I never met an exhibit I didn’t like, by which I mean to say that I never came away from an exhibit that didn’t give me something. So, here comes this show with so many images of beauty that I admired throughout my childhood and adulthood that they brought back the old mythologies of childhood: that these were “True Black People” images.
When I walked into the first gallery of the Posing Beauty show, I thought there’s so much familiar here. But better than that — I recognized the ones I hadn’t seen before. And, whether contrived or caught, journalistic or advertised or artistic or all at once, I wanted to mind-test, to memory-test each one for authenticity. Authentic Beauty. Inner Beauty. Social Beauty. Defensive Beauty. Beauty as Tool. As Weapon. Captured, held, immortalized, institutionalized, main-streamed, bought, collected, interpreted, and re-delivered.
The big eye-popper was the wall of Jet Magazine centerfolds! Stopped me in my strolling tracks. Back I went. To the Day. My 9-year-old days, and 12 and 16. I was a girl that secretly lived for each new issue, to pick it up at the corner store or the grocery store or in the dentist’s or doctor’s office waiting room. I was a girl looking for me in those pictures. How close would the girl come to looking like me this time? I would wonder . . . and be really frightened that someday I’d find me in there, because, confronted by the little feminist inside, I REALLY did not aspire to pose nearly naked in a magazine and have that be what I left as a representation of my time on earth. But, I did want the option to be considered so I could turn down the contract offer. Because even as a very young girl I understood how the beauty pageant/centerfold/gender exploitation media was as valid a defensive-offensive maneuver in the war for recognition as valued human flesh for Black women as for White. Not only that, you might make a living. But then there was the other war — the one for recognition as a valued human aesthetic, not just for use, but for wielding, as the quote on the wall from Toni Morrison declares. Yep, we spend a lot of time on that one, too, to this day.
A Desert Queen posed and photographed by Edward Curtis in 1898, one of the earliest images in the exhibition, crushes my heart every time I look at it. I look into the eyes of the woman depicted and believe she was captured, posed, and not willing. Did she believe she had a choice? Did the photographer believe she did? The fascination with women’s breasts is as old as humans, but I don’t know of any culture in the African desert in which women bare their breasts at all (think sun and sand burn), much less in such a peek-a-boo, Victorian pornographic fashion. Even if we have become confused by options in this century, women in the 1890s were still pretty clear that their breasts were primarily for their babies, hopefully their own babies. But this photo captures a moment in which this woman’s breasts are being coyly offered to anyone, to those who were the audience for these images in the 1890s.
Everything that is good, bad, weak, or strong about personal and collective agency, about personal and systemic power, about oppression and the fierce determination of the spirit of self is in this photograph. I hate this picture. And I would have it in an album in the stack of books on my bedside table, because it empowers me to have at hand the tools that will not let me forget.
Ana Edwards – Writer for The Virginia Defender and Manager of Byrd House Farmers Market