Kwame Brathwaite, ‘Self-portrait,’ African Jazz-Art Society & Studios (AJASS), Harlem, ca. 1964. Courtesy of the artist and Philip Martin Gallery, Los Angeles.
If you’ve ever heard the phrase “Black is beautiful,” well, that may have something to do with Kwame Brathwaite. The Brooklyn-born photojournalist is, of course, hardly the first to string those words together. But he played a key role in transforming the message into a movement in the late 1950s, when he cofounded the artist collective the African Jazz-Art Society & Studios (AJASS) with his brother Elombe Brath, and throughout the 1960s, when he showcased Black beauty in his black-and-white photographs.
The former is a more typical example of activism: A sector of AJASS members known as the Grandassa Models successfully challenged conventional notions of beauty and helped normalize natural hair. But Brathwaite’s photojournalism—a medium to which he became devoted after seeing the horrific photos of Emmett Till Jet magazine published in 1955—was arguably just as impactful. In fact, the New York Historical Society has proclaimed his practice “an agent of social change.” It’s an apt description, as made clear by the institution’s exhibition showcasing 40 black-and-white portraits and scenes of Harlem as Brathwaite knew it. Ahead of its August 19 opening, take a look inside, here.