A fashion show in Harlem in 1963, a portrait of a contemplative Michael Jackson in 1981 and a picture of friends celebrating their prom night in 2006 are among images on view in the exhibition “Posing Beauty in African American Culture” at USC’s Fisher Museum of Art through Dec. 3.
The exhibition, in its West Coast debut, is made up of 80-plus pieces, mostly black-and-white photographs, curated by Deborah Willis, a New York University professor and chairwoman of the school’s department of photography and imaging.
“Posing Beauty” aims to present works that capture the aesthetics of more than 40 photographers and artists and their relationships to their subjects.
FOR THE RECORD:
“Posing Beauty”: In the Sept. 25 Image section, an article on the “Posing Beauty” photo exhibition at USC’s Fisher Museum of Art said the museum is closed on days when the USC football team plays at home. While that was previously the case, the museum is now open on game days. —
While the show is curated from a photographic or visual viewpoint, it’s hard to ignore the subtext of its images, which are divided into three categories: “Constructing a Pose,” “Body and Image” and “Modeling Beauty and Beauty Contests.”
The photos “challenge idealized forms of beauty in art by examining their portrayal and exploring a variety of attitudes about race, class, gender, popular culture and politics,” according to program notes.
The exhibition includes arresting images such as Lyle Ashton Harris’ 1987 “Miss America,” which shows an African American woman with white face makeup and an American flag draped across her bare upper body, and Lauren Kelley’s 2007 portrait of a woman with hair picks tipped with the black power closed-fist symbol radiating from her head to form an afro shape.
Taken together, these photographs are far more than just striking pictures of African American men and women. They document concepts of beauty throughout several decades of African American culture. And each piece is the starting point for an intriguing discussion about what is considered beautiful, both within African American culture and within society in general.
Subjects such as beauty queens, 1960s swimsuit models, barbershop culture, couples donning church clothes and music icons such as James Brown and Otis Redding are presented in the various categories, though it’s not always apparent why some pieces are placed in certain sections.
For instance, a portrait of boxer Joe Louis and one of Redding are in “Modeling Beauty and Beauty Contests,” and a video of the crowning of Miss Texas 2006 titled “The 10th of June Part 1” can be seen in “Constructing a Pose.”
Overall, the juxtaposition between the historic (women clad in frilly white dresses and sun hats in 1938 Louisiana) and contemporary photos (a striking portrait of Michelle Obama taken in 2006) works to draw parallels between past and present notions of what is beautiful and to reference continuing themes of aesthetic ideals within African American culture.
The conversation continues with a panel discussion, “Posing Beauty Posing Questions,” to be led by Willis, starting at 5 p.m. Oct. 4 in the Grand Ballroom, Ronald Tutor Campus Center at USC.
The museum is open from noon to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and noon to 4 p.m. Saturday. It is closed Sunday, Monday and on USC football home game days.
FOR THE RECORD: In the Sept. 25 Image section, an article on the “Posing Beauty” photo exhibition at USC’s Fisher Museum of Art said the museum is closed on days when the USC football team plays at home. While that was previously the case, the museum is now open on game days.