Kwame Brathwaite: Artforum Critics' Picks

Rawles, Erica. Artforum International

The absorbing gaze of a woman's dark eyes draws the viewer in at photographer Kwame Brathwaite's exhibition at Philip Martin Gallery. Untitled (Ethel Parks at AJASS Studios photoshoot), 1969, is the largest print in the room. The model's simple headscarf and plain sweater clarify her face as the focal point of the image. The warmth of the crimson background is echoed in the rich tones of her brown skin and the glowing highlights that mark her high cheekbones, which are accentuated by a soft smile.

 

Deep red hues recur across many of Brathwaite's pictures, guiding the viewer's eye from the cherry eyeshadow and lipstick of Grace Jones to the scarlet beads on the intricate headdress that adorns Brathwaite's wife. The color reappears in the rope of a boxing ring, where Muhammad Ali is wrapping his wrists (Untitled [Ali in the Ring], 1974), and in the velvet glow that illuminates Marvin Gaye as he performs on stage (Untitled [Marvin Gaye], 1974).

 

Brathwaite photographed influential black artists with the same regality that he did everyday black people. Together with his elder brother Elombe Brath, he also formed the African Jazz Arts Society and Studios (AJASS), a multidisciplinary artist collective, and Grandassa Models, an agency that celebrated the natural beauty of black women and helped popularize the phrase "black is beautiful" in the 1950s and '60s. The slogan is encapsulated most poignantly in Brathwaite's photographs of black women. In Untitled (Photo shoot at a school for one of the many modeling groups who had begun to embrace natural hairstyles in the 1960s), 1966/2018, seven women in a schoolyard lift their chins and stand tall with their feet planted firmly apart. Their postures embody confidence and grace. Brathwaite's camera captures their unity and strength.

December 30, 2018
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