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Two exhibits, 'Black Is Beautiful' and 'Valley,' make history at Blanton Museum of Art

Sikolo Brathwaite wearing a headpiece designed by Carolee Prince, posing for Kwame Brathwaite, the New York-based photographer who catapulted the "Black is Beautiful" movement into the mainstream.

Two exhibits are coming to the Blanton Museum of Art this summer, and both will make history.

“Black Is Beautiful: The Photography of Kwame Brathwaite” is the first major retrospective for Brathwaite, an artist who has spent a long, plentiful career capturing Black life in New York City’s Harlem and the Bronx. The arrival of “Suzanne Bocanegra: Valley” to the Blanton will mark the first major solo exhibition in Texas for Bocanegra, a University of Texas alum hailing from Houston. Both exhibitions open June 27 and will remain on view through Sept. 19.

“The Blanton is excited to kick off the summer with simultaneous exhibitions that showcase compelling works by two contemporary artists,” Blanton director Simone Wicha said in a statement. “Although Brathwaite’s and Bocanegra’s works are quite different in format and content, both point to important questions about empowerment in contemporary visual culture.”

Here's what to know about each exhibition, according to the Blanton's announcement.

In Kwame Brathwaite’s photography, Black is beautiful 

Empowerment has always been central to Brathwaite’s work. Born to Barbadian immigrants in 1938 in Brooklyn, the photographer, now 83, has amassed an enormous portfolio of photographs that put Black beauty front and center. He spent much of his career capturing iconic figures of the 20th century like Muhammad Ali, Miles Davis and Nelson Mandela, but he was just as inspired by the ordinary as the celebrity: young people hanging out behind the legendary Apollo Theater, kids lounging out of car windows, jazz musicians taking a smoke break on Randall’s Island.

One of Brathwaite’s greatest accomplishments was catapulting the “Black is Beautiful” movement into the mainstream, where it has remained for decades despite the relative obscurity of its genesis: a fashion show put on by a 24-year-old Brathwaite called "Naturally ‘62," according to the Financial Times. Along with his brother, Elombe Brath, Brathwaite founded Grandassa Models, a collective of Black women who defied the Eurocentric beauty standards embodied by the likes of Twiggy and Jean Shrimpton in favor of embracing their natural hair and African heritage. At "Naturally ‘62," where models strutted the runway in large hoops and patterns that could be found in cities like Lagos and Nairobi, “Black is Beautiful” was the slogan.

Grandassa Models feature prominently in the Brathwaite exhibition, often juxtaposed against bright backgrounds of orange, blue or red in a square frame. Members of Brathwaite’s other brainchild — the artists collective African Jazz Arts Society and Studios — are also central to the exhibit’s photographs, many of which were taken throughout New York City’s energetic jazz scene. The show also features vinyl cover art, for which Brathwaite often photographed musicians, as well as jewelry, clothing and posters.

Although Brathwaite’s career has been long and impactful, “Black Is Beautiful: The Photography of Kwame Brathwaite” is the first major retrospective on his work. It’s organized by the Aperture Foundation and Kwame S. Brathwaite, the artist’s son. The show comes to Austin from Los Angeles’s Skirball Cultural Center, where it debuted in 2019. In 2022, it will make its way back to where it all started: New York City, at the New-York Historical Society.

“There’s so much history that must be made, so much to share,” Brathwaite wrote in the preface to a publication that accompanies the exhibition. “As the Keeper of the Images, my goal has always been to pass that legacy on and make sure that for generations to come, everyone who sees my work knows the greatness of our people.”

In 'Valley,' Suzanne Bocanegra reimagines Judy Garland’s infamous wardrobe test 

In 1967, Judy Garland was infamously cast and subsequently fired from the role of Helen Lawson in “Valley of the Dolls,” the film adaptation of the bestselling novel, which follows three women who spiral through pills and show business.

Author Jacqueline Susann had drawn upon Garland’s real-life struggles with drugs and the entertainment industry for her novel. But audiences never got to see Garland, who was let go a few days into filming due to issues with drinking, according to actor Patty Duke. Only one piece of footage from Garland’s time on the film survives: a wardrobe test, in which the actor putters around a bit nervously, making the occasional comment under her breath.

In her multichannel video installation, “Valley,” Bocanegra pays homage to Garland’s wardrobe test by displaying eight women artists doing their own wardrobe tests with recreations of Garland’s original “Valley of the Dolls” costumes. Bocanegra collaborated with staff at Philadelphia’s Fabric Workshop and Museum to recreate the costumes for each of the eight women in her piece: poet Anne Carson, dancer and choreographer Deborah Hay, artist Joan Jonas, actor and singer Alicia Hall Moran, activist Tanya Selvaratnam, actor Kate Valk, artist Carrie Mae Weems and ballet dancer Wendy Whelan.

Suzanne Bocanegra's "Valley" installation at Art Cake in New York, 2018. The exhibition is coming to the Blanton Museum of Art on June 27.

Garland "was trying hard to convince the director and crew that she was still dependable, trying to hide her exhaustion and fragility, performing the role of ‘Judy Garland,’” Bocanegra said in a statement. “The exhaustion and fragility are what we end up seeing. I wanted to reframe it by casting these eight powerful women, using their strength to spotlight the exploitation of women in film and popular culture.”

Though Bocanegra lives in New York, the 2020 Guggenheim Fellow's art often alludes to her Texan roots. For that reason, bringing “Valley” to the Blanton for her first major solo exhibition in Texas means a lot to her, Bocanegra said in a statement. “Valley” originally premiered in 2018 at the Fabric Workshop and Museum.

“I've lived in New York for almost 30 years now, but in many ways, personally and artistically, I never really left Texas,” Bocanegra said. “It means a lot to me to come back to UT and show my work.”

If you go

“Black Is Beautiful: The Photography of Kwame Brathwaite” and “Suzanne Bocanegra: Valley” open on June 27 at the Blanton Museum of Art (200 E. Martin Luther King Jr Blvd.) and will remain on view through Sept. 19. Tickets are available at blantonmuseum.org.