The first major exhibition of photographs by the late Raphael Albert (1935-2009), cultural promoter and photographer of black beauty pageants in west London from the late 1960s to the 1980s.
For more than three decades, Albert documented hundreds of popular dance, music and community events while building up a portfolio of portraits of aspiring models. His long and successful career as a promoter and chronicler of beauty pageants included the establishment of Miss Black and Beautiful, Miss West Indies in Great Britain, and Miss Grenada. Albert, who came to England from Grenada in 1953, also founded his own magazine Charisma in 1984, and associated modeling school.
In response to contemporaneous mainstream fashion and life-style platforms where black women were largely absent or at best marginal, these competitions celebrated the global ‘Black is Beautiful’ aesthetic of the 1970s in a local context. Together with the obligatory bathing costumes and high heels, contestants often sported large Afro hairstyles, inventing and reinventing themselves on stage while articulating a particular black femininity as part of a widely contested cultural performance. These pageants offered the opportunity to create a distinct space for Afro-Caribbean self-articulation, a wager against invisibility, and importantly, a site to challenge conventional notions of beauty implicated in the social, cultural, and political contexts of the time.
The exhibition’s curator, Renée Mussai says: ‘This historical archive offers a unique and fascinating collection of rarely seen photographs that document the ambivalent cultural performance of gendered and raced identities at a particular historical conjuncture. Imbued with an exquisite, revolutionary sensuality and a certain joie de vivre, Raphael Albert’s photographs embody an aura of hedonistic confidence in a new generation of black women coming of age in Britain during the 1970s, fuelled by complex (body) politics of national identity, difference and desire.’
After Albert’s death in 2009, Autograph ABP began working with two of the photographer’s daughters, Vikkie Albert and Susan Ibuanokpe, to preserve his extensive collection of negatives and prints – a dedicated portfolio is now represented as part of the Autograph ABP Archive & Research Centre.
The exhibition will showcase over fifty modern exclusive black and white fibre prints, colour and vintage photographs, as well as a selection of archive materials and ephemera. Many of these photographs are now shown for the first time as a curated selection, carefully selected and produced from original negatives.
Initial research and preservation of Raphael Albert’s archive in 2011 was supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund