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Things Well Worth Waiting For: Kwame Brathwaite’s Vision Of A New World

Written by on June 26, 2023

The visionary show, running at the Art Institute of Chicago until July 24, builds upon the reputation of Brathwaite’s Black Is Beautiful exhibition, further illuminating the expansive work of the late photographer and writer.

Untitled (Self-Portrait Taken in AJAS Studio), about 1964
Kwame Brathwaite. Promised gift of Ralph and Nancy Segall. © The Kwame Brathwaite Archive

This summer, throngs of suntanned crowds will undoubtedly head to the Art Institute of Chicago’s blockbuster exhibition Van Gogh and the Avant-Garde: The Modern Landscape; but tucked away in the museum’s Modern Wing, another show is well worth checking out… While surrounded by gorgeous gelatin prints, album cover and luminous color-drenched slides, Things Well Worth Waiting For: Kwame Brathwaite is worth lingering in, as well.

Grace Deveney, the David C. and Sarajean Ruttenberg associate curator at the Art Institute was responsible for bringing the show to fruition. She explained to an audience on May 25 at the Institute that, in curating the show, she pulled from “Brathwaite’s rich archive of photographs taken around the globe, the magazines he contributed to as a music reviewer, the albums which featured his work on their covers, and the color slides that gave vivid sense to the many musicians, models, and everyday people he photographed.”

Named after Brathwaite’s 1976 review of the then-highly anticipated Stevie Wonder album Songs in the Key of Life, the show focuses primarily on the 1970s era of Brathwaite’s prolific career. Deveney noted that Brathwaite chose the title for his article “to assure readers that the album, which was a little bit delayed, was going to be well worth waiting for,” adding that he used the phrase “as a refrain throughout this preview to talk about long scales of time related to social justice and other forms of human progress. It really, for me, spoke to something really core about his ways of seeing and thinking about the world. I wanted to bring that sense to the exhibition.”

Untitled (Stevie Wonder Headlines Human Kindness Day at the National Mall, Washington, DC), 1975
Kwame Brathwaite. The Kwame Brathwaite Archive and Philip Martin Gallery. © The Kwame Brathwaite Archive

A previous Aperture and Brathwaite-organized Black Is Beautiful show in 2018 focused primarily on his 1960s output, including his album cover work for the venerable jazz label Blue Note Records. Things Well Worth Waiting For: Kwame Brathwaite, showcases material that was (for the most part) not utilized in the previous show, serving in a sense as a continuation of the timeline evidenced in the earlier show. Brathwaite retired in 2018, and left this earth April 1, 2023, about five weeks after the opening of Things Well Worth Waiting For.

Kwame Samori Braithwaite, the photographer’s son, has organized numerous projects related to his father’s legacy, including Black Is Beautiful, as well as exhibitions such as The Struggle Continues, Victory Is Certain, Changing Times, and My Village. For this show, he explained to me that he and Deveney “venture a bit into not just his photography, which is obviously a big part of what and why people know him, but you get a sense of his voice because his writing is in the show as well. One of the things that was the thoroughfare in his work is the way in which music inspires us. Music is the heartbeat of our culture. So, music was this throughline that Grace, I think, so eloquently captured in the way she plays the show.”

On May 25, I sat down with Brathwaite’s son, to discuss his father’s legacy as evidenced by Things Well Worth Waiting For. My entry point to his father’s work began in the 1990s with the arresting cover imagery of my secondhand copy of Lou Donaldson’s album, The Natural Soul, so I began our encounter with the record in tow.

Culturally, it was so resonant for me in so many ways.

The Natural Soul LP, Freddie Hubbard ([1970s reissue]), album cover photography by Kwame Brathwaite

I asked him, “Much of your father’s work is sort of rooted in what I like to call commercial material culture. So, not stuff made for museums, necessarily, not stuff made to be put in a golden frame, but things that were made to live and breathe in people’s homes and in people’s lives. I wonder, was that something that was important to your father, to get these images out into the hands of people, to inspire people?”

Kwame Samori Brathwaite replied, “For him, it was about projecting these images of beauty, of pride, of self-love out into the world.”

Brathwaite and his contemporaries associated with AJASS, or the African Jazz Art Society & Studio, brought jazz players such as Lou Donaldson and Freddie Roach to their Club 845 in the Bronx and to Smalls Paradise and the Apollo Theater in Harlem to perform for concerts. Over time, explained Kwame Samori, the AJASS members “built the relationship and the trust to say, ‘Hey, let’s put the image out that we want to see.’ And so, it was very intentional.”

Pointing to my teal-toned record album, sporting an image of a smiling young Black woman on its cover, Kwame Samori continued. “I was talking to someone one time and they actually had this exact album cover, and they said they actually did frame it and had it hanging on their wall as art. The fact that it is also my aunt is a really wonderful kind of side note; but Nomsa Brath was an educator, an activist. She ran for school assembly speaker and all these different things, homeschooled four of my six male cousins. It was all based off of this grassroots community-based way of projecting imagery out into the world.”

The image of Nomsa Brath, from the perspective of the modes of the 1970s, is not that revolutionary. But this was not the 1970s. This was 1963, when the natural look was still considered extremely revolutionary for a Black woman. Additionally, the image is of a brown-skinned woman. That wasn’t a common representation of beauty in mainstream culture. There were a few exceptions: among them Cicely Tyson starring as a social worker on the short lived, yet critically acclaimed, television program East Side, West Side that ran from 1963 through 1964. Her hair was styled in a low Afro style on the show, but the look was against the grain, even in the Black community. The first time she graced the cover of Ebony magazine (in December of 1962), the Broadway actress was the subject of a feature on wigs. In her cover shot she was clad in a chestnut brown bouffant wig, while in the right hand corner a small inset shot of her natural hair was used to illustrate a “before” and “after”. But generally speaking, in terms of the national mainstream media, the look was still very rare in America until later in the 1960s.

Ebony Magazine, December 1962, author’s own.

Beyond static printed work, the senior Kwame Brathwaite worked tirelessly with aesthetic culture, including physical manifestations of Black culture. Things Well Worth Waiting For presents delicious color film of a 1967 fashion show that took place at the famed Apollo Theater in Harlem and featured multiple modes of fashion from the African Motherland and the Diaspora, resulting in a delightful presentation of a Pan-African standard of beauty.

Kwame Samori contextualized the effort thusly, “I think the entire concept of ‘Black Is Beautiful’ derived from [Marcus] Garvey and then Carlos Cooks and the African Nationalist Pioneer movement. They embraced that and they incorporated that. They would often do these shows that were featuring the Grandassa Models, these women who had lived this aesthetic of Black Is Beautiful and embraced their African ancestry. But they lived it. It wasn’t just for the show; they lived it.

And then, as part of those shows, there was often jazz. There were people like Lou Donaldson, Abbey Lincoln and Max Roach, all performing. But then there was what they called edutainment. There was satirical skits. There were things that were talking about Black culture in the way in which people were experiencing it during that time. Part of that was to recognize that the fashions that the women were wearing were created oftentimes by, whether it was Carol Lee Prince who was a designer who was doing a lot of the jewelry and the fashions, or other women who had then started to say, ‘Okay, let me pick up my sewing machine and start doing things that represented the standards of beauty for us.’

So, there was not just the ideological thing, but it was also the practicality of living it. At one point, they had a cafe, which was called Grandassa Land, and you could go and get food and you could go and spend time and talk about the things that were happening in that day.

But ultimately, all of it was really to build this bridge throughout the Diaspora. One thing that people don’t necessarily know is that, a lot of times, when freedom fighters from different African nations were coming to petition the UN, they would meet them there and say, ‘Hey, come talk to the people in Harlem. Let’s bring us together. Let’s make this an exchange.’ That then became the ultimate support for places like African Nationalist Pioneer Movement, UNIA and other organizations that then said, ‘Okay, let’s help. Let’s figure out how we can help each other in the United States. Let’s help each other back on the continent. But let’s help each other throughout the diaspora.'”

Naturally ’63 portfolio, issued by the Grandassa Models, circa 1963.

Things Well Worth Waiting For: Kwame Brathwaite presents a fascinating series of documents, illustrating a pulsing, dynamic community centered in New York City (including rare ephemeral material such as the Naturally ’63 portfolio, issued by the Grandassa Models), but also puts into close focus how the philosophies that fueled the artist’s work had wide reaching impact, even on the other side of the globe.

Kwame Brathwaite shared that at his father’s funeral in April, “the president of Namibia sent his delegate and talked about the fact that his role in Pan-Africanism and to help Namibia specifically gain its liberation was a big reason why they felt that he was just a giant in this world. So, the way in which he was ensuring that we were thinking about it ideologically, but practically and how we lived it was throughout the way in which he placed his work and the way he went about his photography.”

Things Well Worth Waiting For: Kwame Brathwaite runs in the Modern Wing of the Art Institute of Chicago until July 24.

Kwame Brathwaite, Untitled (Garvey Day, Deedee in Car) About 1965, printed 2018, Inkjet print, 40 × 60 in. The Art Institute of Chicago,  promised gift of Dr. John E. Ellis © The Kwame Brathwaite Archive

Written by Ayana Contreras

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