London Calling: “Miss Black and Beautiful” Revisited
Photo: Miss Black & Beautiful Sybil McLean with fellow contestants, Hammersmith Palais, London, 1972.
Hailing from the Caribbean island of Grenada, photographer Raphael Albert (1935–2009) moved to London in 1953 where he became a freelance photographer working for black British newspapers. One of his earliest assignments changed the shape of his destiny, as he covered the Miss Jamaica beauty pageant for West Indian World.
Inspired by the spirit of the times Raphael began hosting local beauty pageants for black women before packed crowds at the legendary Hammersmith Palais in West London, a tradition that continued for more than three decades, into the 1980s. With titles like Miss Black and Beautiful, Miss West Indies in Great Britain, and Miss Grenada, Albert cast aside the European standards of beauty in order to shine a spotlight on the inherent beauty of the African race, showcasing women of all skin tones, hair types, and facial features in the mix.
For the first time, a major photography exhibition of his work is on view in Raphael Albert: Miss Black and Beautiful at Autograph APB, London, through September 24, 2016. Curated by Renée Mussai, the exhibition features more than 50 modern exclusive black and white fiber prints, color, and vintage photographs—many of which are being shown for the first time—as well as a selection of archive materials and ephemera.
Mussai observes, “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, fueled by complex (body) politics of national identity, difference and desire.”
Albert’s pageants were light years ahead of their times, creating representation on his own terms. In an era that was openly proclaimed, “No dogs. No blacks. No Irish,” without the reserve, Albert’s celebration of black beauty took a bold, powerful, and public stand against racism. His photographs reveal a world where young women embody a space entirely their own, one that recognizes and honors the many-splendored glories of the African diaspora. In doing so, Albert gave visibility to his people at their best, while simultaneously challenging the conventional standards of beauty as historically dictated by the West.
Miss Black and Beautiful is a brilliant document of the times, revealing the ways in which blackness is celebrated on its own terms. We can look at Albert’s photographs and see the power of one man’s determination to create a platform for the community, rooted in pride, consciousness, and love of self.
All photos: From the portfolio “Black Beauty Pageants”. Courtesy of © Raphael Albert/Autograph ABP.
Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.