Flint, MI–The Flint Institute of Arts has launched a new exhibit titled “Posing Beauty in African American Culture”.

The exhibit uses pieces from photography, film, video, fashion, advertising, and more to highlight African and African American beauty through a historical and contemporary lens. It was curated by Deborah Willis, Ph.D, the University Professor and Chair of the Department of Photography & Imaging at the Tisch School of Arts at New York University.

“It ranges from historical photographs from the very late 19th century all the way up to the 21st century, and each piece deals with the theme of beauty,” says Tracee Glab, Curator of Collections and Exhibitions at the Flint Institute of Arts. “They are thematically presented rather than chronological. It asks, ‘How do we define beauty? How has that changed over time especially within the African American culture?’”

The ninety-seven photographs in the exhibit examine themes of race, gender, class, and more by challenging the contemporary notion of beauty. Each piece features the history and context behind it, delving into the themes and significant moments the photographer’s and their subjects were capturing.

The exhibit is broken up into three sections that deal with different themes.

The first section, “Constructing A Pose,” explores themes such as the relationship between the viewer and the viewed and the power of self-representation. Pieces such as Carrie Mae Weems’ “I Looked and Looked but Failed to See What So Terrified You” invite the viewer in to consider the difference between the public image and the self image.

“The first section explores how both the photographer and the person being photographed both have a role in how the image is constructed,” says Glab. “We all think about this when we take a selfie or you take a photograph. You strike a pose. But historically that hasn’t always been the case. It would be important for both the photographer and the person being photographed to have this relationship of how you’re representing yourself.”

Other pieces in the first section include Adama Delphine Fawundu’s “Big Fro, Brown Eyes, Pecola’s Blues,” and “Blue Eyes, Cocoa Brown” from her series titled “Deconstructing SHE.” In this series, Fawundu uses herself as a model, exploring her own self-image.

The “Constructing A Pose” section also features a wide variety of photographs of journalists, activists, bodybuilders, and more.

The second section, “Body and Image,” investigates the way society views the body and the concept of beauty. Here are pieces such as Lola Flash’s “Karisse, London” that challenge stereotypes and what is considered the norm for beauty standards.

“In this section there’s a lot of Black women artists who are doing self portraits,” says Glab. “They’re taking photos of themselves in order to take control of how that image is presented.”

The “Plastic Bodies” series by Sheila Pree Bright in this section challenges similar notions. Bright tackles the impact the media and advertising have in creating beauty standards for women. This series critiques Mattel’s Barbie dolls for helping create one standard for what is considered beautiful.

Lyle Ashton Harris’ “Untitled” piece is also featured here, in which Harris appears hand-cuffed during a time when mass incarceration was on the rise.

The final section, “Modeling Beauty & Beauty Contests,” examines the way the societal standard for beauty impacts how the audience views the world and themselves.

“In this section the curator, Doctor Willis, really explored the history of how beauty contests were used specifically by Black-owned newspapers and magazines in order to take control of the narrative and say that Black is beautiful,” says Glab.

Here are pieces from photographer David “Oggi” Ogburn, who worked with the campaigns of President Jimmy Carter, Timothy Greenfield-Sanders “Black List” series. Included are photographs of Otis Redding, Michelle Obama, Renee Cox, among others.

Carla Williams’ “Venus (Self-Portrait)” challenges beauty standards, using herself as the model in her “How To Read Character” series, saying she had not seen any photos in her studies that looked like her. Other pieces in this section delve into similar ideas and themes.

“I think that the juxtaposition of the historical and the contemporary photographs together will really provide a lot of opportunities for people to really think about how beauty is created visually and how it has changed over the years,” says Glab.

“So much of what we thought was beautiful one hundred years ago is so different than it is today,” she says. “Even just from ten years ago, it’s so different. It’s always changing.”

Glab says she hopes the exhibit inspires people to tell others about it and come back. “I’m kind of hoping–and this is curators dream– that people will come back or they will tell other people to come visit and see it together to talk about these issues because there’s really a lot there,” she says.

The Flint Institute of Arts is open seven days a week and is free to Genesee County residents every day, and free on Saturdays for non-Genesee County residents. “Posing Beauty in African American Culture” is on display until April 18th.

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