“Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the finest of them all?” asks a young black woman in one of Carrie Mae Weems’s “Ain’t Jokin’” series. Her black Fairy Godmother emphatically proclaims it to be Snow White in this ironic 1987-88 photograph. By 2009, Weems suggests another answer in her video Afro-Chic. Both artworks are on view at the museum through September 29 in a major retrospective of the artist’s work, Carrie Mae Weems: Three Decades of Photography and Video.
Afro-Chic presents a fashion show staged by Weems displaying styles that harken back to the 1960s and 1970s. (You can preview the video online at http://carriemaeweems.net/galleries/afro-chic.html.) The models, who are both black and white, exhibit a greater variety of age and body type than the usual fashion show. They sport exaggerated Afros (wigs, in most if not all cases) and sometimes sassy, sometimes elegant clothing. Weems’s models strut their stuff with attitude and pride to the strains of Marvin Gaye’s tune “Sanctified Lady.” Each seems to believe she is the finest, at least during her moment on the catwalk.
Presiding over the models’ entrance are enormous images from the late 1960s and 1970s of black power activists Angela Davis, with her famous Afro (not a wig), and Huey Newton, holding a rifle in one hand and an African spear in the other. Iconic political figures of that era, Davis and Newton were also exemplars of the “black is beautiful” movement. The Afro was a key feature of black style. Adopting the natural, as the style was also called, liberated its wearers from time-consuming, expensive hair straightening processes used to emulate a Caucasian standard of beauty: straight hair.
The lust for straight hair wasn’t limited to blacks, especially during the 1960s and 1970s. Curly Caucasians like me also wanted the rigidly vertical hairdos worn by Twiggy and Cher, but slathering on goop and ironing away my coils provided only fleeting moments of success. Usually even before the clock struck midnight, my gilded coach turned back into a pumpkin. The black is beautiful movement helped pave the way for not just black but also white girls to accept our frizz and curls, to widen our standards of beauty beyond a single, culture-specific ideal.
The extensive influence of black culture on so-called mainstream culture is now widely accepted. Afro-Chic reminds us that that was not always the case while affirming the possibility of diverse ideals of beauty. This at first simple, upbeat, and humorous video is actually quite complex. Davis and Newton fought, and suffered, for radical social change. Their presence in the background of the fashion show asks us to contemplate how much, and how deeply, America has actually changed over the past fifty years.
Curator of Photography