Young Black photographers depict new visions of Black beauty

Sometimes a song or a painting or a soup or a poem can crack you open to a whole new way of seeing and being in the world.

I left the Museum of the African Diaspora’s new exhibition “The New Black Vanguard: Photography Between Art and Fashion” brimming with images and ideas, reveling in the myriad visions of true and fantastic Black beauty — and starving for lunch.

Minutes after leaving the museum, I was standing in line at Super Duper Burgers. Ahead of me were three Black women, spread across both line lanes as they talked. They didn’t look like models but in that moment, I started to see them as like the photographs I’d been immersed in all morning: the geometry of one woman’s perfectly round, close-shaved head, the straight angle of her shoulder and the triangle formed by her bent arm resting on a ledge; the drape and sway of her companions’ braided bobs and the unconscious choreography of how they were responding to each other.

It is not that I don’t notice people or clock strangers’ style. I do. But this was the first time I was aware of seeing composition as it was forming in front of me. After ordering, I didn’t mention this epiphany when I struck up a conversation with one of the women, Tuesda Roberts, who is the director of faculty development and diversity at Emerson College in Boston. She told me that she and her colleagues were in town for a conference on globalism and higher education. I handed her the MoAD press release and urged them to see the show. That’s another thing good art can do: Make you want to connect with other humans.

The works in this show are about more than cool clothes: They make you want to know more about the people in them. In a Nadine Ijewere photo, the crisply detailed, laughing smile of a beautiful young woman with a short Afro floats above the blurred passionfruit clouds of her ballgown. In a Campbell Addy portrait, a young man wearing a black, off-the-shoulder mini dress, red knee socks, black loafers and a black hat festooned with a puff of tulle, looks relaxed and friendly in his complex cocktail attire. Arielle Bobb-Willis, who says, “It’s important to me to continue to reject the notion that Black expression is limited — or limiting,” poses Black models in “abstract” scenes that can be amusing and unsettling depending upon how long and closely one looks. Renell Medrano’s photographs and video, often featuring women and girls in her native Bronx, capture the tender particularity of where she’s coming from.

“The New Black Vanguard,” which began in 2019 as an Aperture booked curated by Antwaun Sargent, has been exhibited in a number of cities from Arles to Detroit. The MoAD show, which runs through March 5, is the only opportunity to see the exhibition on the West Coast. The 15 photographers, born between 1985 and 1997, hail from many points in Africa and the African diaspora, including Nigeria, Switzerland, London, Chicago, Philadelphia and Apple Valley, Calif. Described by Sargent as “a loose movement of emerging talents,” they also create and maintain their own platforms, publications and exhibition spaces to reach audiences outside of traditional channels.

While much of the work was produced for fashion editorials and published in magazines, the exhibition dissolves the line between pictures meant to engage a consumer in a designer’s products and photography that moves the mind and soul. The credit for this belongs to Sargent, 33, who like the photographers he chose to showcase, is invested in the humanity and specificity of Black representation. In Sargent’s opening essay for the book and in the artists’ statements in the exhibition, there is a recurring mission of filling in new spaces in how Black people are depicted and seen. As Sargent writes, “What is unfolding is a contemporary rethinking of the possibilities of Black representation by artists who illustrate their own desires and control their own images. In the space of both fashion and art, they are fighting photography with photography.”

I am not a qualified art critic, just a lifelong art lover, so I must acknowledge the limits of my perspective. There are no dead eyes in these photos, and while the physicality of the models — who include professionals, local people and the photographers’ family and friends — is often striking, I never had the sense that the photographers were exploiting skin color as a design element divorced from the person within that skin. I do not mean to suggest anything sappy or sentimental when I say that throughout the exhibition I felt as if these images were made by Black photographers who know and love many kinds of Black people.

Tyler Mitchell’s quote, “To convey Black beauty is an act of justice,” may well be the guiding principle of the entire show. In 2018, Mitchell became the first Black photographer to shoot Vogue’s cover since the magazine was founded in 1892. He was just 23 when he shot the two September 2018 cover photos of Beyoncé for Vogue. Mitchell, who told Sargent, “Fashion was always something distant to me,” cut his teeth photographing friends and family at his family’s home in Atlanta. Some of his best work remains deeply interested in showing the ordinary beauty of Black people in places we occupy, but that aren’t typically associated with our lives. An untitled photo of a Black teenaged boy in a green cotton turtleneck sitting in a field of daisies is as startling for its rarity as it is for its beauty. The boy in the photo reminds me of my brothers when they were really young. He also looks like Trayvon Martin. I know young Black men hang out in fields of flowers because I’ve been in those fields, too. But the young Black male pastoral? That’s an image more of us need to see.

It is worth making time to watch the videos and to consider the historical Black fashion photography in the vitrines. Some viewers will delight in seeing things they’ve seen a thousand times in real life captured on a screen, while others may see for the first time pieces of Black life that have been happening in the background all along, invisible against the patterns of stereotypes and bad news.

That Black people throughout the African diaspora are beautiful and stylish and cool — there’s nothing new about that. In this country, even when restricted by laws governing what we could and couldn’t wear, we found ways to express ourselves — and to resist oppression — through how we clothed and carried ourselves. While “The New Black Vanguard” is framed as addressing race, gender, sexuality and colorism, what feels newer is how unbothered the people in these photographs appear to be. So full of whatever is going on inside themselves that they are unbothered by whatever a viewer might be thinking of them. That’s what freedom can look like.

If You Go:

“The New Black Vanguard: Photography Between Art and Fashion”

Where: Museum of the African Diaspora, 685 Mission St., S.F.

When: 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday and 12-5 p.m. Sunday, through March 5.

Tickets: $12 for adults, $6 for students and senior citizens with a valid ID, youth 12 and under free.

Contact: 415 358-7200, moadsf.org

Teresa Moore is an Examiner columnist

who reports on race and equity.  

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