Hampton University Museum – Challenge Semi-Finalist

Covers of Hampton University Museum's International Review of African American Art (IRAAA) print journal.
Covers of Hampton University Museum’s International Review of African American Art (IRAAA) print journal.

Our adaptive challenge

Because the standard perception of black feminine beauty is based on a diminution of the Africoid aspects of black women’s physical features and results in the frustration of African-looking women trying to achieve a beauty that is impossible for them, the Hampton University Museum is developing Seeing Beauty in Difference (SB), an open-access, interactive project on its IRAAA+ webzine. Through an intergenerational conversation between art experts and the broader population on IRAAA+, SB will develop a flexible, pluralistic, aesthetic philosophy for black women and provide support for them to incorporate the philosophy into their lives.

Why it is important that our organization address this challenge, and why now?

The IRAAA+ webzine is in the early stage of development. Its staff should address this challenge as it develops “branding” for the zine and builds its readership. The external importance of SB lies in addressing a problem of crisis proportion among black people by encouraging the creation of authentic personal appearance in black women. This aesthetic democracy parallels the political democracy that we cherish, defend and strive to perfect. As African-descended women learn how to depart from a dominant conception that a singular type of beauty fits the diversity of their appearance, and as black men and all other people appreciate this self-affirmation, they, the IRAAA, its readers, and all of us will benefit in widening ripples of impact.

What are the foundational assumptions that have reliably predicted success in the past that we are now questioning?

The assumptions that we are questioning are:

  1. It is not in the best interest of an art journal (whose readership is well-informed and relatively affluent) to address the social needs of people who are outside of this demographic. In other words, that a successful business model for an art journal must be based on serving our core constituency and their interest in reading about fine art.
  2. African and African American visual art generally is only of great interest to black people.
  3. The use of visual arts as a means to address social problems is an outdated approach of the 1960s and ‘70s Black Arts Movement.
  4. A print publication is sufficient to cover visual arts and inform the visual arts community.

What is the evidence that is causing us to question our assumptions?

The assumption that African American visual art is of greatest interest to black people is countered by the evidence of many Asians downloading the digital IRAAA. The assumption that use of art as a social tool is an outworn Black Power-era approach is countered by a more expansive African American ethos and the art applied to our social issues will emanate from this sensibility, not from an old, black nationalist ideology. Unlike other print media that has had to diversify to compete, the IRAAA staff felt that our print medium could stand alone because art lovers want art tangibly in their lives via a physical publication that can be put on coffee tables and repeatedly perused, but we’ve realized that a web supplement is also needed.

What are the bold new directions we are imagining for our organization?

SB participants will include visual artists and other arts professionals who will grapple with the problem of developing an aesthetic manifesto for application among African-descended people whose appearances range from African to Caucasian. Many visual artists see originality and uniqueness as more pleasing than the banal prettiness of, say, a conventionally-rendered painting of a bowl of fruit. With this perspective, the visual artist/participants will help develop online visual and text content that demonstrates the aesthetic attributes of forms that deviate from conventional norms. Such visual literacy will help young people struggling with self-image develop personas based on their own uniqueness. Additionally, being a socially responsible publisher will be good for business.

Our vision of success

Linking art appreciation and personal empowerment through the Seeing Beauty in Difference project will be a culmination of IRAAA’s credo: “the world through the prism of art.” Beauty can be successfully emulated but beauty that is owned is even more empowering. A self-affirming African American feminine aesthetic is a fundamental aspect in lessening black-white disparities in education, health and income. Achieving success in these areas can derive from the self-empowerment that begins in beauty and extends to love, marriage and strong families. The viability of our communities begins in self-empowerment and so does the viability of the IRAAA as young people attain various forms of connoisseurship.

A cover of one of the issues of Hampton University Museum's print publication, IRAAA.
A cover of one of the issues of Hampton University Museum’s print publication, IRAAA.

Founded in 1868, the same year as the school, the Hampton University Museum is the oldest African American museum in the United States, and one of the oldest museums in the state of Virginia. The collections contain over 9,000 objects including African American fine arts, traditional African, Native American, Native Hawaiian, Pacific Islander, and Asian art. The Museum also includes one of the nation’s largest archives of 19th and early 20th century photographs of African American life. The Museum’s journal, the International Review of African American Art (IRAAA), is distributed to schools, museums, public libraries and other institutions and to individual subscribers in this country and abroad. Its IRAAA+ webzine was launched in summer 2012.

  • Eileen Johnston

    I am so thrilled that you are stepping out in this direction! What a challenge!
    If there is anything I can do at Howard to participate please let me know. This issue of ‘seeing beauty’ only one way can be harmful.

    • Thanks for your comments, Eileen! We’re now getting the word out at the mass level and can get caught up in the voting. Will be in touch with you via email to see how your gallery might participate in this project because it is one of our most venerable, long-lived gallery/collections promoting the art of seeing beauty in difference! The world should know more about that legacy. The two HUs — way to go!

      • I applaud you direction! i am a career artist/designer who embraces the need to handle the energies radiated through the printed media. I am growing day day ,not to dispell the notions of the bourgeoning stream of youthful technicians of this time, who were born into the paradigmn of electronic communication.Living is learning, ant to thatend I support the direction and visions that you are pursuing.more power to the power of art!!

  • I support your effords fully! take the lead and set the pace. i thouroughly enjoy each and every issue that i have ever read!

  • Khia Jackson

    Best of Luck. Juliette, I’m very excited about your project!

  • Anita Harrell

    Thank you!! Let’s expand the constituency instead of always speaking only to the same folks. If we don’t build an interest in the field, nobody will think of it when those who “don’t have” now, finally “get”.

  • Keep up the good work Julliette. I’ll spread the word re: this worthy effort.

  • Good luck, I cast my vote!

  • Richard (good to meet you!), Khia (imaginative graphic designer whose INNOVATION cover design appears above), Anita (librarian extraordinaire and performer), Frank (jazz-influenced visual artist; Howard U family);Alonzo (artist whose Davis Fellowship helps other artists)– thank you all for your votes of confidence in this project! And thanks, again, Eileen! We’re still reaching out to new voters through various networks. With your continued support & these new resources, our project can surge and be among the top five semi-finalists who move on to the crowdsourcing stage. It’s “our” project because we all can be involved in this global initiative. Still one more week of voting to go!

  • The voting for SEEING BEAUTY IN DIFFERENCE got off to a late start because of a formatting problem with this page. Voting for the project did not start until almost two days AFTER votes were coming in for the other semi-finalists! But the project has surged up in the voting. We can send you a professionally-designed announcement with a live link for voting on this page; you can forward it to others in your network. To get the project announcement, email: juliette.harris@hamptonu.edu. During the final week of voting, in addition to tapping networks that can deliver votes en masse, we’re asking supporters such as yourself to vote daily and to encourage others to vote. We can move to the top five position. Yes, we can! Huge thanks to all who have voted already!

  • Juliette,
    This is a worthy project . I am not surprised that you are involved with this. You got my vote. If you send frequent reminders I will try to vote as often as possible. The organization that I co-founded and was Exec. Director for many years Global Action Project is also in the running!!! Small world huh? Xxxx

  • Fo Wilson

    Great and worthy project Juliette!

  • It feels great to cast my vote for this worthy endeavor…and I’m so thrilled to have had my ‘Scientivity’ share in the IRAAA Art & STEM edition…

    thanks to Toni for sending out the word on voting! I’ll come back and click again…and again…

  • Small world, yes, Susan, who has a bi-racial daughter whose beautiful long hair is of the type coveted by many black girls! How do we balance the massive, social conditioning that prevents many black girls and women from seeing multiple types of hair as beautiful in different ways, including the tiny beaded pattern formed when coily hair is worn very short and nourished with products such as Sauve’s conditioner with Moroccan argan oil? No, we’re not pushing Suave products! Just heard about it as part of the Seeing Beauty in Difference conversation which has already started. It’s part of an article in prep now for posting on the IRAAA’s webzine at: http://iraaa.museum.hamptonu.edu/ We’ll notify project supporters here that the article has been posted. Thanks, Susan!

  • Above I said “to get the project announcement, email: juliette.harris@hamptonu.edu.” Replies to that email address will be made on Tuesday, May 28.

  • Zerric Clinton

    Having a young daughter myself I am seeing this happen right before my eyes. At this point she is in middle school and she is trying to figure a lot of things out in regard to appearance. This is definitely a worthwhile venture that I am glad that you have decided to tackle. As you stated black feminine beauty seems to hinge on aspects that don’t lend to the African American appeal.
    Zerric Clinton PhD

  • Anne Tally

    Terrific project – thanks for spearheading such a wonderful endeavor.

  • I feel joyful supporting this project. It’s a big step forward for the Hampton University Museum and the HBCU community to bring this subject out front and jumpstart a dialogue that will involve scholars, artists, students and the wider community. Looking forward to next steps. Count me in!

  • Marlisa Sanders

    As a young black woman who wears her naturally, I feel like this project is a great idea! I hope that it inspires young black girls around the world to embrace their natural beauty.

  • Angela Banks

    I am so excited about this project. I think that this is exactly the kind of work that is needed to broaden societal conceptions of beauty.

  • Tony Dawson

    Excellent work. Proud to be a Hamptonian!!!

  • Theresa

    This is such an important global discussion, the natural hair which for many African Americans, can connote/should promote identity, pride, heritage, but sometimes means, depending on how you wear it, conformity, shame, lack of understanding of one’s culture. Here is a chance to talk openly about the topic.

  • Dr. Alice Langley

    I am the mother and grandmother of two African Americn children and I think that IRAAA is “on time” and as Dr. Martin Luther King has stated and”in time” for such a great concept as “SB”. Having been a Public School Educator I know and have seen many situations where African American children have had very negative and poor self esteem of self and of their African American peers. Incorporating the “Seeing Beauty’ Visual Concept would be awesome and a great experience for African American Women and youth to see themselves in a positve picture, which I hope would help get rid of some of the myths and sterotypes regarding Black people since slavery.

  • Dr. Joseph Langley

    This a great experience for African youth and African women in “SB concept.” The visual art concept will help them see themselves in a positive manner. Hope ‘SB concept” is endorsed.

  • Jerry Langley

    Congratulations Juliette. There is indeed beauty in difference. Great project! It should generate a very productive dialogue about the self-empowerment that results from recognizing and cultivating the beauty that exists within one’s own identity.

  • Debra Ambush

    Thank you for bringing to the forefront greater understanding about historic and contemporary forms of aesthetic negation systems. This topic will ultimately be the key factor in true 21st century education reform. I am looking forward to the Web Zine.

  • Dr. Alice Langley

    Thank you Juliette for you visionary move, the visual arts concept of African American women in a positive visual arts portrayal is desperatly needed.

  • Dr. Joseph Langley

    Juliette, we are supporting you on this endeavor. What a way to enrich Hampton University by the visual arts concept.