Two women with afros sit on the backs of the bucket seats of an open convertible, their expressions bored, cool, while humanity talks and laughs around them. The didactic says they are gathered to celebrate Garvey Day, an annual event honoring Marcus Garvey, the early Black activist who advocated for Black economic independence and unity between members of the African Diaspora. This image sums up Kwame Brathwaite’s work from the early days of his career as a fashion, music and lifestyle photographer to a political photographer who realized his work could bring about change.
The exhibition’s title, “Things Well Worth Waiting For,” comes from a Stevie Wonder song from the album “Songs in the Key of Life.” Brathwaite wrote a commentary on the album for the Japanese publication ADLiB upon its release in 1976. He often reviewed music and musicians and began photographing them, inspired by the dark moodiness of nightclub images. Many of his reviews appeared in the British magazine Blues & Soul, and he created multiple album covers, some of which are in the exhibition, as well as magazines with articles written and photographed by Brathwaite.
Braithwaite, who was born in 1938, spent seven decades writing and photographing music, fashion and the Black experience. Early on as a fashion photographer, Brathwaite often used the same models, particularly jazz singer Abbey Lincoln, in striking African Diasporic garments and jewelry that accentuated what he called the natural Black look. Lincoln was part of the Black troupe Grandassa Models—all part of the Black is Beautiful movement of the 1970s. The studio images are striking, the lighting is dramatic, wrapping around the models like music. Brathwaite’s camera captures women who are strong, proud and elegant.
Two of the show’s black-and-white images really struck me. The first is a 1969 portrait of the singer Miriam Makeba. In 1960, Makeba was exiled from South Africa for anti-apartheid lyrics. In her time in the United States, she became a vocal supporter of the Black Power and civil rights movements. In this image, she is shown singing, crouched down, head bent to the microphone, rife with quiet strength and determination. In the second, which is untitled, a young Black man stands before a storefront plastered with posters and photographs advertising an album or film. A large sign reads “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song,” advertising Melvin van Peebles’ 1971 film. His stance is firm as he studies the words printed there, one hand on his hip.
The exhibition is well worth a trip to the Art Institute, if for no other reason than to ponder the slice of Black history it provides. Gallery 188 on the ground floor of the Modern Wing, which has also recently exhibited Dawoud Bey’s “Night Coming Tenderly, Black” series, seems utterly in step with Black Lives Matter, showing it’s a museum that not only ensconces the past, but lives in the present.
“Kwame Brathwaite: Things Well Worth Waiting For” at The Art Institute of Chicago Modern Wing, 159 East Monroe. On view through July 24.