Kwame Brathwaite, Grandassa Models at the Merton Simpson Gallery, New York, ca. 1967; from Kwame Brathwaite: Black Is Beautiful (Aperture, 2019)

What immediately draws you into the “Black Is Beautiful: The Photography of Kwame Brathwaite,” the traveling exhibit now at the New York Historical Society, is a portrait of Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln. The beaming couple were jazz royalty and Brathwaite’s camera, as it did on so many occasions, captured them in the ’60s when AJASS (African Jazz-Art Society & Studios) was a vanguard group of visionary artists spearheading the merger of music, politics, art, and revolutionary activism.  

The 40 large-scale color and black-and-white photos decorating three rooms are a panorama of scenes exemplary of Brathwaite’s brilliantly productive career. Each is a frozen moment that exudes beauty, integrity, and a dynamic aspect of Black history and culture. He forged a partnership with the Aperture Foundation to launch the exhibit, which also published a book featuring the collection.

“My father won’t be attending the exhibit,” said his son Kwame, Jr. who was there representing the family at Tuesday’s press conference. He may not be there physically but his artistic presence looms from every nook and cranny, from his own self-portrait near the entry to the far back room where three manikins symbolize the Grandassa Models, another engaging component to the group’s progressive culture and politics. 

“I have been called the ‘Keeper of the Images,’” Brathwaite wrote in the preface to the book. “My task has been to document creative powers throughout the diaspora—not only in our Black artists, musicians, athletes, dancers, models and designers, but in all of us. It was my job to capture each moment of this creativity in its truest form.” Over the years, he accomplished this task, often in concert with his brother Elombe Brath and others, as they created a Harlem base for artists and political activists to give full expression to their anti-colonialist, anti-imperialist dreams.

“As the Keeper of the Images,” he concluded, “my goal has always been to pass that legacy on and to make sure that for generations to come, everyone who sees my work knows the greatness of our people.”

And they will know and experience the greatness of the photographer and this exhibit is but a sample from his extensive archives, which only a series of books can properly cover.     

“We are thrilled to bring this exhibition to New York City, Kwame Brathwaite’s hometown and the location of many of his most powerful images,” said Dr. Louise Mirrer, president and CEO of New York Historical. “His work is a testament to the power of a visual medium to impact the movement towards racial equity. We hope Kwame Brathwaite’s photographs inspire a deeper understanding of the Black empowerment movement and how its legacy resonates today.”

“Black Is Beautiful will be here until January, 2023 and then it’s on to Birmingham, Alabama,” said Kwame Jr. “The tour that began in California has gained resonance from city to city.”

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