Home Arts Kwame Brathwaite, photographer who embodied the ‘Black is beautiful’ movement, has died aged 85

Kwame Brathwaite, photographer who embodied the ‘Black is beautiful’ movement, has died aged 85

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Kwame Brathwaite, the pioneering activist and photographer whose work helped define the aesthetic of the “Black is Beautiful” movement of the 1960s and beyond, died on April 1, aged 85. His son, Kwame Brathwaite, Jr, announced his father’s death in an Instagram post which read in part: “I am deeply saddened to share that my Baba, the patriarch of our family, our rock and my hero has made the transition.”

Brathwaite’s work has been the subject of renewed interest from curators, historians and collectors in recent years, and his first major institutional retrospective, organized by the Aperture Foundation, debuted in 2019 at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles before touring the country.

Kwame Brathwaite, Untitled (Garvey Day, Deedee in Car)around 1965, printed in 2018 Courtesy of Kwame Brathwaite Archives

Brathwaite was born in New York on January 1, 1938, to Barbadian immigrants. He was born in what he called “the People’s Republic of Brooklyn”, although his family moved from there to Harlem and then to the South Bronx when Brathwaite was 5 years old. He attended the School of Industrial Art (now the High School of Art and Design) and noted two moments that drew him to photography. The first was in August 1955, when a 17-year-old Brathwaite encountered David Jackson’s haunting photograph of a brutalized Emmett Till in his open coffin. The second was in 1956, when – after he and his brother had co-founded the African Jazz Art Society and Studios (AJASS) – Brathwaite saw a young man taking pictures in a dark jazz club without using a flash, and his mind became lit with possibility.

Using a Hasselblad medium format camera, he attempted to do the same, learning to work with limited light in a way that enhanced the visual narrative of his images. He would soon also develop a darkroom technique that would enrich and deepen the appearance of dark skin in his photography, refining the practice in a small darkroom in his apartment in Harlem. Brathwaite went on to photograph jazz legends performing throughout the 1950s and 1960s, including Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Thelonius Monk and others. “You want to feel the feeling, the vibe that you get when they play,” he told Tanisha C. Ford for a Opening magazine article in 2017. “That’s the thing. You want to capture that.

Kwame Brathwaite, Untitled (School photoshoot for one of the many modeling groups that had begun to embrace natural hairstyles in the 1960s)around 1966, printed in 2017 Courtesy of Kwame Brathwaite Archives

In the early 1960s, alongside the rest of AJASS, Brathwaite began using her photography and organizational prowess to consciously push back against whitewashed, Eurocentric standards of beauty. The group came up with the concept of Grandassa Models, young black women that Brathwaite would photograph, celebrating and accentuating their features. In 1962, AJASS organized “Naturally ’62”, a fashion show held at a club in Harlem called the Purple Manor and featuring these Grandassa models. The show would be held regularly until 1992. In 1966 Brathwaite married his wife Sikolo, a model from Grandassa whom he had met on the street the previous year when he asked if he could take her portrait. The two remained married for the rest of Brathwaite’s life.

Kwame Brathwaite, Untitled (Sikolo Brathwaite, Orange Portrait)circa 1968, printed 2020 Courtesy of Kwame Brathwaite Archives

In the 1970s, Brathwaite’s focus on jazz shifted to other forms of popular black music. In 1974, he traveled to Africa with the Jackson Five to document their tour, also photographing the historic “Rumble in the Jungle” boxing match between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo that same year. Commissions from this era also saw Brathwaite photograph Nina Simone, Stevie Wonder, Sly and the Family Stone, Bob Marley and other music legends, and it was during these years that Brathwaite moved from medium format to 35mm.

In the decades that followed, Brathwaite continued to explore and develop his mode of photography, all along the lens of the “Black is beautiful” philosophy. In 2016, Brathwaite joined the roster of the Philip Martin Gallery in Los Angeles, and he continued to shoot commissions as recently as 2018, when he photographed artist and stylist Joanne Petit-Frère for the new yorker.

Kwame Brathwaite, Untitled (Hands in the shape of a symbol of unity)circa 1971 Courtesy of Kwame Brathwaite Archives

A 2021 profile in The New York Times published on the occasion of Brathwaite’s retrospective traveling to the Blanton Museum of Art in Austin, Texas, noted that the photographer’s health was so failing that he could not be interviewed for the article. A separate exhibition, Kwame Brathwaite: Things worth waiting foris currently on display at the Art Institute of Chicago, where it will remain until July 24.

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