Even William Shakespeare, widely regarded as the greatest writer in the English language, could not clearly define beauty. He wrote, “Beauty is purchased by the judgment of the eye…” (which today translates to “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder”).
For black Americans, it’s even more complicated, but not left unexamined.
A new exhibit of photographs at the New Jersey State Museum (their first new exhibit since the pandemic halted) is titled “Posing Beauty in African American Culture.”
“This powerful exhibition explores the beauty and complexity of black culture while 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 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 exhibit is divided into three thematic sections: Building a Pose, Body and Image, and Modeling Beauty and Contests of beauty.
Featuring over two hundred penetrating images, many of them previously unseen, the exhibition shines a light on everyday people in settings such as the barbershop, bodybuilding contest and prom night. Also featured are historical subjects from the past, including Billie Holiday to Angela Davis to Muhammad Ali, and from the present, including Denzel Washington to Lil’ Kim to Michelle Obama.
An ancillary aspect of the show is that it provides a sort of history of photography.
“I think 1891 is the oldest photograph to date,” said New Jersey State Museum curator Sarah Vogelman.
There are also two running video screens.
Vogelman added, “And you know, these things all get both personal and political depending on who is taking the picture or what the circumstances are.
“I think it really shows how these standards of beauty are both challenged and dictated by black culture at different times and also have an effect on mass culture in the United States.”
Toni Callas of Hamilton visited the exhibit. She is black and grew up in Newark.
Currently employed as the Coordinator, Corporation and Foundation Grants at the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen, she has a Masters in Architecture and Interior Design and also does residential design work while working for NCIDQ certification.
Callas has a singular sense of style, evident not only in his interior design work, but also in his personal appearance.
Her clothes seamlessly pull together a palette of colors and textures, and perhaps the most striking thing about her look is her long, flowing blonde hair.
“I like it,” she 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 okay with what you look like, despite what other people think, you know? Because I know not everyone agrees with my blond hair, but I don’t care (laughs) I don’t care My life Key word: my.
When asked what she thought about defining the particular idea that even “The Bard” struggled 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 child, in my house we always had black dolls.
“My parents made sure we had all, every one of my dolls, from Rub-A-Dub Dolly to, you know, Christie, where I learned to curl and braid and do my own hair (were black ).”
Callas still does her own 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 not as pretty as the other girls,” she said.
While visiting the museum’s exhibit, the most poignant moment for Callas was one of two video elements in the exhibit documenting a beauty pageant where a woman whom Callas described as “beautiful” came in 2nd place.
“She was a light-skinned black woman,” Callas said, “and it showed how she was a runner-up to a white contestant. I think the artist was trying to capture her disappointment, how she was trying to hide her anger.
Beyond that primary dynamic, she also found it interesting that 3rd place, who was white, seemed dismayed that a black woman had finished ahead. his.
Another thing Callas said she liked about the exhibit 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’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, with her husband Antonio, called “In His Image Hair Studio” where, on a daily basis, she is immersed in her own impressions, judgments and knowledge as well as those of her clients. the interplay of beauty and darkness.
“Beauty itself for the African-American person is defined on the inside, but also on the outside,” she said, as she stood among clients in her salon.
Bellamy pointed out “What we’ve been told – Your skin isn’t 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 encounter women and men on a daily basis who have a distorted view of beauty due to societal norms, but I also see a struggle to grow in their understanding.”
And like Callas, unsurprisingly, Bellamy also has a story about dolls and perceptions of what’s beautiful.
“A lot of times, as a black woman myself and raising two young black girls, I see them struggling with their own identity and what they also define as beauty,” she said,
Bellamy recalls a day when his 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 heart of the conflict was that they both wanted to play with the “prettiest” doll, the one with long, straight, blonde hair and the lightest complexion. Bellamy said that incident led to deep discussions about what true beauty is.
Diane’s husband, Antonio, is the senior pastor of Transformation Church and what they said to their daughters reflects that background.
“Some of the things we told them were that you are truly, terribly, wonderfully created in the image of God,” Diane Bellamy said. “There’s nothing to be ashamed of that you have beautiful brown skin and just because you might be darker than what that Barbie doll skin color looks like.”
Bellamy spoke from the dual perspectives of a supportive mother and professional stylist when she praised her daughters’ “brown skin” and “frizzy hair” noting, “Everyone 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 that’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 emerging, in the workplace, in the corporate world, and looking at social media as a barometer, she says, “Black women and black men are really empowering each other to enter all of who they are.
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 and Imaging, Tisch School of the Arts, and curated by Deborah Willis, PhD, University Professor and Department Chair. At the New Jersey State Museum, the exhibition was made possible by the Lucille M. Paris Fund of the New Jersey State Museum Foundation.
Please sign up now and support the local journalism YOU rely on and trust.
Michael Mancuso can be reached at [email protected]