Black Is Beautiful: The Photography of Kwame Braithwaite

at the Skirball Cultural Center, Los Angeles (through September 1)
Reviewed by Nancy K. Turner

If one is lucky, a solitary fantasy can transform one million realities
–Maya Angelou

Black Is Beautiful: The Photography of Kwame Braithwaite, is an intimate in scale, personal in scope, potent exhibit. It documents through photographs, ephemera, and fashion, Kwame Braithwaite, his wife Sikolo, his brother Elombe Brath and their circle of musician and artist friends as they built a movement based on the philosophy of cultural empowerment, dignity and affirmation originally espoused by Marcus Garvey.

Kwame S. Braithwaite (son of Kwame Braithwaite), Bethany Montagano (Skirball) and Michael Famighetti (Aperture) co-curated this exhibit. At the press preview, Kwame S. Braithwaite and Bethany Montagano discussed the organic origins of the exhibit (they met through their children who are friends) and provided personal details. It was indeed as Sly Stone would say “A Family Affair.” As Kwame S. Braithwaite explained, his mother Sikolo put out a call to her friends for many of the dresses, jewelry and headdresses that they wore in the 1960’s for inclusion in the exhibit.

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Nomsa Brath wearing earrings designed by Carolee Prince, AJASS, Harlem, ca. 1964. Courtesy of the artist and Philip Martin Gallery, Los Angeles.
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Self-portrait, African Jazz-Art Society & Studios (AJASS), Harlem, ca. 1964. Courtesy of the artist and Philip Martin Gallery, Los Angeles.

One is struck by how contemporary, timeless and elegant these original designs that were hand-sewn still are. There are three included here. Dee Dee Little (“Khosi”) crocheted a smashing tunic dress and leggings in an elegant gold inflected material. She wore it in “Naturally” — a fashion show in 1969, while Lily Barnett made the festive red patterned hip-hugging gown for her daughter Bernice. Also on display are some of the stunning jewelry, beaded sculptural headdresses, large earrings and necklaces made by Carolee Prince, inspired by Southern Africa accessories and used in many of the photographs here.

Kwame’s mother and her friends are the also frequent subjects of the striking large-scale photographs. Indeed, the very first color square format photograph one sees upon entering the exhibit is one of the young and very beautiful Sikolo Braitwaite, in a three quarter view profile, wearing an intricate beaded headdress.

While the photographs themselves are quite gorgeous — either in living color or in atmospheric black and white, it is the back story of these young men and women who established and then perpetrated a cultural movement through activism, invention, education and chutzpah that is the heartbeat of this exhibition.

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“Naturally ’68” photo shoot, featuring Grandassa Models and founding members of AJASS. Back row includes: Eleanor Ballard, far left; Sikolo Brathwaite, third from left; Juanita McLean, fourth from left; Zeta Gathers, fifth from left; and Pat (last name unknown), third from right. Front row, left to right: Klytus Smith, Frank Adu, Bob Gumbs, Elombe Brath, and Ernest Baxter. Apollo Theater, Harlem, ca. 1968. Courtesy of the artist and Philip Martin Gallery, Los Angeles.
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Sikolo Brathwaite wearing a headpiece designed by Carolee Prince, AJASS, Harlem, 1968. Courtesy of the artist and Philip Martin Gallery, Los Angeles.

Kwame Braithwaite and his brother Elombe, the ambitious teenaged sons of successful entrepreneur parents, decided in the mid-nineteen fifties to start an organization, which they named the African-Jazz-Art-Society and Studio (AJASS). Inspired by both the Afro-Centric teachings of Marcus Garvey and Carlos Cook, they provided a gathering place for young musicians, artists and designers (what we now call cultural producers and influencers) and even got a cabaret license. This was still the segregated nineteen-fifties, when the terms “negro” and “colored” were the current language to describe what was soon to become “African-American” and then “Black American.” Words matter and so do images. Both Kwame and Elombe became photojournalists documenting the birth of this movement.

Carlos Cook, the leader of the African Nationalist Pioneer Movement, encouraged his people to “think Black and buy Black.” This was the inspiration for Kwame and Elombe, along with their wives, to create a group called ‘The Grandassa Models” (the name is from “Grandassaland”, the term that Carlos Cook used to call Africa). One of the purposes was to highlight models unlike the skinny, pale white models such as Twiggy. To this end they put on a beauty and fashion show (called “Naturally”), which became an institution in itself.

The Grandassa Models were dark-skinned women who wore their close cropped hair in a style called “natural,” because the hair was not straightened to conform to the predominant white fashion establishment (even white girls with curly hair also straightened their hair).They did not wear wigs either and also encouraged a boycott against a white-owned wig establishment in Harlem that later closed due to the negative attention.

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Grandassa Model on car during Marcus Garvey Day celebration, Harlem, ca. 1968. Courtesy of the artist and Philip Martin Gallery, Los Angeles.
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Grandassa Model onstage, Apollo Theater, Harlem, ca. 1968. Courtesy of the artist and Philip Martin Gallery, Los Angeles.

The Grandassa Models promoted, beginning in 1962, the “Black Is Beautiful” slogan. Kwame Braithwaite has a striking black and white poster with the text in the bubble font used in ubiquitous music posters. Inside the space of the letters are images of the Grandassa Models in Afro-Centric (mostly western African) clothes that they designed. It is both historical and stunning. It was nothing short of the beginning of a second Harlem Renaissance!

The Grandassa women not only created their own clothes and jewelry, but they also opened beauty parlors to train black women to forgo the straightening iron and learn how to nurture the ”natural” (which is labor intensive in its own right). This was community building on the highest level. Soon the first African-American gallery in New York opened. Kwame and his brother met and courted all the African politicians who came to the United Nations for the U.N. General Summit and invited them to their jazz club.

Music is so very central to this exhibit. There is a jazzy soundtrack playing softly in the background, featuring artists from the 1960’s to the present, among them Max Roach, Nina Simone, James Brown, Diana Ross and the Supremes, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Bob Marley and the Wailers, Miriam Makemba, Alicia Keys and John Legend to name some of these. Kwame Braithwaite himself said:

Whether it’s solid soul of rhythm and blues and disco,
the groovy sounds of jazz, the roots soul of reggae, the
Caribbean soul of calypso, the soul-searching …of gospel, the knock-
down, drag out soul of down home blues, or the revealing
soul of rap music -the essence of the black experience prevails.

The savvy Braithwaite was responsible (along with Miles Davis) for replacing white men or women on the covers of Blue Note Jazz albums with his photographs of many of the Grandassa models (among them Nomsa Brath, Black Rose, Clara Lewis Buggs, Brenda Deaver.) Many of these groundbreaking album covers are here in the exhibit as well.

This is a very moving exhibit, celebrating a moment in time where a small group of talented friends and family gave voice to and helped shape an emerging Black identity, that sought to change the standard of beauty and elevated black fashion, music and art. Through resourcefulness, improvisation and togetherness, they grew and cultivated an important cultural movement that is still needed today. As Kwame S. Braithwaite said “Despite what you have been told Black is Beautiful” and despite what you have seen “Black Lives Matter.”

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Photo shoot at a public school for one of the AJASS-associated modeling groups that emulated the Grandassa Models and began to embrace natural hairstyles. Harlem, ca. 1966. Courtesy of the artist and Philip Martin Gallery, Los Angeles.
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Marcus Garvey Day event, Renaissance Ballroom and Casino, Harlem, ca. 1966. Courtesy of the artist and Philip Martin Gallery, Los Angeles.

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