Posing Beauty in African American Culture at the Harn 

By Jade Powers Harn Museum of Art, Curator of Contemporary Art

The nationally touring exhibition “Posing Beauty in African American Culture” opened at the Harn Museum of Art at the University of Florida in Gainesville on January 31. More than a hundred works of art by more than 45 artists and photographers explore the ways in which African and African American beauty has been represented in historical and contemporary contexts.

Throughout the history of Western art and image-making, beauty has been idealized and challenged, and the relationship between beauty and art has become increasingly complex within contemporary art and popular culture. In the exhibition, works of photography, video, fashion, and advertising challenge the relationship between beauty and art by examining the representation of beauty and different attitudes about aesthetics. “Posing Beauty” examines contemporary understandings of beauty by framing the notion of aesthetics, race, class, and gender within art, popular culture, and political contexts.

I’m looking forward to visitors viewing this exciting display of photographs taken by and of Black people. There are contemporary works alongside works from the early 20th century spanning over 116 years all interested in conversations of beauty, what we consider beautiful, why we think this way, and who has molded this perception. The exhibition has been traveling around the United States since 2010. Visitors will have the opportunity to be inspired by both the photographic styles of the artists and by the resilience of the people being photographed.

“Posing Beauty” is organized into three conceptual themes: Constructing a Pose, Body & Image, and Modeling Beauty & Beauty Contests. Constructing a Pose considers the interplay between the historical and the contemporary, between self-representation and imposed representation, and the relationship between subject and photographer. Body & Image questions the ways in which our contemporary understanding of beauty has been constructed and framed through the body. The works in this section focus on how public spaces became sites for everyday citizens to reinvent themselves. Self-portraiture and ideas of beauty in front of and behind the camera are also addressed. The final theme, Modeling Beauty & Beauty Contests, invites us to reflect upon the ambiguities of beauty, its impact on mass culture and individuals, and how the display of beauty affects the ways in which we see and interpret the world and ourselves. The “Posing Beauty” exhibition fills in certain gaps in the history of African Americans and in the discussion of Black beauty. Through depictions of joy and pride as well as discomfort and terror, “Posing Beauty” reminds us of the importance of people of African descent to the overall conversations about popular culture.

A highlight of artists and photographers in the exhibition includes Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe, Anthony Barboza, Sheila Pree Bright, Renee Cox, Victor Diop, Leonard Freed, Charles “Teenie” Harris, Dave Heath, Lauren Kelley, John W. Mosley, Ken Ramsay, Jeffrey Scales, Stephen Shames, Mickalene Thomas, Carrie Mae Weems, and Hank Willis Thomas, among others.

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Author: Arbus

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