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2 Local Exhibits Celebrate African-American Fashion and Beauty

Bellevue Arts Museum and Northwest African American Museum feature must-see shows. See both with one ticket

Leah Abraham

Published on: June 07, 2016

Two new exhibits in town celebrate the depth and beauty of African-American culture. The first, Inspiring Beauty at Bellevue Arts Museum (BAM), honors five decades of fashion in Ebony magazine; the second, Posing Beauty at Northwest African American Museum (NAAM), asks what it means to be beautiful in American society. Both are excellent opportunities to talk with your child about art, beauty and diversity.

Inspiring Beauty: 50 Years of Ebony Fashion

If you like glitz and glam with a large sprinkle of pizazz, then this is the exhibit for you. Inspiring Beauty: 50 Years of Ebony Fashion Fair, a touring exhibit organized by Chicago History Museum, showcases the best of the best fashion ensembles from Ebony Fashion Fair, a traveling fashion show that toured the country from 1958 to 2009 and was hosted by Johnson Publishing Company and its publication Ebony. The exhibit will be at BAM through August 12.

Eunice W. Johnson, director and producer of the Fashion Fair, is known for not only opening doors for African-American designers and models — whose opportunites were particularly limited in the mid-1950s — but for also inspiring a cultural and social transformation. 

Patrick Kelly's 1986 evening dress | Photo credit: John Alderson © Chicago Historical Society

Showcasing couture that spans decades, the exhibit is a runway experience in and of itself. At every turn, you’ll find regal gowns, deep and muted ensembles, spectacular costumes and electric prints. That’s to be expected when names such as Christian Dior, Givenchy, Yves Saint Laurent and Valentino are part of the 40-some featured designers. 

Some pieces step beyond the boundaries of fashion and cheekily toe political lines, such as Patrick Kelly’s whimsical and rousing evening dress. The long-sleeved, wool-knit black evening gown has embedded plastic buttons that carve out two eyes and giant red lips, perhaps alluding to the infamous history of blackface. Other works, such as Pierre Cardin’s blue sequined evening gown with tiered, mermaid-style hoops for a skirt, are playful works of art that helped the Fair earn its spot in the forefront of the fashion battleground. 

How to engage kids at the exhibit

This exhibit is ideal to take kids who are interested in history, fashion and/or publishing. It is also an ideal place to explore questions like “What constitutes ‘fashion,’ ‘beauty’ and ‘art’?”

Research the Fashion Fair and Ebony  before attending the exhibit. That brief history lesson will help you appreciate the exhibit better and allow kids to better understand the role Johnson’s work played at the dawn of the Civil Rights Movement. 

Note: Photography is not allowed. Also keep those curious hands away from the mannequins and pieces on display — this is not an interactive exhibit.  

Posing Beauty in African-American Culture

In a time where selfies are abundant and “Instagramming” a colloquial verb, NAAM’s newest photography exhibit, Posing Beauty in African American Culture, asks us to redefine the concepts of “posing” and “beauty.” 

Lauren Kelly's 2007 work Pickin' | Photo credit: Northwest African American Museum

Featuring more than 70 photographs that span more than 100 years of history, the exhibit explores how African-Americans have historically been seen and how they wished to be seen. The overlapping themes of “posing” and “beauty” transform this exhibit into a too little shared narrative.

Look for work from artists including Anthony Barboza, photojournalist, historian and artist whose work has appeared in The New Yorker, National GeographicVanity Fair and more; Charles “Teenie” Harris, photographer whose subjects include Muhammad Ali, John F. Kennedy and Louis Armstrong; and Carrie Mae Weems, Portland-based, mixed-media artist who is praised for her striking work with digital images and audio-visual installations. 

The first half of the exhibit challenges the notion of posing: How do you want to be seen and how are you portrayed? You’ll find elegantly composed photos of cultural icons such as Michelle Obama, Serena Williams and Michael Jackson.

Elsewhere in the exhibit, photographers challenge the portrait of African-Americans so often depicted in white media. Richard S. Roberts’ double portrait of a woman — one where she’s wearing a white apron and a ghost-like smile and the other where she’s wearing a beaded necklace but has a softer facial expression and relaxed posture — focus on how attire and identity affect a person’s self-perception. 

The second half of the exhibit asks “Where does beauty reside?” Is it in the hair, face, skin, attire, character or something else? In her self-portrait, photographer Lauren Kelley dons a crown of hair picks over her afro. The picks, a similar shade of brown as her skin and the background, have fist-shaped ends reminiscent of the 1960s symbol of the Black Power movement.

Other works, such as Henry Clay Anderson’s shot of a middle-class African-American women in a beauty pageant or Bayeté Ross Smith's series of students posing at prom offer simple, everyday snapshots of African-Americans — depictions that are rarely seen in mass media.

How to engage kids at the exhibit

Kids interested in history, art and/or photography, or kids learning about the Civil Rights Era will enjoy this exhibit. The photographs will help match a face and a story to facts and figures. 

Some questions that will help kids better understand the feature work: How does this photograph and/or the subject make you feel? Do you think the photographer wanted you to feel this way? Why is the subject(s) posing this way? Do you think this piece is “beautiful”? Why or why not? 

Note: Photography is not allowed and some of the photographs have nudity.

If you go...

When: Inspiring Beauty runs until August 14; Posing Beauty until September 4.

Where: Inspiring Beauty is at Bellevue Arts Museum (BAM), 510 Bellevue Way NE, Bellevue, WA, 98004. Posing Beauty is at Northwest African American Museum (NAAM), 2300 S Massachusetts St, Seattle, WA, 98144.

Hours: BAM is open Tuesday through Sunday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. and is closed Monday. NAAM is open Wednesday through Sunday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. (open till 7 p.m. on Thursdays) and is closed Monday and Tuesday. 

Parking: Both venues offer free parking.

Tip: BAM and NAAM have a reciprocal admission policy for these two exhibits. If you purchase an admission ticket for one, you’ll get into the other for free. Offer lasts until the BAM show closes on August 14.

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