Through a lens darkly

Posing Beauty exhibit considers black beauty in America from all angles

When a class full of black elementary-age schoolgirls comes face-to-face with the photographic images of Posing Beauty in African American Culture, they react on cue by pulling out their cell phone cameras and striking poses. It's as if their field trip to Spelman College Museum of Fine Art suddenly has become a field study on the themes of beauty and identity in an everyday context.

Since the nationally touring exhibit opened on the campus in September, curator Dr. Deborah Willis (Department of Photography & Imaging Chair at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts) and the Spelman Museum have been engaging the community through lectures, performances, and conversations all surrounding the idea of black beauty in photography and its various interpretations.

It seems the image of African-Americans is constantly being picked at and pulled apart, deconstructed and reconstructed, publicly debased and celebrated. The year 2013 alone has been bookended by two epic slave films that turned Hollywood's masochistic fixation with broken black bodies into box office commodities, even as those works attempted to reconcile that sordid past. Meanwhile, the image of a young black male wearing a hoodie — and the nation's divided reaction to his murderer's acquittal — added kindling to a national debate on race that flamed out in a social media war of words over the cultural merits of blackface and its place in the 21st century. Now that's progress. And let us not forget the bizarre examples of cultural appropriation by celebrities, from Miley Cyrus' televised twerk-a-thon to Kanye West's Confederate flag-as-fashion statement.

In a photo exhibit as comprehensive in scope and disciplines as the subject matter it covers, Posing Beauty challenges popular perceptions and Westernized ideals while seemingly posing an underlying question: If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, how long will Black America's embittered and emboldened self-image remain beholden to the white gaze?

Twelve decades are covered in contributions ranging from iconic documentary photographer Gordon Parks to 2013 MacArthur Fellow Carrie Mae Weems to lesser-known fine arts photographers. Some of the earliest works on display are by Atlantan Tom Askew, whose images of educated African-Americans challenged pervasive stereotypes when they appeared in the American Negro Exhibit curated by W.E.B. Du Bois for the Paris Exhibition in 1900. In black-and-white photos, black families almost seem to mimic Victorian sophistication and sensibilities.

Even Weems' defiantly titled black-and-white stylized work "I Looked and Looked to See What So Terrified You," featuring a well-dressed black woman contemplating herself in a handheld mirror, serves as a reaction against a racialized ideal made in America.

There are defiant images of Oakland's Black Panther Party (Stephen Shames) that illustrate how "beauty is both personal and political"; portraits of celebrities, including a somber one of Michael Jackson taken pre-plastic surgery; and a collage of Jet magazine's iconic Beauties of the Week, which idolized the black female form long before pop culture became obsessed.

In the digital video "The Teenth of June, Pt. 1," Lauren Woods uses slow motion and a horrific soundtrack to distort a seconds-long clip of Shilah Phillips' 2006 victory as the first black Miss Texas in 75 years. The combined effect, as the camera studies close-up reactions of her and her losing competitors, conveys the absurdity of Phillips participating in, and ultimately winning, a contest in which the standard of beauty has been rigged in her disfavor. It's as haunting a scene as the climax from Stephen King's Carrie, except the shocking conclusion is that the odd girl out does win the pageant unconditionally.

The contradictions are driven home further in Lyle Ashton Harris' "Miss America," where a woman with natty dreds wears an eyes-shut look of indignation in the form of white face paint while the American flag draped across her upper torso fails to cover up her naked black breasts.

All of which suggests deeper, darker truths and pathologies lie beneath America's metaphorical mask. When a kindergarten class enters the exhibit later that same day, one black girl runs up to Sheila Pree Bright's Plastic Bodies series, in which the Atlanta photographer uses Photoshop to blend real body parts with Mattel-assembled Barbie parts. The little girl, wearing braids and a blue hoodie, stands before the photo of a chocolate-color Barbie doll with real dreads cascading down her back and points to the barely perceptible manufacturer's stamp that spells out its country of origin. It reads Indonesia.