The following is one of several extended looks into figures and institutions selected for “The Deciders,” a list of art-world figures pointing the way forward developed by ARTnews and special guest editor Kasseem “Swizz Beatz” Dean. See the full list in the Winter 2020 issue of the magazine and online here.
In her essential book Posing Beauty: African American Images from the 1890s to the Present, Deborah Willis, writer, educator, artist, and curator, charted the many ways artists have conceived of black beauty, from early modernist experiments to more recent work by Lorna Simpson, Bayeté Ross Smith, Carrie Mae Weems, and Willis’s own son, Hank Willis Thomas. “What is beauty?” she asked in her introduction for a book that she called “a retroactive manifesto.” “Is it tangible? How is the notion of beauty idealized and exploited in the media, in hip-hop culture, in art? Is black beauty a conditioning? Does beauty matter?”
That was written back in 2009, long before many American curators and historians had begun to think about these issues. Willis has been ahead of her time for a very long time. She understood the power of photography to provide connectivity, access, and inspiration well in advance of social media’s dawn, and she has been at the forefront of scholarship on African-American art, sharing her inquisitive vision and deep knowledge with students and artists in noteworthy exhibitions, books, and conferences.
Willis’s influential career began to take shape when she left her native Philadelphia for New York City to study photography at Pratt. A job as the first head of photographs at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, starting in 1980, made her realize the dearth of scholarship on African-American photography, pushing her to organize exhibitions, transform archives, and write books that decisively shaped the field and inspired generations of artists and thinkers. Her first book, Black Photographers 1840 to 1940: An Illustrated Bio-Bibliography, published in 1985, unearthed a century of overlooked artists and their pictures that decisively recast the black image. This archival excavation was followed in 1989 by Black Photographers Bear Witness: 100 Years of Social Protest, an exhibition and catalogue for the Williams College Museum of Art.
When the Smithsonian hired Willis in 1992 to energize the exhibitions program at its Center for African-American History and Culture (the predecessor to the National Museum of African American History and Culture), she made a point to preserve local voices and center the black family in notable exhibitions such as “Imagining Families: Images and Voices” (1994), which focused on 15 photographers’ pictures of family life during the 19th and 20th centuries, and “Visual Journal: Harlem and D.C. in the Thirties and Forties” (1996), which charted how Gordon Parks, Robert H. McNeill, and others portrayed neighborhoods that have been central to African-American visual culture.
In a recent essay on Dawoud Bey’s images of Harlem, Willis wrote, “Harlem was and still is a lively place to be seen and photographed, to live in and visit. Bey’s thought-provoking photographs have played a crucial part in defining and framing this community, a world unto itself within the city that never sleeps.”
Her research on early photography produced the monographs J.P. Ball: Daguerrean and Studio Photographer and VanDerZee, Photographer 1886–1983 , both in 1993. Ever unstoppable, Willis earned a Ph.D. while continuing to mount important—and accessible—shows that highlighted the historical significance of images by black creators, as well as showcasing the exciting new work of contemporary artists like Renee Cox, Lonnie Graham, and Malick Sidibé. Her “Reflections in Black: A History of Black Photographers, 1840 to the Present” exhibition toured the country for three years and cultivated a national appetite for African-American photography and transformational scholarship, garnering her a MacArthur Fellowship in 2000 along the way.
The following year, Willis joined the faculty at New York University, where she is a professor and chair of the Department of Photography and Imaging at the Tisch School of the Arts. There, her impact on pedagogy, art, photography, and scholarship has had a national and global reach. In particular, Willis has made sure to set women’s work and narratives at the center; texts from the exhibition catalogue for “The Black Female Body in Photography: A Photographic History” (2002), which she wrote with Carla Williams, continue to be taught in classrooms around the country. And an exhibition version of “Posing Beauty” has been touring the United States since 2009, making stops at the Northwest African American Museum in Seattle, the David C. Driskell Center in College Park, Maryland, and the USC Fisher Museum of Art in Los Angeles.
The human connection drives much of Willis’s work. Early on, she made the decision to collaborate with artists, scholars, and activists as a way to break down barriers and hierarchies, and to work to bring different voices and new images to the fore. In 2013 she convened the first Black Portraiture[s] conference in Paris. In October, the fifth iteration of this internationally recognized phenomenon brought together a number of well-known figures, including art historian Kellie Jones and choreographer Ronald K. Brown. Willis has not only made archives and scholarship accessible, she’s also created an appetite for learning and sharing knowledge. Anchoring her work is her belief in the beauty of the black image and its power to sustain family, build community, dictate style, rethink representation, and change perceptions.