At Arbor Acres, we have a renewed focus on identifying opportunities in and around our community that celebrate diversity, equity and inclusion in a purposeful and engaging way. Little did we know that the perfect vehicle for this revitalized effort would come to our city and be housed at Reynolda House, just down the street.
A group of residents toured the “Black is Beautiful” exhibit with curator Allison Slaby, who shared the intriguing story of how the exhibit came to be: Kwame Brathwaite, a photographer and activist in the 60’s, chronicled the second Harlem Renaissance through his photography. However, it wasn’t until his son, Kwame S. Brathwaite, dedicated a book of his father’s work in 2019 that Brathwaite’s art became well-known.
The attendees learned about Grandassa Models, a black modeling agency that countered the white beauty standards of the time and viewed the African-influenced clothing that dominated the fashion scene. They saw the powerful stances of the young subjects in Brathwaite’s photographs and admired the activists who shut down wig shops in support of natural hair. They glimpsed the fabric of black culture during this period of American history and reflected on their own experiences that were happening concurrently.
After the tour, Dr. Allison McWilliams from Wake Forest University led the group in a thoughtful discussion about self-identity. A few questions she challenged them with:
- Can you think of a time when you felt beautiful, and your whole being was accepted?
- Think about a time in your life when you lifted someone up to allow their beauty to shine.
- What is the story you are telling about yourself in this phase of your life?
She invited the attendees to bring photographs that hold some level of personal meaning, and everyone weighed in on what can be taken away from each other’s photos. Here are a few points the group concluded:
- Photos change meaning over time.
- Photos are a moment in an unfolding, changing story.
- Photos mean different things based on our frame of reference and personal experiences.
Dr. McWilliams’ worthy questions challenged their existing ideas on the power of self-identity. “We always have the opportunity to define ourselves, for ourselves,”, she stated at one point, tying the discussion back to Brathwaite’s exhibit.
As a bonus to the tour, Allison brought the group to a room in the Reynolda House see the museum’s newest acquisition: an authentic Sargent painting donated from a local private collection!
All in all, a thought-provoking day about how our unique experiences create the world around us, and how we each have the power to establish (and continue establishing) a sense of self.
Many thanks to Dr. McWilliams, WFU, and Allison Slaby and Steven Dragisic of the Reynolda House Museum of American Art for providing such an intimate, reflective experience; thanks also go to Suzy Vaile, Wellness Arts Coordinator at Arbor Acres, for coordinating the trip.