The Black figure doesn’t request sensitivity, it demands it. From lighting to colour treatment to narratives, its portrayal and presentation require proper representation beyond visibility. A cohort of contemporary black photographers are doing just this: querying the colour-blindness of arts establishments by showing how these figures should be depicted. In ‘The New Black Vanguard: Photography between Art and Fashion’, an exhibition with accompanying publication at New York’s Aperture Foundation this autumn, curator and critic Antwaun Sargent brings together 15 artists (including Tyler Mitchell, Campbell Addy, Arielle Bobb-Willis, Nadine Ijewere, Renell Medrano and Dana Scruggs) all of whose work, according to Sargent, is ‘inclusive and reflective of a wider world – in terms of skin colour, body type, performativity of gender and class – and also captures, celebrates and expands the notions of beauty and agency’.
The New Black Vanguard catalogues photographs from trailblazers who are reconfiguring images of black subjects. They swap the lacklustre renderings and caricatures that have long been served to us by the media.
What makes these photographs important today is that they walk hand in hand with conversations about the historical omittance of Black people from mainstream media, from magazine covers and from catwalks. These artists are taking ownership: see Addy’s founding of Nii Agency, which caters to diverse casting, or Mitchell’s work as the first black photographer to shoot the cover for Vogue’s September issue in 2018.
Concepts of beauty are evolving as we step away from monolithic ideas. The politics of race, gender and class influence our aesthetic preferences; this, in turn, feeds into commerce and the objects and ideas we buy into.
These photographers attempt to confront and contort traditional fashion and art ideals by showing the black figure in terms it has frequently been denied: as desirable, as queer, as statuesque, as marketable.
Blackness has often been either exploited and appropriated or seen as something that has no currency in the marketplace.These photographs are as much about reclaiming authorship of the Black image as they are about proving its commercial viability.
‘The New Black Vanguard: Photography Between Art and Fashion’ will go on view on 24 October at Aperture Gallery, New York. The book The New Black Vanguard: Photography between Art and Fashion will be published by Aperture in October 2019.