The women who feature in ‘Miss Black and Beautiful’ are all toothy smiles, sultry looks and sassy poses. Presented here are three decades of photographs taken by the late Raphael Albert, who documented west London’s black beauty pageant scene from the 1960s to the ’90s.
The archival display includes rarely seen photos and newspaper cuttings from the time, one of which begins: ‘Until a few short years ago being a “good wife and mother” was one of the only lauded positions available for women.’ It took until 1970 for the first model of colour to be crowned Miss World; and it wasn’t until 2008 that Vogue Italia brought out its Black Issue. These images come from a time before the Beyoncés and Naomi Campbells occupied the world stage. For these girls, the title of ‘beauty queen’ brought financial security, opportunity and self-assurance. But most strikingly, they look like they’re having a hell of a great time.
Autograph has been providing a space for black photographers and promoting the work of marginalised groups since 1988, and this exhibition feels as necessary as ever. What’s shocking is that these confident, leggy ladies, proudly strutting their Afros and their curves – defying white society’s norms of beauty – are still lacking from today’s catwalks, television screens, newspapers and magazines. One article from the time is headlined ‘Making blacks believe black is beautiful’. These girls know they’re beautiful, it’s the rest of the world that needs to catch on.