SIKOLO BRATHWAITE met her husband in 1965 when he and his brother stopped her one day while shopping on 125th Street. He told her he was a photographer, gave her a business card, and said he’d like to take pictures of her. Sikolo was intrigued, but she was also suspicious of two men luring a young woman into an abandoned studio, so she brought a friend with her. âThat was pretty sketchy,â she recalls with a laugh. When she got to her Harlem studio, she saw walls adorned with beautiful pictures of black women of all skin colors. These were the Grandassa models, a fixture in the Black Is Beautiful movement, and Sikolo was soon to become one of them himself. (A year later, Kwame and Sikolo married.)
Brathwaite did not invent the term “Black Is Beautiful”; he, Elombe and their AJASS staff were inspired by the teachings of Marcus Garvey, who made this idea a cornerstone of the pan-African mass movement he built, which peaked in the 1920s. However, Brathwaite added visual vocabulary to this self-affirmation slogan. In the early 1960s, he and AJASS came up with the idea of ââbringing together a group of black women who, in the face of whitewash and hair straightening, could model natural beauty standards through fashion shows and studio portraits. The Grandassa Models – a riff on the ancestral term for the African continent, “Grandassaland” – would embody pristine beauty and pride.
And so on January 28, 1962, AJASS staged Naturally ’62: The Original African Coiffure and Fashion Extravaganza Designed to in a little Harlem club called Purple Manor, near the corner of East 125th Street and Lenox Avenue (now Malcolm X Boulevard) Restore Our Racial Pride and Standards, the first in a series of runway shows held twice a year until 1973, then sporadically until 1992. At their peak, the Naturally shows drew thousands of visitors. These were multifaceted affairs – fashion shows and African dance concerts, political meetings and cultural exhibitions. The models walked the catwalk in clothes they designed, inspired by the latest patterns and fashions from the urban centers of Africa: Accra, Nairobi, Dakar. Brathwaite began shooting the shows in color, capturing the vibrant hues of the clothes and the different skin tones of the models.
In keeping with this animating activism, Brathwaite often photographed the models around the world, at street markets and political rallies. A newly discovered picture shows two Grandassa models – including Nomsa Brath (Elombes wife) – lying down on the hood of a car with bold, earth-colored patterns in green, brown and gold, with a protest poster on which the pan-African flag in red, black and green proclaims âWant Work Build Africaâ. When Brathwaite took on more commercial work to complement his portrait and documentary photography, his lens stayed focused on the beauty of black wherever he found it.