Hank Willis Thomas Focuses on Black Beauty

THE DAILY PIC: The African-American artist presents vintage pinups of black women.


In the show called “Speaking of People: Ebony, Jet and Contemporary Art”, at the Studio Museum in Harlem, Hank Willis Thomas has wallpapered a room with copies of vintage pinups from Jet, the black-culture magazine. This is a detail of the many hundreds of pictures on view. What’s most interesting about the piece, titled Black is Beautiful (1953-2014), is how the accumulated images strike a perfect and peculiar balance between black empowerment and female subjugation. By presenting a vast range of African-American bodies and faces, the whole notion of attractiveness is opened up. And that was (and is) very important, in an American culture where an aesthetic of blackness was (and is) always sidelined. I wonder if the sheer range of beauties on display might even argue that, from its position on the sidelines, and without the aesthetic authority and traditions of the white overclass, black culture was able to embrace a broader vision of what beauty might be. On the other hand, all the women on view are being reduced to pretty faces and tits and ass, as though their black beauty, and the cultural “work” that it does, exhausts our interest in them.

One smaller detail: Afros and the “natural cut”, an obvious component of black pulchritude, manage to make an appearance for a bare few years in the 70s, during the heyday of the Black Power movement. If afros came back in force today, they’d still have political heft.

For a full survey of past Daily Pics visit blakegopnik.com/archive.

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