Kwame S. Brathwaite, continuing the Brathwaite Legacy
We are honored to have the opportunity to spend time with Kwame S. Brathwaite, son of acclaimed photographer, Kwame Brathwaite, and Director of the Kwame Brathwaite Archive. Kwame S. is invested in building upon the revolutionary foundation that his family has laid, his path ablaze with high profile collectors including Rihanna, Jesse Williams, Gabrielle Union, Alicia Keys and husband Swizz Beatz already paying close attention.
Known for his significant role in documenting Black art, fashion and political movements between the 50's and 70's, his father’s photographs were largely responsible for popularising the phrase "Black is Beautiful". His father and uncle formed the African Jazz-Art Society & Studios (AJASS) in 1956 and Grandassa Models in 1962, in which his aunt, Nomsa Brath and mother, Sikolo, later played significant roles. These organisations established the movement as we know it today. Their groundbreaking show “Naturally 62” shifted the conversation of beauty and blackness in America forever. The fashion show featured Black women showing off their afros and dark skin proudly, in intentional defiant contrast with the mainstream euro-centric image of beauty of that time. Kwame Brathwaite’s visual documentation of these events was pivotal to the way Black culture was presented. In 2019, Kwame S. collaborated with Aperture Foundation and initiated a travelling exhibition to accompany his published book, named after the groundbreaking mantra and ideology “Black is Beautiful” in honor of the movement, its history and legacy.
We were intrigued to learn about Kwame S.'s upbringing in such a prominent household, which he describes as one “filled with love and respect for self” against a backdrop of reggae and jazz and the best coco bread he could remember. His grandparents emigrated from Barbados after all and we were keen to know of the Caribbean influences that shaped the family trajectory. We also discuss his own personal inspirations and advice for Black and Caribbean artists looking to make a global impact. Keep reading to hear more about the virtue of this important family, throughout the decades, and what more is to come in the future.
Childhood and Family
Your father, Kwame Brathwaite, and his brothers have had such an indelible impression on American culture. How was it growing up in your home, with respect to identity and blackness? How were your parents’ ideologies observed?
First, I want to say thank you for the opportunity to speak with LES ÎLES . It’s always a pleasure to be able to speak about my family and the work that continues to this day. We were brought up in a household filled with love and respect for self. "Black is Beautiful" was the theme to my father’s work and it was reflected in my household, but also in the household of Elombe Brath, my father’s oldest brother and John Brathwaite, his younger brother. We would often get together during this time to celebrate each other and the ancestors and our connection to the continent. There was a unique balance between spirituality, where my mother led the charge and our cultural connections to our Bajan roots and African Ancestry where my father led the way.
Was there a defining moment or memory for you, that has really influenced who you are?
For me, it was when I was 16 and worked as my father’s assistant that summer. We had spent time when I was younger playing chess for the most part, but he was always working. This was the first time that I was able to be with him learning his craft. We would go to various events, I would load cameras and occasionally make photos, but the time I loved most was spent in the darkroom. His process in developing his film and printing the images from the enlarger was incredible to watch. The technical mastery, his attention to detail, his desire to show the truth in each moment and his love for his craft were evident. I think it’s where I got to know him, not as my father, but as the artist. As I work on the project now, I am gaining a greater insight into the man, politically, emotionally and spiritually.
One of our favorite images is the iconic photograph of your mother, Sikolo Brathwaite, wearing a headpiece designed by Carolee Prince (pictured above). Can you tell us a little about your mother? We are sure she played a significant role in the Black is Beautiful movement, and would love to learn more.
I love that image. I love what it represents and conveys to the viewer. She is regal, intelligent, outspoken, a believer in what is right and a nurturer. She continues to challenge us to be our best in everything we do. She joined the Grandassa Models a few years after they had started. The first group of women on January 28, 1962, when the first show in Harlem took place, were Clara Lewis Buggs, Beatrice Cramston, Helene White (my aunt Nomsa Brath), Marie Toussaint, Wanda Simms, Priscilla Bardonelle, Black Rose and Esther Davenport. She, like the rest of the models before and after her, represented something incredible. A love of self by our standards, in a time when everything you saw, tried to tell you otherwise. All of these women were inspiring and are the foundation of the Natural Hair movement and embody Black Girl Magic. It was important that I made sure she was represented in telling his story because their relationship is a critical factor in his success. She is his lifelong love and muse.
As you know, we are a Caribbean community here at LES ÎLES, so we are eager to know how your Caribbean ancestry played a role in yours and your father’s ideology and work. Can you share with us, what Caribbean culture/teachings contributed to the family's creativity and motivations for creating societal impact?
Our roots were part of our everyday life, but the parts that dawned on me later was my father’s love of music. The interesting part is that although he started his career in photography photographing the Jazz concerts that AJASS put on, Reggae was the prevailing music in my house. Every morning I would be awakened by the voice of Robert Nesta Marley “Get up, Stand up”. My grandparents, Cecil Brathwaite and Margaret Maloney Brathwaite, both Bajan, were an entrepreneur (he owned two dry cleaners and tailor shops in Harlem) and a homemaker, respectively. Hardworking, intelligent and proud immigrants who worked hard to teach my uncles and father the value of hard work. I can still taste her cocobread from my childhood and have yet to find one as good. They inspired their children and my generation of Brathwaite’s and Brath’s were inspired creatives from visual artists, comedians and rappers, to scientists, educators and budget analysts. The influences of our parents and grandparents are rooted in the connection back to Barbados and to the diaspora.
Propelling your father's legacy across generations
The New York Times called your father's photography "the visual counterpart to Black Power". In the current BLM conversations, how would you describe the role that video and photography plays?
I have said that the reason that this movement is resonating so deeply is that we have the means to capture what is happening and to document the unfiltered, unaltered truth. Often in real time, from multiple sources. I believe this is why we see protests globally related to systemic racism, we have the technology to capture it and share it. It’s a means of connecting us and uniting us in a shared goal for equity and equality. It is a tool of resistance. My father was referred to as “The Keeper of the Images” partly because he was one of a few primary sources of information related to the diaspora prior to the information age. While my uncle Elombe was educating people about what was going on in the diaspora, my father was there photographing it all. Video and photography are critical in documenting our shared human experience and impacting change.
How do you feel your father’s work has contributed to the conversations in the current BLM movement?
The Black is Beautiful movement is the foundation of the Black Arts Movement and the precursor to the Black Power and now the BLM movement from my perspective. The visual influences that my father and others have had, like Gordon Parks, Ming Smith, Roy DeCarava and Dawoud Bey have all contributed to this conversation. His work, in particular, was both a love note to people of the African Diaspora and a call to action. Driven by his political ideals that were birthed from the teachings of thought leaders like Marcus Garvey, the ANPM and Carlos Cooks, he sought to change the narrative around how we embrace and love who we are naturally. AJASS and the Grandassa Models sought to make people truly believe that Black is Beautiful, just as the Black Lives Matter movement seeks to make people truly believe that reality. The way in which creatives/influencers, community activists, teachers, politicians and people from all walks of life embraced the BIB movement then is the way in which the BLM movement is being embraced now. The major difference is that the speed at which information travels is creating a global movement that is poised to make real change.
Tell us about the "Black is Beautiful" tribute in 2019. What inspired you to do it when you did?
The book was really the first of many projects that we thought would be a great way for people to experience his work outside of the fine art world. This is a global movement, but the story originates in Harlem with a group of creatives, led by my uncle Elombe Brath and my father that decided that they would challenge the status quo and inspire African people globally to be proud of themselves. My uncle and father, along with talented artists Chris Hall, Frank Adu, Bob Gumbs and Ernest Baxter began something that turned into a movement. After working to begin the archival process with Philip Martin of Philip Martin Gallery in 2014, he introduced us to Aperture Foundation. They quickly recognised his mastery of his craft and through a series of conversations and photo reviews decided to feature his work in an article in Aperture magazine, honoring him along with Inez & Vinoodh and Zachary Drucker at their Gala. Their decision to partner with us to release his monograph was one of the goals I had set out to achieve when we began this process. The icing on the cake was having collaborated with Dr. Deb Willis and Professor Tanisha C. Ford on the monograph, both incredible writers and whose contributions established the historical and current importance of the work and the movement. Once we were deep into the book review, they suggested that we add a touring exhibition which began in 2019 in conjunction with the book launch. That project that we began in 2017, is still traveling today and will be at The Blanton in Austin, Reynolda House, New York Historical Society and The Kennedy Center among others. It was an opportunity to introduce people to AJASS, the Grandassa Models and the beauty of his early work.
What other work have you done or continue to do, to preserve your father's legacy?
I am working on a number of projects that have really brought more people to be inspired by his work from lectures, to authoring essays in art books and licensing opportunities. A couple of projects of note was having a piece on Grey’s Anatomy in Jesse Williams’ character’s loft and most recently in the Docu-Series “By Whatever Means Necessary” with Decoder Media as a companion to Forrest Whittaker and Swizz Beatz’ series “Godfather of Harlem”. Another was working with fellow Bajan Rihanna in honoring the work as part of her Fenty launch in 2019. It was the connection to the island where both our families are rooted and the unapologetic and female focused nature of both her and his work that led her and the LVMH team to us. That pioneering spirit brought them together and rings true to the island as well. That focus on supporting Black creatives and to “buy black” still resonates almost two years later.
The importance of Black is Beautiful
Contemporary mainstream beauty standards are encompassing more diversity than before. What action has happened, or do you still hope to happen, to convince you that real progress is being made?
The standards that the Black is Beautiful movement started are certainly being embraced. More than ever, we are seeing more women embrace their natural hair. People like Rihanna started her own makeup, clothing and lingerie line. We have hair care products made by us for us and we are realising the power of our dollars. Buying Black is back in people’s minds and we are waking up. It’s incredible, but as the saying goes “A luta continua, Victoria es certa” which means “The struggle continues, Victory is certain”. It’s a process and we still have to fight to have representation not only in the beauty industry, but in all industries. The world that we inhabit must be equitable. There is quite a bit of work to do and we must find ways to tear things down and rebuild them properly.
Success and the Future
What do you identify as the greatest triumphs of the Black Arts movement?
The Black is Beautiful Movement was the beginning of the Black Arts movement in the 50s and 60s and fuelled the Black Power movement of the 70s. It changed the psyche of many so that we stopped measuring ourselves by other people’s standards. It allowed us to embrace our ancestry and empowered us to start believing in the beauty, intelligence, power and worth that is inherently in us. When you think of the ways in which Black culture is the heartbeat of modern culture, which is undeniable, there is no way that one can deny the power of Black Art. Acceptance is one of the most important gifts you can give yourself.
What advice do you have for Black and Caribbean artists who are looking to make an impact globally with their art? How can we lift each other up and make room for more voices to be expressed?
We have to support each other the way that we support major brands. There is such a focus on art from the diaspora and we must be careful not to forget our sisters and brothers in the Caribbean. There is deep and rich history on those islands and those stories must be told, shared, listened to. I am encouraged by storytellers like Ubikwist Magazine, artists/activists like Killer Mike, Jesse Williams and Senator Andrew Young in creating Greenwood Bank and young entrepreneurs like Blakely Thornton of Civil Jewelry, both who give back to Black and brown businesses. When we can buy black, we should go out of our way to support each other. This project has been organic in that I try to communicate with the people that embrace the work and try to make a real connection. However, no one achieves success on their own, it is imperative that you create and support your village. This is a community and we must continue to act as such.
What is next for you?
I’m currently working on a re-release of the "Black is Beautiful" Poster from 1970 in collaboration with the Studio Museum in Harlem to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of its release. I thought this was important for a number of reasons to work with the Studio Museum and after doing a talk moderated by Ms. Thelma Golden along with artist Arcnomoro Niles and hosted by Arthur Lewis and the UTA team, I approached her about doing something that represented the amazing history of both the work and the museum in representing Harlem. 125th Street is perhaps one of the most iconic streets in African American history with places like the Apollo Theater and Harlem State Office Building, but for us as well. The AJASS studio was just steps from the Apollo Theater and this is one of the places where various street speakers used to educate the community. It’s also now where a lasting tribute to my uncle Elombe exists. At the southwest corner of 125th & Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Blvd is Elombe Brath Way. I am also working with a group of creatives to produce a multimedia experience with music and the imagery, the first was “We Will Breathe” which was inspired by my father’s photographs, but also a charge to change the narrative around the the lives lost to terrorism against Black and brown people both sanctioned and unsanctioned. The other major project that I am working on, that I can speak of is establishing The Kwame Brathwaite Archive which will be the Foundation dedicated to the preservation of the archive, educational outreach and creating opportunities for supporting the next generation of artists/activists.
LES ÎLES Remarks
It is exciting, to say the very least, to see the seeds of the Black Arts movements continue to flourish. With revivals like the “Black is Beautiful” book and tour, and the incorporation of Kwame Brathwaite's imagery in Rihanna’s Fenty campaign, the legacy of the movement is very much alive today. His passionate ideology conduced to the Black Girl Magic we celebrate now, and the proclamation that Black Lives Matter. Just as photography played a critical role in highlighting the reach of the Black Lives Matter movement today, so was his family's work back in the 60s and 70s and well into the early 2000s. This type of immutable coverage, creating an opportunity for people to both authentically witness, and give constant intimate testimony that will forever be etched in history.
We are grateful to the Brathwaite family for their relentless dedication to Black Culture representation, having shattered stereotypes and established new standards for almost seven decades. Their activism to “Buy Black” has forged pathways for all diverse peoples, especially artists, to find their footing within the US. Through this inspiration, and continuous collaboration, we see boundless potential for the future of Black and Caribbean success throughout America, and the rest of the world.
We are truly excited to witness the work that Kwame S. is doing to continue the Brathwaite family legacy. He innovates for a new generation, to ensure a past is honored. That the underlying principles of intellect, pride and community, continue to inspire societal change.
The preservation of his family's legacy goes beyond the family's name and accomplishments. When he says "no one achieves success on their own, it is imperative that you create and support your village", he is true to his word, in lending his time, support, advice to new, smaller initiatives such as LES ÎLES and including the success of the Caribbean community within his sphere of influence. To this we are appreciative of the man who, like his parents and uncles, will undoubtedly impact this and future generations.
Written by Stephanie Ramlogan and Anjeni Ramtahal