BY CHENE KOPPITZ
Chene Koppitz is the Communications and Marketing Coordinator at the Flint Institute of Arts.
FLINT – Growing up in the American south during the 1960s and 1970s, photographer Jerry Taliaferro rarely saw black women “portrayed as objects of desire,” despite knowing – and being personally affected by – beautiful African-American women. From his best friend’s lovely sister to the grade school teacher he believed “was the most beautiful woman ever,” the beauty the soon-to-be adult Taliaferro saw in his community was not reflected on television and movie screens, magazine pages, or billboards. When black women did enter the collective American consciousness, these women, although beautiful, fit within a Eurocentric notion of attractiveness. Where was “the jet black goddess with skin like glass, the caramel toned Amazon, or the great grandmother whose beauty defies time?” With these women and more in mind, he launched “Women of a New Tribe,” a traveling, multi-decade photographic celebration of the black woman.
Across the U.S., in spaces as varied as the Miami International Airport, the University of Arkansas campus, and the Flint Institute of Arts, Taliaferro asks the community to choose the women who appear in “Women of a New Tribe.”
In Flint, more than 100 women were nominated and 50 were randomly selected, with 49 women ultimately appearing in the FIA’s exhibition, which runs through April 15. Representing an enormous cross-section of the city’s African-American women, Flint’s “Women of a New Tribe” presents portraits of women from their 20s into their 90s, all photographed in sumptuous black-and-white, reminiscent of 1930s and 1940s Hollywood glamour photography. Criteria for nomination included having a positive impact on individuals and/or groups, assisting within the community, and creating positive change and all selected women provided three words or phrases to describe themselves. Words relating to family – daughter, mother, wife – as well as work were common, but one woman’s inclusion of “Lifelong Flintstone” should bring smiles to the faces of anyone familiar with that uniquely Vehicle City term.
Multiplicity shines through the images. Tight close-ups mix with nearly full body shots. Women in opulent attire appear next to women wearing uniforms. The chosen descriptors, which appear in the exhibition catalogue along with each woman’s portrait, offer viewers insight into the lives of not only these subjects, but also how African-American women see themselves in 2017.
Participant Audrey Dismond, photographed in a tank top and tool belt, said she thought for “a considerable amount of time” before choosing her three words.
“I settled on what has been my mission for all of my adult life, the empowerment of women,” she explained. Despite feeling somewhat limited, the trio she chose – warrior, entrepreneur, and retired – reflect perfectly on the woman featured in one of the exhibit’s most striking photos. Dismond “created [her] own platform” in the field of residential building (entrepreneur), but has since moved on (retired). She remains “forever highly motivated regarding” her mission to “fight fiercely for what [she] believes in – equality,” making her a lifelong warrior. As an out woman, she hopes her inclusion in “Women of a New Tribe,” as well as the “positivity in being proud of who God” made her, resonates with those who see the exhibit, “no matter what the sexual preference.”
Commenting on the challenges the show presents to traditional notions of feminine beauty, this Flint warrior noted, “Femininity is a misplaced barometer for womanly beauty. I patterned myself after a long lineage of strong women, unencumbered by gender norms and surrounded by love. I hope that my strength and confidence reaches those who may be struggling. No matter how you look, what you wear, or whom you love matters, you are worthy.”