Friday, October 28, 2011

Where to Be Merry: Posing Beauty in African American Culture @ The USC Fisher Museum of Art, University of Southern California (USC) (Part 1 of 2)

The Posing Beauty in African American Culture photography exhibit features select images from Curator Deborah Willis’ book POSING BEAUTY: African American Images From the 1890s to the Present.

The exhibit has been at the USC Fisher Museum of Art since September, and I’ve seriously been meaning to get there from the time it first opened!

I finally had the opportunity to visit it one recent Saturday. While en route, I mentioned to a longtime friend that I’d be going. Coolly, she replied that she had gone and wasn’t too impressed. She said that she hadn’t understood why the photos had been featured, saying that looking at the images was like flipping through a long lost family photo album – granted, a family photo album with a few famous kin folks. As we wrapped up our conversation, she hypothesized that I’d spend no more than 20 minutes at the museum and then bounce.

My excitement that had been building for over a month slightly waned, but I trudged forward. I was determined to see this exhibit.

As I approached the museum, my curiosity returned at full force. A larger-than-life rendition of Carrie Mae Weems’ “I Looked and Looked to See What so Terrified You” (2006) majestically adorned the museum's main doors. Talk about a statement! It looked so intriguing that I wanted to rush right in to see more.

I entered, pleasantly surprised to see the tiny museum bustling with many visitors: groups of friends, of international tourists, of college students, of families with children, and a few solo wanderers.

Now here’s where it gets a little tricky.

Although prior to my visit I had read that the exhibit examined “the contested ways in which African and African American beauty have been represented in historical and contemporary contexts through a diverse range of media including photography, film, video, fashion, advertising, and other forms of popular culture such as music and the Internet” and had also read several articles covering the exhibit, after spending a few minutes in two out of the three main rooms, I could relate to my friend’s point.

I had expected to see photos of glamorous or blatantly beautiful people. Instead, what stared back at me were photos of ordinary characters: a group of prom attendees in 2006, a couple from the 1990s, a man in a suit from the 1980s. True, there were several photos of icons like Michael Jackson and James Brown, and it was interesting to see the King of Pop solemnly sitting in a chair and the Godfather of Soul on bended knees, crooning on a stage. But did they look beautiful?

As if my doubtful question had somehow seeped out of my head and into the air, a random visitor approached me and announced that a museum assistant would give an impromptu tour since by now, many large groups had left and the museum was placidly quiet.

On the tour, the assistant stressed that the exhibit’s objective isn’t to explicitly define beauty; instead, it’s to examine how beauty has been reflected in the African-American experience, from a historical context and also from varied, diverse perspectives. She shared the back-stories, significances and subjects in some of the photographs. She also explained how each room covered one of the selected themes derived from Willis’ POSED Beauty book.

After the tour concluded, I had a better understanding of what Willis was attempting to portray through the exhibit. In a sense, I valued the photos even more – I respected them – I got them. Perhaps I wouldn't jump to say that the three young ladies pictured below in Bayeté Ross Smith’s "Prom Night- Here Comes the Girls. Pomp & Circumstance: First Time to be Adults Series” (2006) were the most gorgeous ladies I'd ever seen, but I could understand how their expressed perception of beauty had the right to be considered as a valid reflection of African-American beauty...

as much as Anthony Barboza’s photograph of "Toukie Smith" (1980), the strikingly stunning and first African-American model to have a mannequin designed in her likeness, pictured below, had that same right.

At the end of the day, it’s like this exhibit takes all of these diverse images that are reflections of the styles that have been popular in mainstream American culture and also Black subculture – from 1898 until present day – and puts them in one place, space and time for us to explore. We can ponder on what and who have been considered “beautiful,” and how this concept of “beauty” has morphed and transformed throughout the years.

After a little more than an hour – not twenty minutes – I walked out, satisfied. I had finally visited, and even seen something I hadn’t before. So whether it’s ten minutes or two hours, I say take a look for sure...and be sure to go on a tour as well. See you there soon!

Miss Wilson’s Tips (So You Know "What's Up" When You Go):

- Admission is FREE.

- The exhibit is up until December 3, 2011.

- USC Fisher Museum of Art hours: Tuesday-Friday, 12-5 p.m. and Saturday, 12-4 p.m. Closed on Sunday and Monday.

- I highly, highly recommend taking a tour of the exhibit. If you show up, one of the assistants at the front desk can conduct a brief tour, or you can give Vanessa a call at 213.740.4561 to arrange one in advance. You can call her Monday-Friday, 9 a.m.-5 p.m.

- Watch Lauren Woods’ short film clip, “The twenty of June, pt1
 (2006), found in the “Constructing a Pose” room.

- The museum is located off of Exposition Blvd., right behind the gates that enclose the USC campus. Here’s a map.

- For parking on the USC campus, enter Entrance 1 off of Exposition Blvd. You can buy an $8 day parking pass, or you can test your luck to see if you can find an open parking meter. Unfortunately, at the meters, there is a one-hour parking limit and there aren’t that many metered spaces. If you do find one, it’ll cost you $2 per hour.

- Make the most of it! Directly across the street from the Fisher Museum is Exposition Park, a historical and cultural Los Angeles landmark. It has a lot to explore, with more museums, an expansive rose garden and the Los Angeles Coliseum.

For more information:
USC Fisher Museum of Art
823 Exposition Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90089

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