SIKOLO BRATHWAITE MET HER HUSBAND in 1965, when he and his brother stopped her one day as she was shopping on 125th Street. He told her he was a photographer, gave her a business card and said he would like nothing better than to photograph her. Sikolo was intrigued, but she was also wary of two men luring a young woman to some abandoned studio, so she brought a friend along with her. “It was pretty sketchy,” she recalls with a laugh. When she arrived at their Harlem studio, she saw walls adorned with gorgeous images of Black women of every skin tone. These were the Grandassa Models, a fixture of the Black Is Beautiful movement, and Sikolo would soon become one of them herself. (A year later, Kwame and Sikolo were married.)
Brathwaite did not invent the phrase “Black Is Beautiful”; he, Elombe and their AJASS associates found inspiration in the teachings of Marcus Garvey, who made this idea a cornerstone of the mass Pan-African movement he built, which reached its zenith in the 1920s. Brathwaite did, however, take this slogan of self-affirmation and give it a visual vocabulary. Beginning in the early 1960s, he and AJASS conceived the idea of gathering together a group of Black women who could model natural beauty standards in the face of whitewashing and hair straightening, through fashion shows and studio portraiture. The Grandassa Models — a riff on the ancestral term for the African continent, “Grandassaland” — would embody unaffected beauty and pride.
And so on January 28, 1962, at a small club in Harlem called the Purple Manor, near the corner of East 125th Street and Lenox Avenue (now Malcolm X Boulevard), AJASS staged Naturally ’62: The Original African Coiffure and Fashion Extravaganza Designed to Restore Our Racial Pride and Standards, the first in a series of fashion shows held twice a year through 1973, then more sporadically until 1992. At their height, the Naturally shows attracted thousands of attendees. These were multifaceted affairs — fashion show and African dance concert, political meeting and cultural expo. The models walked the runway in clothing that they designed, inspired by the latest patterns and fashions from Africa’s urban centers: Accra, Nairobi, Dakar. Brathwaite began photographing the shows in color, capturing the vibrant shades of the garments and the varieties of the models’ skin tones.
In keeping with this animating spirit of activism, Brathwaite often photographed the models out in the world as well, at street fairs and political rallies. One newly discovered image shows two Grandassa Models — including Nomsa Brath (Elombe’s wife) — reclining on the hood of a car, wearing bold, earth-toned patterns of green, brown and gold, holding a protest poster that proclaims “Want Work Build Africa” scrawled in the red, black and green of the Pan-African flag. As Brathwaite took on more commercial work to supplement his portraiture and documentary photography, his lens remained trained on the beauty of Blackness wherever he found it.