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'Jamel Shabazz: Peace to the Queen' at Austin's Carver Museum is a love poem to women of color

Graham Cumberbatch
Special to the American-Statesman
Ja’nell Ajani, a doctoral candidate at the University of Texas at Austin, is the lead curator for "Jamel Shabazz: Peace to the Queen," an art exhibit at the George Washington Carver Museum.

“No white walls.” It’s one of the first things Ja’nell Ajani calls out when asked about the installation choices in her first Texas show, "Jamel Shabazz: Peace to the Queen," currently on view at Austin's George Washington Carver Museum. The art exhibition — a poignant selection of photographs from Shabazz's vast catalog, entirely featuring Black women — runs through the summer. 

The walls are an initially subtle but significant visual indicator of one of the exhibition’s major themes, as envisioned by lead curator Ajani (a New York transplant and American Studies doctoral candidate at the University of Texas) and museum director Carre Adams: This is not your traditional art show. They serve as the perfect backdrop — both literal and figurative — for what Ajani hopes will provide new context for the work of one of the past half-century’s most prolific, vital and underappreciated chroniclers of American life. 

This latter point is underscored by the fact that after 40-plus years of crystalizing the spirit of his community through portraiture, "Peace to the Queen" is Shabazz’s first full retrospective. 

Perception is always at play, particularly in Shabazz’s critical positioning relative to the fine art world. By the time hip-hop magazine editors at the likes of Vibe, The Source and Trace — in search of that elusive but highly marketable blend of authenticity and of-the-culture zeitgeist — began to take notice in the late ‘90s, Shabazz had already been shooting New York for the better part of two decades. 

Rachael Hatchett examines art while visiting the "Jamel Shabazz: Peace to the Queen" exhibit at the George Washington Carver Museum on Feb. 25. The exhibit is dedicated to photographer, humanitarian and educator Shabazz. It features mostly portraits of women of color.

Shabazz returned to his native Brooklyn after a tour in the Army in 1980. His photography began as a mission to mobilize and uplift those most vulnerable to state oppression and economic exploitation. It blossomed into an art practice brimming with a singular visual language. When powerHouse published Shabazz’s first book, 2001’s "Back in the Days," it became an instant classic among a burgeoning set of street-aesthetic tastemakers and fashionistas, followed closely by "The Last Sunday" in June 2003 and "A Time Before Crack" in 2005. 

The commercial zeitgeist of a rapidly gentrifying New York in the early 2000s found a rich vein of inspiration in Shabazz’s deceptively measured annals of 1980s youth culture — from Brooklyn to Harlem to the Bronx — and early sartorial codes of hip-hop. The subsequent digital explosion of the style blog was no coincidence. And, while his work was welcomed in museums as far as Addis Ababa and as close as the Studio Museum of Harlem, there was still a certain grade of institutional appreciation that eluded him, cordoning him off from the ranks of key influences like James Van Der Zee, Leonard Freed and Gordon Parks.   

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It was at the Studio Museum of Harlem, where Ajani worked previously as program coordinator, that she and Shabazz were introduced by photographer and curator Dr. Deborah Willis. (Willis, a professor at Ajani's alma mater New York University, also is the mother of artist Hank Willis Thomas.) What followed was the eight-year genesis of "Peace to the Queen." When Ajani was accepted into her program at UT, they decided the stage was set. 

New to Austin, she envisioned exhibiting the show at one of several art and photography spaces on UT’s campus. 

“When none of those options worked out, I went to the Carver Museum,” Ajani says, “and Carre immediately understood the importance of Jamel’s work.” 

"Peace to the Queen" curator Ja’nell Ajani met the artist Jamel Shabazz at the Studio Museum of Harlem, where Ajani worked as program coordinator. The Austin exhibition is Shabazz’s first full retrospective.

He also understood Ajani’s intimate connection to the show’s conceptual center. “Peace to the queen,” a salutation Shabazz adopted over the years as a way to address the women in his circles, including the subjects of his work, underscores the show as a multidimensional love poem to Black, brown and indigenous women of color as linchpins of culture and political resistance. 

The exhibit also is a specific tribute to Ajani’s sister, whom she lost to violence a few years ago. Visitors to the exhibit can find her sister’s name, Karen, marked below a neon-sign quote by journalist Tai Beauchamp that Ajani used as a dedication in her master’s degree thesis. It’s rare in the art world for a curator to be so personally intertwined with a show’s subject matter. 

It’s also rare for a show by a visiting artist to pay respect to the local practitioners and cultivators of the host city. At the show’s entrance: six commissioned wooden busts of local women who’ve helped lay the groundwork for the arts community surrounding the Carver and the greater Austin area.  

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The subversion of installation and exhibition conventions extends to every corner of the show’s three-room space. 

Back to the conspicuous lack of museum white. Replacing the sterility of traditional surfaces are towering, life-sized plastered portraits; a show description painted on the wall and surrounded by hundreds of gold-plated door knocker earrings; a purple wall covered in silk purple roses (both a nod to the surname of Ajani’s sister and the royal connotations of purple); another wall covered in faux vegetation; and a full wall of mirrors carrying a gold-framed portrait of Naomi Campbell holding court on a studio sofa.   

Throughout the three corridors, Shabazz’s ability to gain the trust of subjects, as well his collaborative approach to portraiture, shines through. Critics have often subtly dismissed his posed subject work — much like other work by Black artists historically relegated to folk status — as more colloquial and less conceptually charged than his candid photos. 

But Shabazz continues to reiterate the importance of the subject’s consent and participation in the image-making process. When he began honing his approach to subjects on the streets of New York, Shabazz’s practiced inquiry became, “Can I document your legacy?” 

“Peace to the queen" was a salutation Jamel Shabazz adopted  as a way to address the women in his circles, including the subjects of his artwork. The current exhibition of his work in Austin runs until Aug. 15.

The impeccable self-styling and fashion instincts of the women in his pictures are key to this, inextricable from the show’s many themes. A wall of men-women couples conveys notions of protection and care. A section of women sex workers recalls the underground economy in which many of Shabazz’s friends and peers were embedded. One particularly striking black-and-white closeup of a young woman’s lower back — her hands in cuffs, her fingers elegantly twisted into gang shapes, her jeans heavily adorned with marker — harkens back to Shabazz’s eye-opening and influential post-military days working as a corrections officer. Then there’s the wall of children—young girls at play, in stark resistance to society’s early and aggressive adultification of Black and brown women.   

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The show’s power lies in its unwillingness to narrow its scope, displaying the full range of who women can and demand to be. Just as Shabazz has found a kindred curatorial soul in Ajani, Ajani has found an artistic home with the Carver Museum. She hopes that Adams and his staff are able to further procure the funding and public support necessary to continue the last few years’ transformative work — work of immense quality that belies the organization’s resources. 

Next up for Ajani and Adams is a show catalog set to publish later this summer. Meanwhile, Shabazz has another retrospective (his second) on show at the Bronx Museum for their 50th year. Austinites have until mid-August to catch “Jamel Shabazz: Peace to the Queen,” and it’s worth every moment.  

If you go

'Jamel Shabazz: Peace to the Queen'

Where: George Washington Carver Museum, 1165 Angelina St.

When: Running until Aug. 15

Hours: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday-Wednesday, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Friday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, closed Sunday

Admission: Free

More information: austintexas.gov/department/george-washington-carver-museum-cultural-and-genealogy-center