‘Black is Beautiful’ Kwame Brathwaite (1938-2023)

Kwame Brathwaite, the American photographer whose works visually powered the ‘Black Is Beautiful’ movement of the 60s, has died aged 85. Throughout his career, Brathwaite captured Black icons including Muhammad Ali, Aretha Franklin, The Jackson Five, and Nina Simone. Ultimately, his works sought to uplift the essence of being Black.

On 01 April 2023, American photographer, Kwame Brathwaite, passed away at the age of 85. Brathwaite was known for documenting African American life and culture through photography, and for popularizing the ‘Black is Beautiful’ movement. News of Brathwaite’s death broke when his son, Kwame Samori Brathwaite, announced his death on the official Instagram for The Kwame Brathwaite Archive. ‘I am deeply saddened to share that my Baba, the patriarch of our family, our rock and my hero has transitioned. Thank you for your love and support during this difficult time,’ Somori Brathwaite’s announcement said.  

Born on 01 January 1938, Kwame Brathwaite was raised in Harlem, New York City, by immigrant parents from Barbados. His career as a photojournalist chronicled the cultural, political, and social developments of Harlem, Africa, and the African diaspora.  

Muhammad Ali at a press conference in 1974 in Zaire for the Rumble in the Jungle fight against George Foreman. Courtesy of The Kwame Brathwaite Archive

Two pivotal experiences piqued Brathwaite’s interest in photography. An event in August 1955 was the first. Brathwaite had just received his high school diploma when two white men brutally murdered and dismembered fourteen-year-old Emmett Till, in Mississippi, for allegedly harassing one of the men’s wife. Brathwaite saw the horrifying images—taken by photographer, David Jackson—of Till’s tortured body that his mother bravely allowed Jet Magazine to publish. Seventeen at the time, Brathwaite realized how a picture could alter the political landscape of the country as fury from the Black community led to numerous protests calling for justice.

A year later, Brathwaite’s interest in photography developed further. In 1956, he co-founded what would later be known as the African Jazz Art Society and Studios (AJASS) with his brother. AJASS began promoting events in Harlem and the Bronx to move the jazz scene’s gravitational centre back uptown after it left for the mostly white clubs of Lower Manhattan. At one such performance, Brathwaite saw a young man take pictures in the dim, smoky bar without the use of a flash. Soon after, Brathwaite gave it a shot using that technique. He learnt and practicalized how to control the shadow by using a Hasselblad medium-format camera. ‘I just fell in love with the textures,’ Brathwaite once said, ‘the slight graininess of it.’ 

From the 1950s, Brathwaite became heavily involved in Black culture and politics after being inspired by Jamaican-born politician, Marcus Garvey. Brathwaite and his brother, Elombe, helped organize jazz performances at clubs in the Bronx and Harlem. In his 20s, Brathwaite took some of his earliest pictures, which include those of a variety of performers such as Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, and Duke Ellington. By the early 1970s, he had established himself as what the New York Times described as the ‘unofficial house photographer’ of Apollo Theatre, where performers like Whitney Houston and Chaka Khan performed. 

What Brathwaite ultimately created was distinct from typical photojournalism. His black-and-white photographs typically excluded details such as the crowds of onlookers or sections of his subjects’ instruments, because they were shot either in complete darkness or from unusual angles.

Black Is Beautiful: The Photography of Kwame Brathwaite exhibition at the New-York Historical Society / NICK SHERMAN

Brathwaite and his team also aimed to explore how white ideas of beauty and body image affected African women in the 1960s. To do this, they formed the Grandassa Models, a modelling group of locally cast women who participated in yearly fashion shows at Harlem’s Apollo Theater, and they spread the revolutionary philosophy, ‘Black Is Beautiful’. ‘We’ve got to do something to make the women feel proud of their hair, proud of their blackness,’ Brathwaite told The New Yorker in 2019. Through the lens of the ‘Black is Beautiful’ movement, Brathwaite continued to explore and refine his style of photography throughout his career. 

Brathwaite and AJASS held the first of its ‘Naturally’ fashion events in 1962. Jimmy Abu, a member of the organization, assisted in finding models from the community for the runway. These models wore their hair in ‘natural’ fashions and had skin tones that were darker than the pale tones of Black women who were depicted at the time in fashion publications. The latest designs and trends from African cities such as Accra, Nairobi and Dakar, served as inspiration for the apparel that the models wore as they walked down the runway. Brathwaite took pictures of the shows in colour, catching the vivid hues of the clothing and the variety of skin tones on the models. Brathwaite met Sikolo, a Grandassa Model, on the street and asked if he could take her picture. They got married in 1966.  

Additionally, in the 1970s, Brathwaite visited a number of African countries, including Tanzania, Kenya and Egypt. He followed The Jackson Five to Ghana and captured moments like Muhammad Ali’s 1974 boxing battle against George Foreman in the ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ on camera.

Brathwaite’s photography was highly sensitive to the identity and presence of his subjects. Throughout the 1980s, 1990s, and up to the late 2010s, he continued to take pictures highlighting the diversity of human experience through the peculiarities of Black live. His works featured in The Daily Challenge, The City Sun, and New York Amsterdam News and he captured Stevie Wonder, Bob Marley, and James Brown concerts.

Brathwaite’s more recent exhibitions included Tools of Revolution: Fashion Photography and Activism at the Houston Center for Photography (2020); Voices of Fashion: Black Couture, Beauty, and Styles at the Centraal Museum (2021); Facing Forward at the Santa Barbara Museum (2021); My Village, New York at the Philip Martin Gallery (2022); Black is Beautiful with the New York Historical Society and at Reynolda House (2022-2023)

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