Framing Beauty

Everhart explores African American images

Growing up in a beauty salon with her mother and sisters gave Deborah Willis a positive self-image and comfort with her body from an early age. It wasn’t until going through chemotherapy for breast cancer that she thought to address social notions of beauty. Aware that blacks had been underrepresented in similar projects in the past, she decided to focus her study on African American culture.
Supported by a book of more than 200 photographs, the exhibit arm of Willis’ project Posing Beauty: African American Images from the 1890s to the Present opened at the Everhart Museum on Friday. On loan from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, where Willis serves as a professor and chair of the photography department, it comes to Scranton from USC’s Fisher Museum in Los Angeles and has previously been seen in Newark, NJ, Virginia, and Ontario, Canada.
The exhibit is split into three sections — Constructing a Pose, Body and Image, and Modeling Beauty & Beauty Contests. Its subjects include unknown models in street and studio photos from the earliest days of photography as well as famous historical and contemporary subjects like John Lee Hooker, Huey Newton, Serena Williams, and Denzel Washington.
The show is playfully accessible yet illuminates deep concepts such as “the way our contemporary understanding of beauty has been framed historically,” the museum’s executive director Cara Sutherland offered during a gallery tour last Thursday.
“We think of a photograph as a moment in time that’s frozen forever. How did that person choose to be photographed, if it is a portrait, or how were they captured, if it was photojournalism or street photography?” she suggested.
Focusing on “person(s) behind the lens,” Sutherland provided histories for the dozen or so photographers on display in the first of museum’s three Maslow galleries. Primarily male, many of the artists got their start at age 10 or 11 and received accolades early.
Celebrity photographer Jeffrey Scales (www.jeffreyscales.com), for example, had access to The Black Panthers in Oakland and saw his photos published by Time magazine while only a teenager. It’s Stephen Shames’s (www.stephenshames.com) candid of Huey Newton, finding the Black Panther co-founder at home holding a copy of Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited, however, that’s on display in Posing Beauty. Among the exhibit’s female eyes are those of contemporary New York painter Mickalene Thomas, whose sexy depictions of African American women lounging in kitschy rooms recall ‘70s Blaxploitation and “explore notions of black female celebrity and identity while romanticizing ideas of femininity and power (Lehman Maupin gallery.)” Born in Portland, Oregon in 1953, artist Carrie Mae Weems is among the most acclaimed of the show’s artists. After breaking out with social documentary grounded in storytelling in the late ‘70s through the ‘80s, Weems traveled to Africa in the early ‘90s. In notable demand via commission, her most recent works are fabric illustrations and multi media installations made possible with advancements in digital technology.
Posing Beauty will remain on display through April 1. Curator Deborah Willis and Carrie Mae Weems will participate in a public talk with the Everhart’s curator Nezka Pfeifer on Thursday, March 22.
A student art exhibit downstairs in Gallery One titled Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder is a collaboration with the Ballina Arts Centre (BAC) in County Mayo Ireland and features 20 artworks by local students and 20 from Ireland. Asking students to create self-portraits considering what makes them beautiful, it will move to the BAC for display later this year.