Meet the Photographer Showcasing the History of Black Beauty Around the World

Photo by Jamel Shabazz
In "Posing Beauty," artist and scholar Deborah Willis, Ph.D. showcases striking photos of Black beauties over the course of history.

When multihyphenate artist and scholar Deborah Willis, Ph.D. recognized that African-Americans were often being left out of historical conversations about beauty, she took action, penning Posing Beauty: African American Images from the 1890s to the Present (W. W. Norton & Company, 2009). But her mission of sharing the collection of striking photos of Black beauties over the course of history didn't end there. The author, photographer-curator, professor and chair of the Department of Photography and imaging at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts, sought to transfer the pages of the wildly popular coffee table book to the walls of art galleries across the country.

"It was important for me as a curator to have [the collection of images] circulate in different formats," says Dr. Willis. "I thought the book was one opportunity to showcase the exhibition in print, and [having them displayed] in larger museums and university galleries was a way for students and the general public to have a closer view of the idea that beauty has been an essential discussion within African American culture since the 19th century."

Within a few short months of publishing Posing Beauty, Dr. Willis realized the dream of taking the show on the road—literally!—by kicking off a traveling exhibit. By 2010, the show had gone international, veering into Canada for its second stop.

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Today, you can catch Posing Beauty at the Northwest African American Museum in Seattle, WA, and it has plans to venture overseas next spring for its first exhibit in Europe at the iconic Mona Bismarck American Center for Art & Culture in Paris. "My mom had a beauty shop, so image was always very important to me. I wanted to unpack the discussion of beauty in African American culture in a major way and I was lucky enough to work with a publisher and traveling exhibition service that were encouraged by the idea."

No worries, if you're not in Seattle or don't have plans to travel to Paris in the spring, Dr. Willis was kind enough to share some of the exhibit photos with us. Click through for some of our favorite shots (including one of former Essence editor-in-chief, Susan Taylor, which also happens to be on the cover of Posing Beauty the book!).

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The exhibition is toured by Curatorial Assistance Traveling Exhibitions, and was organized by the Department of Photography & Imaging at New York University, Tisch School of the Arts, and curated by Deborah Willis, University Professor and Chair of the Department.

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