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 The use of visual arts as a means to address social problems is an outdated approach of the 1960s and ‘70s Black Arts Movement.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.