HOME | Arts & Events

Posing Beauty in African-American Culture Opens at the VMFA on Saturday

“She’s just giving you a multiplicity of images to think about and to think about in different relationships to one another.”

EmilieVonUnwerth | April 24, 2014

The VMFA’s “Posing Beauty” examines how to concepts of African and African beauty have been represented in historical and contemporary contexts across a diverse range of media including photography, film, and video, in fashion, advertising, and other forms of popular culture, reads literature supplied alongside the exhibit.

“The images in this exhibition challenge idealized forms of beauty in art by exploring a variety of attitudes about race, class, gender popular culture, and politics.”

Dr. Deborah Willis is the curator of the exhibit, and compiled the most comprehensive history of African American photography in a book by the same name as the event.

The exhibit consists of 84 photographs (and one awesome five-minute film), spanning from the 1800s to the 2000s and is split up into three sections: “Constructing a pose,” “Body and Image” and “Modeling Beauty and Beauty Contests.” Posing Beauty opens up a dialogue – as Dr. Sarah Eckhardt, Assistant Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art points out – of who has been represented (and left out) in the art world over time and why this is.

Dr. Willis “is very clear that she’s not offering any answers about beauty,” said Dr. Eckhardt. “She’s just giving you a multiplicity of images to think about and to think about in different relationships to one another.”

The show features works by Charles “Teenie” Harris, Carrie Mae Williams, Bruce Davidson, Edward Curtis, Lauren Woods and many, many more. Posing Beauty offers photos of famous performers (think Denzel Washington, Billie Holiday and Lil’ Kim) to activists like Huey Newton to everyday people on the streets of Harlem. There are nude self-portraits, posed family photos and everything in between. There’s even a 1930s photograph taken in Richmond’s own Southside. The two common threads are that every portrait, everyone photographed is African-American (except one lone white musician pictured among his band mates), and every work is stunning.

The VMFA has compiled from their own collection a companion exhibit to Posing Beauty called Race, Place & Identity. Many of the works in the exhibit have been acquired recently, said Dr. Eckhardt, “so recently that they have never been showed before.” In contrast to Posing Beauty, Race, Place & Identity is a mixed media exhibit, featuring paintings, sculptures, flags and a multitude of other mediums.

“There is no one clear African-American Identity,” said Dr. Eckhardt. “This is a complex, nuanced, layered, always shifting idea of who we are and how identity is made.”

Dr. Deborah Willis will be speaking at the VMFA at 3 pm on Sunday April 27. Posing Beauty and Race, Place & Identity will run in conjunction from April 26 to July 27th. Tickets are $10 for adults. Check out the VMFA’s website for more information.