Skip to Main Content
Tags for: The New Black Vanguard
  • Magazine Article
  • Exhibitions

The New Black Vanguard

Vibrant, genre-breaking images between art and fashion
Barbara Tannenbaum, Chair of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs and Curator of Photography
October 26, 2023
Adeline in Barrettes
Adeline in Barrettes. Micaiah Carter, Adeline. 

“The beauty of photography,” says Ruth Ossai, “is it starts a dialogue about who we are, where we come from, and where we are going.” Ossai is one of 38 photographers in The New Black Vanguard: Photography between Art and Fashion, an exhibition organized by curator and critic Antwaun Sargent. These artists belong to a new visual vanguard Sargent has identified, a cadre of Black photographers who attempt to answer the above questions. Living and working in Africa and throughout the African diaspora, they use photography to open conversations about representation of the Black body and Black lives, to challenge the notion that Blackness is homogenous, and to present new perspectives on notions of race and beauty, gender and power. 

Image
Sarah, Lagos, Nigeria 2015. Namsa Leuba (Swiss, b. 1982). Image courtesy of Aperture, New York, 2019. © Namsa Leuba

The work of these artists revolves around fashion—fashion in the largest sense, from couture clothing and accessories to street styles and self-presentation. You may have seen their photographs in lifestyle, fashion, and culture publications; in ad campaigns for couture houses and major fashion brands; on the artists’ individual social media channels; or on the walls of museums around the world. They produce vibrant portraits and conceptual images that fuse fine art photography and fashion photography, breaking traditional boundaries between those genres and between the fine art and commercial worlds. 

Consider Tyler Mitchell, the first Black artist to shoot a cover of Vogue in its 125-year history. This American photographer and filmmaker was 23 years old and had recently received his BFA from New York University when Beyoncé chose him to shoot the cover and accompanying editorial feature for the magazine’s September 2018 issue. That photograph was acquired by the National Portrait Gallery in 2019, the same year Mitchell had a solo show at an Amsterdam photography museum, which later traveled to the International Center of Photography in New York City. Awol Erizku, an Ethiopian American, has had work published in Vogue, GQ, and the New York Times and exhibited at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Swiss Guinean photographer Namsa Leuba has produced fashion series for Edun and Dior and fashion campaigns for Christian Lacroix and hasbeen in exhibitions at the Guggenheim Bilbao and London’s Tate Modern. Fifteen artists are featured in the exhibition, each represented by multiple photographs. A salon wall presents a single work each by 23 additional Black photographers contributing to this movement. The 38 artists are an international set and span the globe from Lagos to London and Johannesburg to New York. The exhibition contextualizes their artwork through a display of past and present publications. The former chart the history of inclusion and exclusion in the creation of the Black commercial image; the latter propose a reenvisioned future for it. A video viewing area hosts continuous showings of 11 experimental videos and fashion films by artists in the show who have experimented with the moving image. 

Image
Lagos, Nigeria 2019. Stephen Tayo (Nigerian, b. 1994). Image courtesy of Aperture, New York, 2019. © Stephen Tayo

The photographs and films in The New Black Vanguard put Black bodies—which have heretofore mostly been excluded from fashion magazines and ad campaigns—at the center of fashion images as well as behind the camera, styling the images, and sometimes also designing the clothing. As photographer Campbell Addy notes, “Fashion has always been a barometer for measuring privilege, power, class, and freedom. To play with fashion is to play with one’s representation in the world.” The artists in the show challenge the notion of beauty as Eurocentric, expanding the canon to represent a dazzling variety of skin tones and body and hair types. Some of the artists in the show, such as Jamal Nxedlana and Addy, have even formed their own casting agencies to encourage other photographers, editors, and casting agents to employ diverse models. There are images in The New Black Vanguard that feature professional models with what seem like impossibly elongated and thin bodies, but there are many photographs showing models with the proportions that we see around us every day. 

Some photographers take fashion out of the studio and into their worlds. Quil Lemons, for instance, selected family, friends, and people he encountered as models. Lemons shot a seriesin South Philadelphia, where he grew up, that depicts his great-grandmother, mother, and sisters wearing dresses by Batsheva, who blendsVictorian and American prairie style. Erizku, a Los Angeles-based artist born in Ethiopia and raised in the Bronx, has a series called Untitled Heads. These portraits capture the colorful, creative hair- styles currently sported by his male friends from childhood. Nigerian photographer Stephen Tayo captures the exuberant styles of creative young people and elders on the streets of Lagos, which has a burgeoning metropolitan fashion scene. These artists draw our attention to the beauty, en- ergy, and impact of vernacular art and street style.

Image
Fire on the Beach 2019. Dana Scruggs (American). Image courtesy of Aperture, New York, 2019. © Dana Scruggs

The Cleveland showing of The New Black Vanguard offers a unique addition to the exhibition: fashion installations of clothing on mannequins created by three of the stylists whose work is fea- tured in the show. Although fashion and fashion photography have not been a major focus at the Cleveland Museum of Art, its collection contains exquisite and important examples of clothing and textiles from numerous countries and many eras. Our photography and drawing collections also contain fashion studies. And the museum has mount- ed exhibitions of garments over the years, most recently Opulent Fashion in the Church in 2017 and Fashioning Identity: Mola Textiles of Panamá, which closed a few months ago. In planning the Cleveland installation of The New Black Vanguard, I had a distinct advantage over the past curators addressing fashion: the chance to collaborate with two new staff members who are experts in the area. Eric and Jane Nord Chief Conservator Sarah Scaturro came to us from the Costume Institute at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. She founded the Costume Institute’s conservation department and is both a fashion his- torian and conservator. Darnell-Jamal Lisby, the CMA’s new assistant curator, came from Cooper- Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. A fashion historian, he has a thorough understanding of dress from the 14th century onward, but his particular interest is illuminating the intersection of Blackness and fashion studies in the 20th and 21st centuries. I have had great fun working with both.

Scaturro and Lisby were instrumental in the process of choosing the stylists and coordinating their installations. Their awareness of the history of fashion and how the contemporary world of de- signers and stylists functions has been incredibly beneficial in preparing for this exhibition. The stylists we chose are accustomed to dressing live models and arranging clothes for the motion of the model and the singular brief moments when the shutter snaps. Installing fashion on mannequins that will stand in a gallery for several months re- quires different approaches, all of which are quite familiar to Scaturro. She helped guide the stylists through the process of selecting a mannequin that would work well with their desired look (from a panoply of different manufacturers and styles). As only one of the stylists could be present in person for installation, the other two sent images of how they wanted their installation to look and watched virtually as Scaturro dressed their mannequins, a skill at which she is exceedingly proficient. A zhuzh (slight adjustment) here, a zhuzh there can make the difference between blah and brilliant in fashion.

Image
Late Leisure 2019. Jamal Nxedlana (South African, b. 1985). Image courtesy of Aperture, New York, 2019. © Jamal Nxedlana

Scaturro’s and Lisby’s specialized knowledge have also deepened our understanding of the photographs in The New Black Vanguard. Lisby explicated some of the meaning behind the clothing adorning the model in Leuba’s vividly colored and patterned photograph Sarah, Lagos, Nigeria (reproduced on this page and on the magazine’s cover). The image belongs to a 2015 series called NGL or Next Generation Lagos. It attempts to capture, says the artist, “the energy of the city of Lagos—its chaos, vibrancy, and determination— and seeks to translate that spirit into a unique Victorian and American prairie style. Erizku, a Los Angeles-based artist born in Ethiopia and raised in the Bronx, has a series called Untitled Heads. These portraits capture the colorful, creative hair- styles currently sported by his male friends from childhood. Nigerian photographer Stephen Tayo captures the exuberant styles of creative young people and elders on the streets of Lagos, which has a burgeoning metropolitan fashion scene. These artists draw our attention to the beauty, energy, and impact of vernacular art and street style. 

The Cleveland showing of The New Black Vanguard offers a unique addition to the exhibition: fashion installations of clothing on mannequins created by three of the stylists whose work is fea- tured in the show. Although fashion and fashion photography have not been a major focus at the Cleveland Museum of Art, its collection contains exquisite and important examples of clothing and textiles from numerous countries and many eras. Our photography and drawing collections also con- tain fashion studies. And the museum has mount- ed exhibitions of garments over the years, most recently Opulent Fashion in the Church in 2017 and Fashioning Identity: Mola Textiles of Panamá, which closed a few months ago. 

In planning the Cleveland installation of The New Black Vanguard, I had a distinct advantage over the past curators addressing fashion: the chance to collaborate with two new staff members who are experts in the area. Eric and Jane Nord Chief Conservator Sarah Scaturro came to us from the Costume Institute at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. She founded the Costume Institute’s conservation department and is both a fashion his- torian and conservator. Darnell-Jamal Lisby, the CMA’s new assistant curator, came from Cooper- Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. A fashion historian, he has a thorough understanding of dress from the 14th century onward, but his particular interest is illuminating the intersection of Blackness and fashion studies in the 20th and 21st centuries. I have had great fun working with both. Scaturro and Lisby were instrumental in the process of choosing the stylists and coordinating their installations. Their awareness of the history of fashion and how the contemporary world of de- signers and stylists functions has been incredibly beneficial in preparing for this exhibition. The stylists we chose are accustomed to dressing live models and arranging clothes for the motion of the model and the singular brief moments when the shutter snaps. Installing fashion on mannequins that will stand in a gallery for several months re- quires different approaches, all of which are quite familiar to Scaturro. She helped guide the stylists through the process of selecting a mannequin that would work well with their desired look (from a panoply of different manufacturers and styles). As only one of the stylists could be present in person for installation, the other two sent images of how they wanted their installation to look and watched virtually as Scaturro dressed their mannequins, a skill at which she is exceedingly proficient. A zhuzh (slight adjustment) here, a zhuzh there can make the difference between blah and brilliant in fashion. 

Scaturro’s and Lisby’s specialized knowledge have also deepened our understanding of the photographs in The New Black Vanguard. Lisby explicated some of the meaning behind the clothing adorning the model in Leuba’s vividly colored and patterned photograph Sarah, Lagos, Nigeria (reproduced on this page and on the magazine’s cover). The image belongs to a 2015 series called NGL or Next Generation Lagos. It attempts to capture, says the artist, “the energy of the city of Lagos—its chaos, vibrancy, and determination— and seeks to translate that spirit into a unique visual language.” The series features the clothing of young, cutting-edge Nigerian designers. The jacket in Sarah, by Ituen Basi Torlowei, integrates wax print fabrics, which derived from Dutch colonial trade, with Indigenous textiles like Akwete (a Nigerian handwoven fabric). Torlowei and other young African designers sometimes subvert techniques that arose through colonialism, converting them to their own, post-colonial vocabulary. 

Those designers, Leuba’s photographs of their work, and all the works in The New Black Vanguard could be described as visual activism, a term usedby Sargent. While the photographs and installations in the exhibition explore fashion, it becomes a vehicle through which to address issues of race and beauty, gender and power. As Mitchell declares, “To convey Black beauty is an act of justice.”