“Posing Beauty In African American Culture” is an exhibit at the University of Southern California Fisher Museum, with Curator Deborah Willis examining beauty through the works of over 40 photographers. The images include portraits of celebrities, beauty queens and fashionable people posing on the streets of New York and shots that capture historical slices of life, such as women attending a fashion show in Harlem. The exhibit is divided into three sections. In ”Constructing a Pose” a portrait by Jeffrey Henson, titled actor Denzel Washington has the actor in soft lighting with his legs crossed gazing into the viewer’s eyes. This photograph catches interplay between the subject and the photographer. Section two, “Body and Image” includes Rene Cox’s photo, Baby Back, the rear view of a nude woman posing on a chaise lounge. This section challenges our contemporary idea of beauty and how we interpret it through the body. Cox is demanding the world examine this black body and see it as both powerful and beautiful, and it is obvious that this woman knows she is beautiful. At the same time the image is suggesting Edouard Manet’s painting Olympia (1863). The last section, “Modeling Beauty and Beauty Contests” presents the evasive nature of beauty and its impact on individuals and society. This final section includes images of rapper Lil’ Kim, Tennis pro Serena Williams and a large display of Jet Magazine’s centerfold models throughout the years. Lauren Kelley’s Pickin’ represents a powerful defiant image. The overhead shot is of natural hair picks with black power fists extending from a woman’s head, again an image of power and beauty.
This massive exhibit displays a range of photographs that explores beauty in the African American culture community. Willis chooses powerful images from the early 1930s to the present to questions, What is beauty, who defines beauty, and do the elements of beauty ever change?