“What is beauty?”
“Who defines it?”
“Do ideas about beauty evolve over time?”
These questions were among the many raised during the Sept. 7 opening of "Posing Beauty in African American Culture" at the USC Fisher Museum of Art. The aptly titled multimedia exhibit posed stimulating questions about notions of beauty rather than asserting definite answers. More than 84 works by renowned artists such as James VanDerZee, Carrie Mae Weems, Robert Mapplethorpe, Weegee and Cecil Beaton provide gallery visitors with a rich survey of images that explore the intersections of race, media, gender, class and pop culture.
The exhibit is successful at blending various eras and subjects, but falters when it attempts to organize the galleries into three themes — “Body Image,” “Constructing a Pose” and “Model Beauty and Beauty Contests.” When moving through the exhibit, some pictures undoubtedly fit under their designated theme, but a few photographs seem arbitrarily placed, making the rooms seem more interchangeable than distinct from one another. A mesmerizing slow-motion video of the first black woman to win the Miss Texas crown in 2006 is perplexingly placed in the “Constructing a Pose” gallery when “Modeling Beauty and Beauty Contests” would seem more appropriate.
"Posing Beauty" is most effective when categorization is set aside, so that the audience can instead consider the interplay between the diverse array of images. The installation elegantly integrates portraits of unknown, famous and, in some cases, notorious subjects. As a result, celebrities and icons are difficult to quickly identify when placed in unusual contexts.
One such example: a deceptively informal photograph of a handsome young man shown shirtless in an apartment holding a Bob Dylan record, with a slight grin on his face. In the background, books are stacked on his coffee table unassumingly enough, but next to them lies a newspaper with the heading “The Black Panther.” The bookish, seemingly amicable man was none other than the controversial figure Huey P. Newton, one of the co-founders of the Black Panther Party.
The celebrities range from Li’l Kim to Denzel Washington, but I personally find the everyday street photographs to be equally compelling. They feel archival due to the dated fashion trends but at the same time are reminiscent of contemporary street style photography.
My favorite photo is of two couples walking down a street in Harlem. The men both wear sharp suits with matching fedoras, and the women at their sides mirror each other with voluminous afros and thigh-high boots. The similarity in their outfits and the symmetrical composition is broken up by the different prints of their clothing — argyle, stripes, plaid, even animals. The unknown subjects of this fun, youthful photograph are just as interesting as any famous rapper or actor.
Although there is not much additional information displayed in the exhibit, a docent is available in the museum to answer questions and provide some context for these works. While background on these pieces proves to be interesting, it's by no means necessary. Posing Beauty reveals surprising insights and initiates critical conversation all on its own, bringing attention to notions of beauty that are so often invisible.
Posing Beauty in African American Culture runs through Dec. 3 at the USC Fisher Museum of Art. Admission is free.