For more than three decades from the late 1960s, the late Raphael Albert organised and documented numerous black British beauty pageants and other cultural events, while creating a portfolio of photographs of aspiring models in his home studio. His long and successful career as a promoter and chronicler of pageants included the establishment of Miss Black and Beautiful, Miss West Indies in Great Britain, and Miss Grenada.
These competitions celebrated the global ‘Black is Beautiful’ aesthetic of the 1970s in a local west London context: paired with the obligatory bathing costumes and high heels, Albert’s contestants often sported large Afro hairstyles, inventing and reinventing themselves on stage while articulating a particular and multifaceted black femininity as part of a widely contested and ambiguous cultural performance.
Not only did the pageants offer the opportunity to create a distinct space for Afro-Caribbean self-fashioning – a wager against invisibility in response to contemporaneous mainstream fashion and lifestyle platforms where black women were largely absent or, at best, marginal – they also represented a site to challenge conventional notions of beauty implicated in the social, cultural, and political contexts of the time.
In 1959 political activist Claudia Jones incorporated a black beauty competition in her first London carnival. A decade later, the international Miss World 1970 contest became one of the most controversial editions in beauty pageant history, marked by South Africa’s ‘two-girl policy’ and feminist protesters armed with smoke bombs and rotten tomatoes – while the Grenadian Jennifer Hosten was crowned as one of the first women of colour to win the title.
Albert’s photographs serve as testament to this profound moment of self-articulation and collective celebration in London’s pan Afro-Caribbean communities, and beyond.
Now, thanks to MAC and Autograph ABP, you can see them in the first major solo exhibition of his work at the Arena Gallery in Birmingham from now until 1 July 2018. Find out more at macbirmingham.co.uk.
All photographs © Raphael Albert. Courtesy of Autograph ABP