‘Posing Beauty’ captures elegance behind the lens

“That there are so few images of African-American women circulating in popular culture or in fine art is disturbing; the pathology behind it is dangerous … We got a sistah in the White House, and yet mediated culture excludes us, denies us, erases us. But in the face of refusal, I insist on making work that includes us as part of the greater whole,” said Carrie Mae Weems in a 2009 interview conducted by Dawoud Bey for BOMB Magazine.

In many ways, Weems’ quote embodies much of the driving force behind Posing Beauty in African American Culture, on view at WCMA until Nov. 21. Curated by Deborah Willis, chair of the department of photography and imaging at New York University, Posing Beauty includes more than 90 photographs and a long list of seminal and influential African and African-American photographers, including Weems. At WCMA, the presentation of Posing Beauty was organized with Dalila Scruggs, Mellon Fellow for diversity in the arts, and John Stomberg, deputy director and chief curator of WCMA.

The exhibition is organized into three themes: “Constructing a Pose,” “Body & Image” and “Modeling Beauty and Beauty Contests.” Many of the ideas from theme to theme overlap; according to Posing Beauty’s description, Willis sought to “challenge the relationship between beauty and art” and to examine the representation of beauty and aesthetic attitudes in society.

However, what makes the exhibition exceptional – and powerful – is the cross-generational dialogue that occurs between the photographers. When a Malian photographer like Malick Sidibé, known for his photographs of social life, popular culture and portraits of 1960s Bamako, is placed in the same gallery as Lauren Kelley, known for her stop-motion animation videos that examine suburban African-American life, a connection is formed, not from aesthetic or formal correspondences but from a historical and narrative one. Sidibé’s and Kelley’s works stem from very different social milieus: Sidibé is based in Bamako, Mali, whereas Kelley has been informed by her time spent in the suburbs outside of Houston. In Kelley’s “Pickin’” from 1999, an African-American woman, photographed from the shoulders-up (as in the mythicizing busts of Roman senators of yore), brandishes her afro towards the camera. Her eyes are softly turned towards the floor, and dozens of afro picks dominate the photograph, each topped with a tiny fist to represent black power.

Kelley’s “Pickin’” is formally at odds with Sidibé’s “Un Ye Ye en Position,” from 1963 (printed by the artist in 2008). “Un Ye Ye en Position” depicts a well-dressed Bamakan boy, posing with his hips thrust forward and his back slouched but tensed, as if he is aware of his audience and completely conscious of your gaze. His large sunglasses and stylish outfit contrast with the bare backdrop of the photograph – literally, a room with four (dirty) white walls. There is a sense of social ease yet construction in Sidibé’s photographs – evident in the fine clothes and sophisticated manners of his subjects. Sidibé excels in his photograph of dancing, such as in “Regardez-Moi!” from 2002. A handsome Malian man bends backwards from his knees, his mouth open in a thrown-back laugh of pure glee. With other good-looking, well-dressed couples on the dance floor, this picture captures, perhaps, exactly what we all wish Williams parties could be. In just the comparison of Sidibé to Kelley, we can already draw lines to the motifs that Willis articulates: the relationship between historical and contemporary images and between the subject and photographer and the issue of self-representation versus imposed representation.

Posing Beauty’s strength lies in its sense of breadth without resorting to formulas and in its adroit use of themes to connect photographers without overwhelming their work with an imposed narrative. If anything, the large number of photographers represented in Posing Beauty lends the exhibition vivacity: There is a rhythm and cadence to the way the photographs interact with each other. The organization of the galleries themselves reflect this – rather than simply cramming the photographs onto the tradition rectangular gallery format, WCMA also displays photographs on temporary walls built within the main gallery. These internal walls create an angularity to the space that reinforces the exhibition’s sense of rhythm – it is impossible to have a sweeping view of the entire exhibition. Instead, the viewer is forced to stop and truly examine and to physically move through the galleries in a way that rewards close looking and unexpected turns.

Posing Beauty should be required viewing for every Williams student – this review could not do justice to the important photography represented here. Willis’ inclusion of photographers like Anthony Barboza, Hank Willis Thomas and Mickalene Thomas make us think about how images are constructed. That, in the end, is why Posing Beauty succeeds: Through the photographs displayed here, Willis has constructed a loose framework for our understanding of image-making and the power that resides within it. The exhibition makes us more attentive to our own reality, asking us to second-guess what we think we know about culture and beauty.