CMA’s ‘The New Black Vanguard’ Envisions the Future of Fashion Photography

Modern artists do more than capture a moment. They straddle the line between the present and the future, creating works imbued with emotional revelation as well as visual appeal. This balance is extremely visible in the Cleveland Museum of Art’s “The New Black Vanguard: Photography Between Art and Fashion”, an exhibition of works by contemporary artists who use passion and vision to embody their personal reactions to life here and now.

“The New Black Vanguard” includes photographs captured by 15 different “image makers”, all born in the late 80s or early 90s. Hanging against walls swathed in lush reds and purples, illuminated by pulses of strobe lighting, the works illustrate a quiet, yet not indecipherable narrative that transports the viewer through a journey of human intimacy and invites viewers to feel as deeply as they observe.

In the long history of human art, photography represents the cutting edge of creative progression, its technological advances making it one of the most influential engines of the modern artistic revolution. The artists whose works make up “The New Black Vanguard” use this to their advantage, combining their youth with the relative newness of photography to lend a palpable gravity to their images. The desperate thirst to establish individual self-expression seeps out of the frames, but only after sweeping the subjects into a glow of assured vulnerability.

As fashion photographers capturing color, the artists of “The New Black Vanguard blur the lines between art and commodification. Each frame recreates a story – a single instance in an infinitely larger life – but at the same time we are reminded that each frame is part of the even grander and more complex tapestry that is contemporary media. A particular line in the introduction to the exhibit reflects on this reality, stating that “[these] the photographs open up conversations around the representation of the black body and black life as a subject; collectively, they celebrate black creativity and the cross-pollination between art, fashion and culture in the construction of an image. “The New Black Vanguard” creates a space that minimizes the noises of the social world, allowing the viewer to focus on the artists’ ideas rather than the all-consuming nature of the digital 21st century. The exhibition presents viewers with works of art created by and for the greatest social collective. In their daily lives, human beings exude as much, if not more, aesthetic value and aspiration than expensive portraits drawn by the Old Masters or a jewel-toned pomp painted by Warhol.

Through “The New Black Vanguard”, the viewer witnesses the unfolding of stories about identity and history, love and fantasy, race and existence, all presented in confident and unyielding depictions. Bright flashes of yellow draw attention to photographs of Lagos street fashion by Stephen Tayo, sparks fly from Quil Lemons’ “Glitterboy” series on sexual expression, and vibrant fabrics clash with deserts and to the mountains in Nadine Ijewere’s landscapes, evoking images of Hollywood glamor and haute couture. “The New Black Vanguard” is as much a presentation of the visual charms of fashion as it is a reflection on how artists and their models navigate today’s world. They are pensive and self-perceiving images, critical and forgiving, fully illustrating the daily comings and goings that give strength to our own personalities and stories.

Instead of selling a dream like conventional fashion photography does, “The New Black Vanguard” offers us a series of very personal moments, pulling back the curtain on the sheer beauty of existence and giving us access to parallel lives to ours. It’s as much a collection of ruminations as it is a collection of moments, an opportunity to dwell on all the snapshots of a lifetime.

“The New Black Vanguard: Photography Between Art and Fashion” ran from May 5 to September 11 at the Cleveland Museum of Art and was curated by New York-based art critics.c and writer, Antwaun Sargent.

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