“Black is Beautiful”: Ayinoluwa Abegunde & Hyohee Kim on Black Beauty after the 1960s

How do artworks talk to us… and to one another? And how can we learn to talk back? Northwestern undergraduates in The Block Museum Student Docent Program considered these questions in a unique lunchtime Art Talks! series pairing two works from the museum collection that have something to say to one another (and to us.) In Winter 2021 , the team considered artworks in our current exhibition For One and All: Prints from The Block’s Collection, and our upcoming Fall 2021 exhibition, Who Says, Who Shows, What Counts.

As part of this series Ayinoluwa Abegunde (‘22, Chemical Engineering ) and Hyohee Kim (Kim ’22, Learning Sciences and Asian American Studies), discussed Untitled (Nomsa Brath with earrings designed by Carolee Prince), ca. 1964, Kwame Brathwaite (American, born 1938) and Mae, ca. 1985 by Jackie Hetherington (American, 1935–1989). The talk examined how two artists used portraiture as a tool to promote Black beauty by means of community engagement and social improvement in a time where Western standards of beauty prevailed.

Highlights of the conversation – Captions in English and Spanish

From the discussion

The title of our tour today is called Black is Beautiful and it examines how artists use portrait art as a tool to promote Black beauty by means of community engagement and social improvement in a time where Western standards of beauty prevailed. For today, we have two main questions we invite you to think about and that we’ll be returning to throughout the tour. The first is, what is Black beauty? What comes to mind when you think of Black beauty or representation in art, music, and fashion? Which actually leads us to pose our second framing question, which is, who dictates Black beauty? How standards of beauty made through white colonialism and capitalism show up within society and have been challenged historically.

Let’s take a look at the pieces for our tour today. So the first piece is a photograph taken in 1964 and printed in 2017 by Kwame Brathwaite. It’s untitled, but we know this is Nomsa Brath who is Kwame Brathwaite’s sister-in-law wearing earrings designed by Carolee Prince, a designer at that time. The second piece is made by Jackie Hetherington. It was made in 1985 in woodcut. I think it’s important to note that these two gendered depictions of women are made by artists that are men. And this makes me wonder why Black women were chosen to be the subject or means of redefining Black beauty….

One key component of Braithwaite’s work that I want to point out is that he perfected a processing technique that made Black skin pop in a photograph. And for further example, there was something called a Shirley card for the Kodak camera. This card portrayed Shirley, a white woman, on a card that became a standard for capturing color in photos and thus influencing many generations of camera technology that struggled to capture Black and dark skin in color photos. So this is a closeup of the face of the model in the portrait. I’m noticing the saturation of the figure and how the light is hitting the center of the model’s face, and it’s cool to see this distinction, even in a monochrome portrait. This is important because at least since the1940s, there has been failure in capturing Black skin and figures in photos, which demonstrates how technology is not neutral as it reflects the designer’s personal bias and societal values that impact them….

Hetherington was born in Chicago and he made art throughout his life, but he did not exhibit them. He worked as a barber and as a community activist. Portraits were a large part of his work, as well as cityscapes and figures from pop culture. His favorite medium was printmaking and his art looks to highlight African American subjects and was considered a part of the influential Black Arts Movement in the 1960s. The medium here is woodcut and basically it is a printing technique when images are carved into a piece of wood. In this case, it was done in two layers where the image was carved into a block of wood, inked and then pressed on paper, almost like a stamp. Then there was another piece of wood that was stamped as well and pressed on the paper, so that’s where we get the wood grains showing up here. I believe that the use of this technique speaks to the amount of labor that went into getting the gradients and the monochrome to look right.

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