On 28 January 1962, a nightclub in Harlem hosted a ground-breaking fashion show. Naturally ’62, which was arranged by African Jazz-Art Society and Studios (AJASS), saw Black models walking the runway with natural hairstyles whilst wearing densely patterned garments made by Black designers. “It was revolutionary,” AJASS co-founder Kwame Brathwaite’s son, Jr, told Hello Beautiful in 2019. “The point that was being made was that you can be your natural self and be proud.” The successful event broke away from western beauty standards and challenged representations of Black people in popular culture.
The group’s co-founder Kwame Brathwaite (b. 1938), who popularlised the phrase “Black is Beautiful,” uplifted the movement by documenting activists, celebrities and communities involved with the civil rights and Black Power movements in the USA in the 1960s and 1970s. In Changing Times (circa 1973), a woman clasps her shoulder in radiant beauty, pinprick lights speckling the backdrop like stars. In another, Stevie Wonder performs at the National Mall, Washington D.C. to an endless crowd. The shot represents the deeply powerful emotions stirred up by funk, R&B and soul music, which inspired Brathwaite’s creative vision.
Today, the artist’s archive inspires the next generation of Black creatives, from Rihanna’s inaugural 2019 Fenty campaign to Adrienne Raquel and Jamal Nxedlana’s joyful, celebratory photos that tackle biased views of Blackness. Things Well Worth Waiting For demonstrates Brathwaite’s legacy in portraying “the essence of Black experience, as a feeling, drive and an emotion.”
Kwame Brathwaite: Things Well Worth Waiting For
The Art Institute of Chicago | Until 24 July
Words: Saffron Ward
1. Kwame Brathwaite. Changing Times, about 1973, printed 2021. The Kwame Brathwaite Archive and Philip Martin Gallery. © The Kwame Brathwaite Archive
2. Kwame Brathwaite. Untitled (Stevie Wonder Headlines Human Kindness Day at the National Mall, Washington, DC), 1975. The Kwame Brathwaite Archive and Philip Martin Gallery. © The Kwame Brathwaite Archive
3. Kwame Brathwaite. Untitled (Garvey Day, Deedee in Car), about 1965, printed 2018. The Art Institute of Chicago, promised gift of Dr. John E. Ellis. © The Kwame Brathwaite Archive