Miss Black and Beautiful: The Beauty Pageant Photos of Raphael Albert

We spoke with Renee Mussai, the curator of Miss Black and Beautiful exhibit on until the 24th at the Autograph ABP in London, England.

Renee Mussai, is the curator of the Autograph ABP in Shoreditch, London—a museum with the stated mission of promoting black photography.

Its current and main exhibition—closing on September 24th— is "Miss Black and Beautiful," a selection of photographs by the great chronicler, Raphael Albert. Mr Albert photographed cultural events around London and aspiring models to build a portfolio, but the most notable are photos of the different beauty pageants he organised. This is the first major exhibition of his work since his death in 2009.

Mussai took some time to respond to a handful of questions we had about this phenomenal exhibit.

When did you first hear of Raphael Albert’s work?

In 2009 a former colleague of mine left a news clipping on my desk, from the Metro newspaper that she had read on her way to work that same morning. It was a miniature obituary for Raphael Albert, which mentioned briefly that he photographed black beauty pageants in London for three decades. Intrigued, I’ve kept it on my desk for a couple of years and eventually made contact with his family.

Renée Mussai

What's happened next?

I have been engaged in the preservation and curation of Raphael Albert's collection of photographs ever since—an on-going project that began in 2011 made possible by a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund to develop Autograph ABP’s Archive & Research Centre which addresses photography and cultural identity in Britain from the mid 1800s to the present.

In early 2011, we began working with two of Albert’s daughters, Victoria Albert and Susan Ibuanokpe, who temporarily deposited their father’s archive with us and supported the contextualisation process. The research aspect is on-going, and not yet completed.

What to you is special about Raphael Albert’s photography?

Albert’s photographs offer a rare insight into an ambiguous cultural performance at a particular historical conjuncture. Most importantly, the photographs in the exhibition offer a rare insight into an ambivalent cultural performance of gendered and raced identities at a particular historical conjuncture. As such, they serve as testament to a profound moment of self-fashioning and collective celebration in London’s pan Afro-Caribbean communities. His images are imbued with an exquisite, revolutionary sensuality and a certain joie de vivre, which I find refreshing and illuminating at the same time. Many of the models in 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 cultural politics of identity, difference and desire.

Of those that were selected for the exhibition and those that weren't, are there any personal favourites of yours or any you find particularly memorable?

For me, the catalyst to curate the exhibition was one particular photograph in the collection, that has since become one of my all-time favourite portraits: not a beauty pageant photograph as such, but a portrait of a young woman named 'Holly', presumably photographed in 1974, at Raphael Albert's home studio apartment on Blythe Road in Hammersmith.

Several prints of the same model feature in the exhibition. In my favorite image, a large-scale black and white photograph, incidental damage on the negative appears as a series of psychedelic bubbles on the surface of the print, imbuing ‘Holly’ and her photograph with an ethereal, dream-like quality which makes her portrait even more exquisite, and enigmatic.

We found her name and image on a vintage poster from 1974, where she performed as a go-go dancer at an event that also featured the popular British reggae band Matumbi. And incredibly, Holly has since been in touch with us – having heard about the exhibition on BBC Radio 4’s Woman Hour !

holly-apb "Holly" Photograph: Raphael Albert courtesy of Autograph ABP

Can you walk us through your curatorial process from when you decided to mount the exhibition up to when it opened in early July? What, if any, were the challenges or unexpected finds?

The sixty photographs in the exhibition were carefully selected from ten thousands of images - at the time uncatalogued, undigitised and largely rolled-up, uncut film material stored in boxes and bags for decades, a majority of the photographs are presented here for the very first time, and have never been printed before.

For this presentation, the artist’s first solo exhibition in a gallery or museum context, we decided to focus on the beauty pageants in the 1970s, and associated portraits of aspiring models in his home studio – although Albert's wider archive also includes a large selection of community photographs - christenings, weddings, family home portraits, as well as thousands of documentary images of performers and ‘club goers’, and other related cultural events.

The research aspect is on-going, and not yet completed – we are still captioning images, in the hope that we may identify further contestants and models by name. This involves archival research, looking at ephemera such as original adverts or event posters and inscriptions on vintage prints, as well as speaking with people who were around at the time and/or participated.

Could you paint for us the landscape of “black” photography in London of the 60s through to the 80s when Raphael Albert was productive? Who were his contemporaries?

This is impossible to answer in this framework. During the 1960s and 70s there was a small constituency of black photographers from primarily Caribbean background actively working in Britain. They included artists such as Armet Francis, Charlie Philips, Neil Kenlock who documented the British Black Panther movement or the filmmaker Horace Ové, as well as now celebrated Ghanaian photographer James Barnor, who photographed celebrities and fashion models for the anti-Apartheid South African Drum magazine during the ‘swinging 60s’ in London.

One could argue that Albert’s photographs offer a counter narrative to dominant photographic moments of the time, such as images of protest with raised fists locked in revolt, and other signs of discrimination and racial turmoil as often seen in the work of black photographers contemporaneous to Albert, such as Neil Kenlock and Armet Francis. Refreshingly, there are no signs of displacement or marginality, nor a sense of alienation in Albert’s portraits–his pageant images offer a different, and perhaps lighter, form of cultural resistance.

But it is equally important to remember that Albert’s photographs of the late 1960s and early 1970s were taken at a time of “No dogs. No blacks. No Irish” in a country irrevocably tainted by Enoch Powell’s 1968 “Rivers of Blood” anti-immigration speech, delivered only three years after the introduction of the 1965 Race Relations Act, the first legislation passed in the UK to outlaw racial discrimination on the grounds of colour, race, or ethnic or national origins.

A 1970s pageant winner. Photograph: Raphael Albert courtesy of Autograph ABP

Do we know if Raphael Albert meant his photographs to be exhibited someday, or were they strictly meant to document his different pageants for his own records?

Albert’s work was always intended for documentation as well as publication, and many of his images were published in local newspapers and his own magazine at the time.

In 2007, two years before his death, Albert co-organised a Black History Month display of his and other photographers’ work entitled Miss West Indies in Great Britain: Celebrating 30 Years of Beauty Pageants (1963-199) at the Hammersmith and Fulham Information Centre. As I understand from his daughters, it was indeed an ambition of his to present his work in exhibitions, and see it published as a book.

Is there a real difference between photographs intended for an exhibition when they’re taken, and those that are, at first, intended for personal records but are later shown to the public?

Very few images, especially in those days, were taken with the explicit agenda to have them exhibited. I think we must remember first and foremost, that we always view images from the standpoint of the present, and retrospectively attach meaning and context to them. Albert was a trained photojournalist, so while many of the photographs in his archive were indeed taken for personal records – such as his home-studio portrait photographs for local families, wedding or christenings portraits, which we deliberately did not include in this showcase – the beauty pageant portfolio constitutes a public record intended to be seen, and appreciated publicly.

Beauty pageants have endured and even thrived over the years despite accusations of objectifying women. But for the women who partook in contests like Albert’s, the platform and publicity afforded them were empowering especially in the London of the 60s, 70s and 80s. How do you negotiate these two arguments? Can they co-exist - objectification and empowerment?

Absolutely—one of the key arguments for me with regards to this project is about freedom: the freedom to choose to display one’s body in this context, to perform femininity and beauty in a way that is empowering, and inspiring.

It is of course important to see or read these photographs within a 1970s Black British context, a time and place where black women were largely invisible within mainstream arenas of ‘beauty’. Raphael Albert established dedicated black pageantry in order to create a distinct space where black women were able to both occupy and own the idea of ‘beauty’ for themselves, and without the need of conforming to Eurocentric ideals.

Fascinatingly, speaking of empowerment, one of the first people to stage a black beauty pageant was political activist Claudia Jones, who incorporated a beauty competition featuring twelve West Indian contestants in her first London carnival in 1959 – ten years before Albert first launched Miss Black & Beautiful, which celebrated the global ‘Black is Beautiful’ aesthetic of the 1970s in a local west London context.

On my first visit to the exhibition, I saw a call out on the wall asking for any persons in the photographs, or visitor who recognises any faces in the photographs, to get in touch with the gallery. Have you had any success finding them?

Yes, amazingly several models who feature in the exhibition have come forward during the past couple of months, and we have been busy annotating the caption sheet with names and details. It’s been truly astounding to see the positive reaction and support for the exhibition. We will host a closing reception on the last day of the exhibition on September 24th, bringing together some of the former beauty queens and contestants for an informal conversation and ‘re-union’, if you will.

Are there any other crucial curatorial decisions you took and would like to share with us?

For me, in many ways the beauty pageant context is only incidental in the wider narrative – more important is the fact that out of the sixty plus frames on the exhibition walls, every single one of them is occupied by a black woman, each beautiful and different in their own right, a deliberate curatorial decision. That is something one rarely encounters in a contemporary art gallery.

Sabo Kpade is a sifter for the SI Leeds Literary Prize 2016. He’s been shortlisted for the London Short Story Prize 2015 and was a finalist for the Beeta Playwriting Competition 2015. You can follow him on Twitter @Sabo_Kpade.


This Is What Rotimi's 'Walk With Me' EP Listening Party Looked Like

The Nigerian singer held an intimate listening party on the eve of the release of his new EP, 'Walk With Me,' at Brooklyn's Okay Space.

Walk With Me, Rotimi's new and highly anticipated EP, dropped Friday—giving us a seven-track peek into who the singer and actor truly is sonically.

The night before, the Nigerian-American crooner gathered over 100 tastemakers and day-one supporters to Brooklyn's Okay Space—the shared gallery space between Okayplayer and OkayAfrica—for an intimate listening party celebrating the release, as well as his music video for "Love Riddim" which also dropped this week.

The night was simply a vibe—folks enjoyed libations and bites from The Suya Guy, with sounds by DJ Tunez. Rotimi opened the gathering up with a thoughtful prayer, with the music video reveal to follow. The singer then walked the audience through each track from Walk With Me, opening up about the creative process of how each track came to life.

Following, Rotimi engaged in an even more in-depth Q+A session with OkayAfrica's arts and culture editor, Antoinette Isama, where he touched on his experience touring with Wizkid back in 2011, his thoughts on the continued rise in popularity afrobeats is having in mainstream music, his hopes for the future and more. Tunez then ran the EP back when the party ensued, as the project is full of tracks that are worthy of being on repeat.

Listen to Walk With Me below, and be sure to take a look at photos from the listening party by Nerdscarf Photography.

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CANNES, FRANCE - MAY 16: Director Ladj Ly and Almamy Kanoute attend the photocall for "Les Miserables" during the 72nd annual Cannes Film Festival on May 16, 2019 in Cannes, France. (Photo by Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images)

How To Survive Cannes Film Festival As a Black Filmmaker

A film festival is intense by nature, but Cannes is a whirlwind.

Cannes Film Festival is one of the world's most prestigious gatherings bringing celebrities, filmmakers and actors claiming to celebrate the world's best film. Although the festival is way behind Sundance or the London Film Festival regarding diversity efforts, it remains the place to be if you're a filmmaker—especially a Black one.

I, myself, am a Black French filmmaker who was invited to Cannes as part of their scheme for young film lovers—3 Days in Cannes—open to anyone between the ages of 18 and 28. The scheme, which launched in 2018, requires young hopefuls to write a cover letter showing their passion for film. It ultimately gives young people the opportunity to discover the international selection of films showed at Cannes.

READ: Black Women Are the Future of French Cinema—When Will Cannes Catch Up?

Being in Cannes for the first time was a wonderful experience, but it can be tough to navigate as a Black filmmaker if you're not prepared for it. So, here are top tips.

1) Don't be a person of color—especially if you're Black (Just kidding. But still.)

Cannes is a beautiful, posh city in the south of France. It is part of the Provence Alpes Côte d'Azur, an administrative region where the far right party Rassemblement National (formally known as the National Front) hits record-breaking highs. Despite the fact that the festival is incredibly international, at times it can feel pretty racist, like a sunny, idyllic version of 1960s Alabama, where a party of more than one Black person gets routinely rejected from some clubs/bars/restaurants. On top of that, the staff and some of the security working at the festival can be incredibly aggressive and rude to you and in French. If you don't understand it, it's even more confusing.

To avoid it, try to stick to the official Cannes parties, or hang out in international hotels like the Miramar or the Radisson Blu Hotel—which are used to an international crowd. You can also stick to parties at the various country pavilions near the Film Market.

2) Stick to the African Pavilion

At the festival, most countries have their own pavilion. But because the festival believes Africa is a country, all 54 countries are gathered in one pavilion. This pavilion also includes the Caribbean, since Jamaica, as life would have it, is also an African country. In the African Pavilion, there was even talk on how to submit films if you're a filmmaker of Indian descent (despite the fact that India had its own pavilion).

You're not African? That's okay, no one cares. Pan-Africanism is still alive, I guess? Thankfully, out of the many pavilions, I did find the African Pavilion was the best one the most welcoming and whose schedule was the most open and clear. Because Cannes is such an exclusive festival, most of the parties and talks won't be communicated outside of those who are supposed to attend.

The African Pavilion, however, requires you to sign up to their newsletter. You then access their app where you can see the schedule, the talks to attend and the party they planned. The only downside is that they were understaffed, so some talks and events were cancelled last minute and with limited communication.

If you're a Black French filmmaker, speaking English is a must to get the most out of the pavilion. If you're an English-speaking filmmaker, try to make friends or meet people who speak French, as some of the talks/discussions might not have professional interpreters.

Also, go to the events organized by diversity in Cannes. Now, if you're a Black filmmaker who would rather not stay in the community for fear of being pigeonholed? Unless you're part of a talent scheme run by the festival...good luck getting others to support you.

3) Be ready to WAIT to see films and to party

On average, I waited 1 hour 40 minutes for each film I wanted to see in the official selection program. And I purposely chose not to see the famous ones like the Pedro Almodóvar or Quintin Tarantino's films. I also waited almost two hours to see a film from the Un certain regard selection and didn't get in—despite my pass. Now, Un certain regard has the most highly sought after films, even more so than the Competition, because they tend to select the best among indie international films. To get in for sure, you need a "Un certain regard" pass, so they need to invite you themselves. Even if you have a ticket at the counter, you might not get in unless you wait two hours (standing) or choose to attend the early screening or the late ones (and still, you should be ready to wait 1 hour for these).

You need a pass AND a ticket to see the films from the official selection and walk the red carpet up to the Grand Théatre Debussy. For the ACID, Director's fortnight, Semaine de la critique, and the Official selection's films not shown on the red carpet, you just need a pass—and to be ready to queue for at least 45 minutes.

I wouldn't recommend getting the Cannes cinephile pass as it has a low priority. I saw people waiting 2 hours to see a film and not getting in, while people with professional Black passes arriving 10 minutes before the screening walking past them. Because the Cannes festival is for professionals, they have, unfortunately, priority over members of the public.

Now, with the parties at Cannes, word on the street is that they are not as legendary as they used to be. Even if you get invited to one, you still need to wait an hour. It's not because they are over capacity, but rather they feel the need to pretend that they are. Unless you're a VVIP. And if you're one, why are you reading my article?

Anyway, despite not being as glamorous as they used to be, they remain so exclusive that if your name is not on the list, you might need to sell your first born to attend.

Thankfully, you can avoid it by being smart. When I arrived in Cannes, I was dead set on going to parties to network. Since almost all of them are invite only, I went to the parties at the pavilions, like the UK one, the American one (which costs 20 euros because Americans are always about their money) and the African Pavilion—that were kind enough to facilitate networking by introducing me to fellow filmmakers. God knows how talking to strangers and building new relationships can be difficult, and they made it easier.

4) Make friends with distributors or people working for the Mayor's office

The whole point of the festival is to sell films. Tickets are sparse for most people, so some badge holders wear their Sunday Best and stand outside the grand theater, holding signs asking for tickets. It makes sense that distributors are incredibly powerful, since they have the power to buy and sell films internationally. They are given way too many tickets that should be given to people waiting for hours outside.

So, if you make friends with distributors, they will always have a handful of spare tickets, even for the big ones that everyone wants to see. They also have tickets for the big parties as well. Press badge holders also have priority since they are responsible for a film good or bad media coverage. So they have a handful of tickets too.

People working for the Mayor's office also have tickets because they work closely together since the festival brings so much revenue to the city. Make friends with them, as well as film students and you'll get tickets. Don't know where to find them? Social media is your friend.

There is also another way to get tickets to films: the staff. For example, I couldn't get tickets to see Mati Diop's Atlantiques. I walked to the ticket counter and saw a Black woman with a great hairstyle. My instinct KNEW I had to tag along. I asked her if she needed help. She was looking for the same tickets. We asked someone at the ticket office if they could help. They said they had nothing. But one of the staff members saw us and said she could try to help us. She came back with two tickets and that's how I got to see the film. I got lucky and was cunning. So be nice with the staff, they can help.

5) Be ready for anything

A film festival is intense by nature, but Cannes is a whirlwind. Since you're spending so much time waiting and walking from venues to venues, you won't have time to eat unless you bring food you've made before hand. You're not allowed to eat inside the theaters and if you walk the red carpet, you food is thrown out beforehand. You can try buying food and drinks in the morning and finish it by the time you walk the red carpet. I'd advise buying it at a supermarket like the pricey Monoprix. Or the nearby McDonald's. It's cheap, warm, almost always open and a great way to socialize! Young filmmakers, as well as those from Britain and the States will come to McDonald's to eat since it's one of the places they know best. Why not strike up a convo there?

Also, don't forget your power bank. Your phone will get out of battery for sure, especially if you post content on social media.

Finally, despite its reputation, the festival is incredibly badly organized. You will be told that your badge is not allowed to watch films at other selections, or you would be given the wrong directions and will be lost in the croisette on your way to see an obscure film.

Chill, be ready to walk and use Google Maps. And enjoy!


Julie Adenuga: "There Are Young Artists In Nigeria Who Are Changing the World"

In an exclusive interview, the Beats 1 radio presenter opens up about her Nigerian heritage, documenting Homecoming in Lagos, and London being an important hub for afro-fusion sounds.

Julie Adenuga sits at the intersection of two continents.

As an affable tastemaker who transforms banal interviews into engaging conversations with some of the most famous artists in the world, Julie is leading the global dialogue on new music from her daily radio show, which broadcasts to over 100 countries.

The North London native of Nigerian descent hails from a musical family, her brothers are artists Skepta and JME, and has risen from the underground as a self-taught presenter on former pirate radio station Rinse FM to being one of three lead DJ's with her Beats 1 show on Apple Music.

A champion of homegrown talent in the UK and across the African diaspora, Julie is a purveyor of the afro-fusion genre, as is evident in her recent Homecoming documentary, which captured the fresh innovators from the Lagos music scene, and her DON't @ ME club nights, which has featured Ghetts, Lady Leshurr and The Compozers as residents.

Chosen as one of OkayAfrica's 100 Women celebrating extraordinary women from Africa and the diaspora, we speak with the presenter and broadcaster on owning her Nigerian identity, the responsibility of spreading afrobeats and why London is a key location for the genre.

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