“What began as an artistic curiosity for Deborah Willis turned into a sociological discussion a decade later.
Willis is the curator of “Posing Beauty in African American Culture,” an exhibit opening today at the Figge Art Museum in Davenport.
“I’d been interested in looking at the history of beauty in African-American culture and how it has been basically ignored as a conversation in art,” Willis said from her office at New York University, where she is the chair of and a professor in the photography and imaging department.
“I decided to look at beauty from the aspect of empowering and segregation. During the civil rights movement, there was evidence of people trying to debase black people based on difference,” she continued. “So I wanted to look at beauty in a different way, look how both black and white photographers photographed the black community.”
Willis combed through the photos in the archives of museums throughout the country, including the University of Iowa.
“When I conducted the research, I was amazed at the array of images that were there but had never circulated in a collection,” she said.
She found photographs dating to the 1890s, such as a portrait called “Desert Queen” and a beauty pageant for black women.
“Not objectifying women in terms of objects, but finding a sense of self-worth in a 30-year period after slavery,” Willis said. “People were not looking at them as desirable.”
The traveling exhibit, which continues through Nov. 4, has been touring the country for four years and spawned a book of the same title.
Willis, who will appear at the Figge to discuss the exhibit Sept. 27, said that “idealized beauty” has always been viewed “through the lens of the white woman.”
“That’s the negotiating that causes the basic trouble of how they look at the body,” she said.
The response to the exhibit, she said, has been beyond what she imagined.
“I was thrilled about it, but people were amazed. They were shocked,” she said. “Some people, in terms of blacks, said, ‘I didn’t know we looked like that.’
“It was heartbreaking to hear that.” “