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Saturday, April 20, 2024

Harn Museum hosts discussion with NYU professor Deborah Willis on Black art history

Prominent scholar curated exhibit currently on display

Growing up, professor Deborah Willis knew there was something missing from what she saw in her education and in popular media.

She took the matter into her own hands in 2009, when she curated Posing Beauty in African American Culture, an exhibit that features representations of Black beauty across an eclectic range of media from the 1890s to the present. 

“I really felt that the stories and images that I viewed in school did not represent the experiences that I had as a young person,” Willis said. “I wanted to think about how people felt during the experience of a history of not understanding why people could not see beauty in Black culture.”

Posing Beauty is now on display at the Harn Museum of Art, located at 3259 Hull Road, and will remain there until June.

Willis, who is chair of the Photography and Imaging Department at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, spoke at the Harn on Thursday evening in a discussion guided by Jade Powers, the museum’s curator of contemporary art.

Over 100 people attended the event, during which Willis elaborated on her inspiration and process for creating Posing Beauty. 

During the hourlong talk, Willis discussed the historical neglecting of Black art and culture by most museums and other institutions, the critical need for positive, non-stereotypical portrayals of Black people, and the many overlooked contributions of Black Americans to the country’s history. She specifically pointed out how crucial it is to celebrate Black beauty.

“Beauty, to me, is power,” she said. “And being empowered, and understanding what it is to create a language about beauty, is important.”

Willis has published dozens of works focusing on Black history, especially through the lens of photography, and has received several significant awards, including a MacArthur Fellowship.

Eric Segal, the director of education at the Harn and a historian of American art, effusively highlighted Willis’ contributions to the field.

“Her work has helped us to see that the history of American art isn’t just this narrow range of artists, mostly White or European immigrants,” he said. “Her knowledge and understanding and insights help us to really understand this nation and its history and its art history in a deeper way.”

After the talk, attendees were offered drinks, food and a chance to explore the Posing Beauty exhibit. 

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The public response was positive for both the discussion and the display, with many people recognizing the importance of showcasing the unique and often overlooked aspect of Black history that is the historical interaction between media, art and traditional standards of beauty.

“When I was growing up as a White person, I was never presented, like, ‘Here’s a Black person who is beautiful,’” said JoLaine Jones, a 65-year-old Gainesville resident. “It was always, beauty was blond and blue-eyed and silky hair.”

Helping to redefine conventional beauty standards and making them more inclusive was one of the main reasons she thinks this type of exhibit is so important, Jones said.

Gainesville resident Simone Mitchell, 30, noted the significance of promoting art that she feels accurately represents and celebrates Black people, culture and history.

“It was a wonderful experience to come enjoy a different side of art that you typically don’t see,” she said, comparing the works to more traditional museum displays such as ancient artifacts. “This is more beauty, fashion, realistic photos that we can relate to.”

Contact Ben at bcrosbie@ufl.edu. Follow him on Twitter @benHcrosbie.

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