Why These Photos of 1970s Black Beauty Pageants Matter Now

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Miss Caribbean Queen with fellow contestants
Miss Caribbean Queen with fellow contestants, Hammersmith, London, 1970s, from the portfolio 'Black Beauty Pageants'Courtesy of Raphael Albert/Autograph ABP

For over 30 years, Grenada-born Raphael Albert photographed west London's black beauty pageants, creating a record of cultural identity that's set to go on display in a new exhibition

Who? It was a small newspaper obituary found in 2009, marking the sad passing of photographer and cultural promoter Raphael Albert, that first sparked the recovery of his striking portfolio of images documenting black beauty pageants in 1970s London. Now, some seven years later, Autograph ABP’s upcoming exhibition Raphael Albert: Miss Black and Beautiful is the result of a five-year research inquiry led by curator Renée Mussai, in collaboration with Albert’s two daughters, Vikkie Albert and Susan Ibuanokpe, and it chronicles a unique and rare presentation of black femininity.

Albert was born on the Caribbean island of Grenada in 1935, and moved to London in the 1950s, studying Photography at Ealing Technical College before freelancing for a slew of black British newspapers. A great entrepreneur, Albert published his own magazine, entitled Charisma, at the same time as running his own modelling school, Albert’s Girl Academy of Modelling – thereby createing a network of interlinking platforms which countered the narrow, Eurocentric beauty ideals that marginalised and excluded black women in popular media. "These spaces existed simultaneously and cross-fertilised Albert’s converging interests in the promotion of black beauty," says Mussai, "provid[ing] areas to help young black women build confidence and become more visible." For over three decades, Albert's lens captured the layered visual culture of London's black beauty pageants, many of which he started himself – namely Miss Black and Beautiful, Miss Teenager of the West Indies in Great Britain, and Miss West Indies in Great Britain.

What? Albert’s photographs, largely rendered in black and white, radiate an unrelenting sense of celebration, where local community events re-centred the ‘Black is Beautiful’ movement of 1960’s America within a British context. While they adopt conventional markers of pageantry, these contests existed to champion a markedly different beauty ideal to that which was expounded elsewhere in mid-century Britain, creating spaces in which a new generation of young black women could affirm their identity. "The contestants’ obligatory bathing costumes and high heels are often combined with large Afro hairstyles, performing a particular black femininity as part of a widely contested and ambiguous cultural performance," says Mussai. "Albert’s photographs serve as testament to a profound moment of self-fashioning and collective celebration in London’s pan Afro-Caribbean communities: there is a genuine sense of joy, and unvarnished pride."

Why? Albert's photographs expose the distinctive visual language of black British beauty, and offer an unparalleled insight into the frameworks that facilitated that expression – a cultural moment that could have escaped the history books had it not been for his astute eye. In this, the photographer's first solo exhibition, 60 photographs will go on display – chosen from an archive of over 30,000 negatives many of which have never been seen before. Although these images date from the 1960s, '70s and '80s, their relevance within this particular contemporary climate is undeniable, and incredibly timely.

"The context of the beauty pageants and all their ambivalent cultural signifiers opens up a fascinating space for discussion in terms of positioning and self-representation," Mussai notes, "historically, as well as considering the recent furor caused by Beyoncé’s latest album [Lemonade, 2016], for instance. It is evident that discussions focused on black women, sexuality and self-image are as potent now as ever."

Raphael Albert: Miss Black and Beautiful runs at Autograph ABP, Rivington Place from July 8 until September 24, 2016.