A Review of Raphael Albert's Miss Black and Beautiful Exhibition at Autograph ABP, Rivington Place in Shoreditch, London
The photographer Raphael Albert (1935-2009) established himself as a cultural promoter and photographer of black beauty pageants in West London between the late 1960's and 1980's. His archive documenting popular community events as well as his collection of model portfolios has allowed for a both extensive and detailed exhibition, which celebrates a community often overlooked within mainstream fashion and culture. On show at Autograph ABP, Rivington Place in London, Raphael Albert: Miss Black & Beautiful includes over fifty exclusive black and white fibre prints, colour and vintage photographs as well as a selection of archival material.
Working internationally with photographers to promote diversity and human rights, Autograph ABP was established in 1988. Through its high calibre exhibitions, the organisation deserves recognition for advocating the inclusion of ‘historically marginalised photographic practices within mainstream cultural institutions.’ The exhibition’s curator and head of archives at Autograph ABP, Renee Mussai explained how the extensive historical archive of Albert’s work “offers a unique and fascinating collection of rarely seen photographs that document the ambivalent cultural performance of gendered and raced identities at a particular historical conjuncture.” She goes on to emphasise that these images “embody an aura of hedonistic confidence in a new generation of black woman coming of age in Britain during the 1970's, fuelled by complex (body) politics of national identity, difference and desire.”
It is not only the impact of Albert’s photographs that captivates the viewer, but also the exquisite details that have gone into the curation of this show. The clever, yet subtle choice of classic 70's wallpaper used as well as the inclusion of an old school record player helps create an atmosphere that transports us to the period in which these photos were taken. Each image tells a unique story, yet collectively they convey the exuberance, confidence and beauty that each of these women possess.
Beauty pageants such as Miss Grenada and Miss Black & Beautiful (established by Raphael Albert) allowed these women the freedom to embrace and articulate their black femininity. As with the more mainstream beauty pageants previously dominated by white women, Albert’s subjects also wear the traditional swimsuits, jewellery and high heels. Yet they combine these elements with their distinctive hairstyles to express their cultural identity. This can be seen in ‘Miss Black & Beautiful Sybil McLean with fellow contestants’ (1972 Hammersmith Palais, London). Albert captures the spirit of these women and embraces the global Black is Beautiful aesthetic within the West London community he felt so compelled to capture and promote.
Ranging from traditional documentations of beauty pageants in swimsuits to playful snaps such as ‘Miss Teenager of the West Indies of Great Britain Lorna Coulson and 'cousin'’ (1977, Fulham) - where a model is captured looking straight into the camera whilst kissing a man - it is this diversity in Albert's images that is so captivating. In ‘Model in Checkered Suit, Blythe Road’ (1970's) we see a woman embodying an androgynous look as she wears the suit with defiance, staring straight into the lens and out to her audience. The overall composition, with her relaxed pose epitomises this idea of creating a distinct space for Afro-Caribbean self-articulation.
The combination of Albert’s extensive collection of photographs and the insightful curatorial direction of this show makes for a compelling story, where the viewer gains access into a world that - for reasons unjust - was previously marginalised and often ignored. Not only does it capture the spirit of these empowered women and their community, but it extends an invitation for the viewer to partake in the celebration of what these independent women stand for. This idea of inclusion is pushed further by the gesture of leaving a notepad for the audience to ‘share their thoughts’ on the show. These independent impressions have been placed on the notice board at the entrance to the exhibition at Autograph ABP, Rivington Place for others to observe, contemplate and compare with their own.
Written by Lara Monro, contributor to Arteviste.com
8 July - 24 September 2016 at Autograph ABP, Rivington Place in London - FREE ADMISSION