Questions of power and resolution will resound through the Mobile Museum of Art (4850 Museum Drive) through Jan. 21. They stem from the “Posing Beauty in African-American Culture” exhibit, and their answers dwell in the observant.
Initially curated by Deborah Willis, Ph.D., chair of the New York University Department of Photography, the shots cover more than a century of the black American experience. Their specific analysis? Aesthetics and its place in cultures large and subsumed.
Maybe no American city is more appropriate for this exhibit than the one that received the last shipment of African-born slaves smuggled into the United States. Their small community in Plateau wasn’t merely a subset of U.S. general culture, but also of Americanized blacks.
The exhibit proceeds chronologically, with early 20th century work from noted photographers including Thomas Askew and Edward Curtis. Attendees can follow it through the century, loop around and end on the opposite wall, where the show’s most contemporary works bring it full circle.
A poignant early entry is a pair of Richard S. Roberts’ photos. In “Woman in White Collar” is a stoic subject, alabaster collar over her plain, dark dress, likely the way she was seen by family, friends, community.
To its right hangs “Woman in White Apron.” It’s the same subject, the same dress, the same lace collar, but she has adorned a mantle of subservience, a signifier of her role and definition in the dominant white culture.
Also eyecatching is Charles Teeme Harris’ photo of two men at a Pittsburgh storefront, “dressed to the nines” with snappy fedoras and gleaming white shoes.
Joe Louis strides powerfully through a crowd in the 1930s, not far from the time he would have faced German boxer Max Schmeling in a bout that carried a subtext of fascism, eugenics and the dominant performance of racial heterogeneity.
Andre de Dienes captured three girls on lush grass as their peers cavort around maypoles behind them, their dark skin richly juxtaposed against pristine white dresses.
Another Dienes photograph taken that same day is a subtly unforgettable shot of “Man in Cap, May Day, NYC” (1940). Though closely shot, it carries a candid honesty and emotional complexity behind the subject’s eyes and expression. Its composition and weight are nearly perfect.
A fashionable crowd socializes outside a church on Easter Sunday. A man teaches his son to master a necktie.
In “Harlem Fashion Show in Stadium,” a man flaunts a white dinner jacket paired with formal shorts, a style that never quite caught fire. Taken the same year (1963), a Venice Beach bodybuilder flexes in a nearby frame, his shorts apropos.
Celebrities abound: a young Lena Horne at a dressing room mirror; jazz singers Billy Eckstine and Billie Holiday in conversation; Otis Redding at the Monterey Pop Festival, the performance that launched him to national stardom just before his death; revolutionaries Kathleen Cleaver, Stokely Carmichael, Huey Newton and others; “Shaft” composer/performer Isaac Hayes; Denzel Washington and others.
Anthony Barboza’s photo of model Pat Evans is absolutely striking, her glistening onyx skin and short hair resplendent in regal austerity.
There’s a series of cross-dressing pageantry, where the viewer sees the meticulous application of eyebrows backstage, a parade of young participants and the full-blown diva both absorbing the crowd’s adulation and stoking the mood even higher.
Next to it is Sheila Pree Bright’s brilliant series “Plastic Bodies.” Her manipulation of photography, the melding of multi-ethnic faces onto the figures and heads of Barbie-type figurines touches themes we’ve all heard broached. It also makes a coy partner with the trans parade.
“The Teenth of June,” a hypnotic video/sound work by conceptual artist Lauren Woods, combines slow-motion footage of a Texas beauty pageant with eerie soundscapes from “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” A dark humor manifests as the crawling visuals dissect hidden and unflattering emotions among the contestants.
All of the pieces are arresting and transitive. They stir questions of authenticity, of whether posing happens on both sides of the camera and how the interpretation of beauty relates to power.
The people photographed move from historic, passive subjects to modern agents of their own expression. By its conclusion, modern artists offer their own homage to historic figures, but from a contemporary perspective.
At its heart, the journey is only stirred by the visual. Its actual steps are philosophical.
The free weekend and accompanying festival in celebration of the exhibit was postponed by fast-moving Hurricane Nate. It has been rescheduled for Dec. 2.
Go to mobilemuseumofart.org for details.