Sometimes a song, a painting, a soup, or a poem can open you up to a whole new way of seeing and being in the world.
I left the African Diaspora Museum’s new exhibit “The New Black Vanguard: Photography Between Art and Fashion” brimming with images and ideas, reveling in myriad visions of true and fantastic black beauty – and hungry for lunch.
A few minutes after leaving the museum, I was queuing at Super Duper Burgers. In front of me were three black women, spread across both lanes of the line as they spoke. They didn’t look like mannequins, but then I began to see them as the photographs I’d been immersed in all morning: the geometry of a woman’s perfectly round, shaved head, the right angle of his shoulder and the triangle formed by his bent arm resting on a ledge; the draping and swinging of her companions’ braided bobs and the oblivious choreography of how they responded to each other.
It’s not that I don’t notice the style of people or strangers. I do. But it was the first time I was aware of seeing a composition forming in front of me. After ordering, I didn’t mention this epiphany when I struck up a conversation with one of the women, Tuesda Roberts, who is director of faculty development and diversity at Emerson College in Boston. She told me she and her colleagues were in town for a conference on globalism and higher education. I handed them the MoAD press release and urged them to see the show. That’s another thing good art can do: make you want to connect with other humans.
The works in this exhibit aren’t just about cool clothes—they make you want to know more about the people who wear them. In a photo by Nadine Ijewere, the laughing, detailed smile of a beautiful young woman with a short afro floats above the blurry passion fruit clouds of her ball gown. In a portrait by Campbell Addy, a young man in a black off-the-shoulder mini dress, red socks, black loafers and a black hat with a puff of tulle, looks relaxed and friendly in her intricate cocktail attire. Arielle Bobb-Willis, who says, “It’s important to me to continue to reject the idea that black expression is limited — or limiting,” poses black models in “abstract” scenes that can be fun and unsettling depending on duration and proximity to a manhole. Renell Medrano’s photographs and video, often featuring women and girls from his native Bronx, capture the tender particularity of his home country.
“The New Black Vanguard,” which debuted in 2019 as an opening booking curated by Antwaun Sargent, has been exhibited in a number of cities, from Arles to Detroit. The MoAD show, which runs until March 5, is the only opportunity to see the exhibit on the West Coast. The 15 photographers, born between 1985 and 1997, hail from many points in Africa and the African Diaspora, including Nigeria, Switzerland, London, Chicago, Philadelphia and Apple Valley, California. Described by Sargent as “a loose movement of emerging talent”, they also create and maintain their own platforms, publications and exhibition spaces to reach audiences outside of traditional channels.
While much of the work has been produced for fashion editorials and published in magazines, the exhibition dissolves the line between images intended to engage a consumer in a designer’s products and photography that moves the audience. mind and soul. Credit for that goes to 33-year-old Sargent, who, like the photographers he has chosen to feature, is invested in the humanity and specificity of black representation. In Sargent’s opening essay for the book and in the artists’ statements in the exhibition, there is a recurring mission to fill new spaces in how black people are represented and seen. As Sargent writes, “What is unfolding is a contemporary recasting of possibilities for black representation by artists who exemplify their own desires and control their own images. In the fashion and art space, they fight photography with photography.
I’m not a trained art critic, just a lifelong art lover, so I have to recognize the limitations of my perspective. There are no dead eyes in these photos, and while the facial expressions of the models – which include professionals, locals, and the photographers’ family and friends – are often striking, I never got the impression that photographers exploited the color of the skin as a design. divorced element of the person in this skin. I don’t mean to suggest anything cutesy or sentimental when I say that throughout the exhibit I felt like these images were made by black photographers who know and love many types of black people.
Tyler Mitchell’s quote, “Conveying black beauty is an act of justice,” might just be the guiding principle of the entire show. In 2018, Mitchell became the first black photographer to grace the cover of Vogue since the magazine’s inception in 1892. He was just 23 when he shot Beyoncé’s two cover photos for Vogue in September 2018. Mitchell , who told Sargent, “Fashion has always been something far away for me,” cut her teeth photographing her friends and family at her family’s Atlanta home. Some of his best work remains deeply concerned with showing the ordinary beauty of black people in places that we occupy, but are not usually associated with our lives. An untitled photo of a black teenager in a green cotton turtleneck sitting in a field of daisies is as startling in its rarity as it is in its beauty. The boy in the photo reminds me of my brothers when they were very young. He also looks like Trayvon Martin. I know young black men hanging out in fields of flowers because I’ve been to those fields too. But the young black pastor? It’s a picture more of us need to see.
It’s worth taking the time to watch the videos and consider the historic black fashion photography in the windows. Some viewers will be thrilled to see things they’ve seen thousands of times in real life captured on screen, while others may see pieces of black life that happened in the background for the first time- plan throughout, invisible against stereotyping patterns and bad news.
That black people across the African diaspora are beautiful, stylish and cool – there is nothing new about that. In this country, even when laws governed what we could and could not wear, we found ways to express ourselves – and resist oppression – through the way we dressed and behaved. While “The New Black Vanguard” is billed as addressing race, gender, sexuality and colorism, what feels newer is how carefree the people in these photographs seem. So full of everything going on inside of them that they aren’t bothered by anything a viewer might think of them. This is what freedom can look like.
If you are going to:
“The New Black Vanguard: photography between art and fashion”
Where: African Diaspora Museum, 685 Mission St., SF
When: From 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. from Wednesday to Saturday and from 12 p.m. to 5 p.m. from Sunday until March 5.
Tickets: $12 for adults, $6 for students and seniors with valid ID, free for youth 12 and under.
Contact: 415 358-7200, moadsf.org
Teresa Moore is an Examiner columnist
that accounts for race and equity.