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Beauty takes center stage in new exhibition at Spelman College Museum
Leonard Freed, Harlem Fashion Show, Harlem, 1963, Gelatin silver print, 17 x 21 ¼ inches, Magnum Photos, FRL1963003 W00022/17.

ATLANTA, GA.- The Spelman College Museum of Fine Art is the first institution in the Southeast to present the nationally touring exhibition, “Posing Beauty in African American Culture.” Featuring more than 100 photographs by leading, emerging, and amateur photographers, “Posing Beauty” explores ways contemporary understanding of beauty has been informed by the works of photographers and artists dating from 1890 to the present. The exhibition is on view through Dec. 7, 2013. The exhibition is curated by Deborah Willis, Ph.D., one of the nation's leading historians of African-American photography.

The works within “Posing Beauty” delve into topics including fashion, beauty pageants, celebrity figures, and family portraits, and prompt discussions about the contested ways African-American beauty has been represented in historical and contemporary contexts. The museum will host an opening reception and book signing Thursday, Sept. 12, 2013, at 6:30 p.m., with Dr. Willis.

Within the exhibition, beauty is imagined and realized by both the subject and the photographer, and framed in novel ways — urban spaces, private studios, and within the imaginary. The aim is to encourage the viewer to think more critically about the notion of beauty and the consequences of the decisions made about beauty. This rare exhibition featuring 12 decades of photographs, challenges widespread and historic notions of Black beauty.

“Posing Beauty in African American Culture” is organized by Curatorial Assistance Traveling Exhibitions, Pasadena, Calif. The museum acknowledges support from LUBO Fund and the Wish Foundation.

Deborah Willis, Ph.D., is one of the nation's leading historians of African-American photography and curators of African-American culture. She is currently the chair of the Department of Photography & Imaging at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University and has an affiliated appointment as a university professor with the College of Arts and Sciences, Africana Studies. She was a Guggenheim Fellow, a Fletcher Fellow, and a MacArthur Fellow. Dr. Willis is the author of “Reflections In Black: A History of Black Photographers - 1840 to the Present” and “Let Your Motto Be Resistance.” Her book “Michelle Obama: The First Lady in Photographs” received the 2010 NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work—Biography/Autobiography. She has exhibited her photographs at the Zora Neale Hurston Museum in Eatonville, Fla. and just released two books: a co-authored book entitled “Envisioning Emancipation: Black Americans and the End of Slavery,” published by Temple University Press, and “Out [o] Fashion Photography: Embracing Beauty,” published by the Henry Art Gallery, University of Washington Press.

Atlanta and its African-American educational and social institutions figure prominently in “Posing Beauty.” The exhibition includes early 20th century photographs of prominent Atlanta families, luminaries, and Atlanta University students by Thomas E. Askew, who is widely recognized as Atlanta’s first African-American photographer. Notably, W.E.B. DuBois selected Askew’s photographs for the award-winning “The American Negro Exhibit” which he organized and presented at the 1900 Paris Exposition.

Another highlight of “Posing Beauty” is the debut of the Mary L. Welch Spelman Collection of cabinet cards of Spelman College faculty, students, and alumnae courtesy of the Spelman College Archives. Cabinet cards were a late 19th/early 20th century style of photographic portraiture that consisted of a thin photograph that was generally mounted on cards measuring 4¼ by 6½ inches. Mary L. Welch, who taught at Spelman from 1891 to 1895, kept in touch with her former students beyond her tenure at Spelman. The Welch Collection was gifted to the College by her granddaughter, Joan Handy, in 2012.

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