arts Movement and the Black Power movement. By the 1970's, Brathwaite was one of the top concert photographers, shaping the images of such public figures as Stevie Wonder, Bob Marley, James Brown, and Muhammad Ali. Brathwaite wrote about and photographed such landmark events as the “The Motown Revue” at the Apollo (1963), “WattStax ’72” (1972), The Jackson 5’s first trip to Africa (1974), and the “Festival in Zaire” (1974, which accompanied the famous Foreman-Ali fight, “The Rumble in the Jungle”).
Elombe Brath died in 2014. He worked as a graphic artist at WABC-TV and served as a consultant for late television host Gil Noble’s groundbreaking WABC-TV show, “Like It Is.” The Elombe Brath Foundation was established in 2014 to continue the legacy of Elombe’s work.
Throughout the course of his career, Kwame Brathwaite has photographed such international figures as Nelson Mandela and Kwame Nkrumah—his namesake—and he still maintains a relationship with a range of African political figures, including Sam Nujoma, the first president of Namibia.
Due to the importance of Kwame’s work on political and cultural events, he was invited to the inaugurations of Sam Nujoma and Nelson Mandela, as well as the swearing-in of Namibian president Hage Geinbog in 2015.
Kwame Brathwaite (b. 1938, New York, NY) is currently the subject of major touring exhibition, "Kwame Brathwaite: Black Is Beautiful." The exhibition premiered at the Skirball Cultural Center (Los Angeles, CA), travelled to the Museum of the African Diaspora (San Francisco, CA), and is currently on view at the Columbia Museum of Art (Columbia, SC). Additional venues include the Austin Museum of Art (Austin, TX), and Reynolda House (Winston-Salem, NC). A monograph of the same title, produced by the Aperture Foundation, was released May 2019 with essays by Deborah Willis, Professor and Chair of the Department of Photography and Imaging at Tisch School of the Arts of New York University and Tanisha C. Ford, Associate Professor of Black American Studies and History at the University of Delaware. Brathwaite’s work has recently been acquired by such institutions as The Studio Museum in Harlem (New York, NY); National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution (Washington, DC); Museum of Modern Art (New York, NY); Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University (Chicago, IL); Minnesota Museum of American Art (St. Paul, MN); MIT List Visual Arts Center (Cambridge, MA); Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (Houston, Texas); Whitney Museum of American Art (New York, NY); The Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery at Skidmore College (Saratoga Springs, NY); Museum of the City of New York (New York, NY); Santa Barbara Museum of Art (Santa Barbara, CA); Columbia Museum of Art (Columbia, SC); Sharjah Art Museum (Sharjah, United Arab Emirates); JPMorgan Chase Art Collection (New York, NY); and Sidley Austin LLP (New York, NY). Brathwaite's work has recently appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, Vogue, New York Post, New York Magazine, Aperture, and other publications. Brathwaite lives and works in New York, NY.