The New Black Vanguard Showcases Black Art and Fashion’s Intricacies

Previous Story
Article Image

BmoreArt’s Picks: November 9-15

Next Story
Article Image

The News: Biden Comes to Baltimore, Pratt Library [...]

Black fashion is Black art. Hervé Kwimo uses collage as part of his creative process as the design director of Conde Nast. Lorna Simpson photographed Rihanna and transformed her image into collaged and embodied Black art in Essence Magazine. And when designer Kerby Jean-Raymond debuted Pyer Moss’s couture collection full of looks inspired by Black inventors during Paris Haute Couture Week this summer, he became the first Black American designer to do so.

Images from writer and curator Antwaun Sargent’s book, The New Black Vanguard: Photography Between Art and Fashion, flooded every one of my social media timelines a few years ago. When the book was published by Aperture, a few of the photographers it featured were readily recognizable. “That moment when the book was published in 2019 was a nascent movement of young, emerging photographers working around the world, who were thinking about the notions of representation and desire through photography,” Sargent says. 

In their work, this cohort of photographers apply the fine-art idioms of landscape, portraiture, and still life to fashion photography, Sargent says, a tendency that’s attributable to the ubiquity of the medium in “a world where picture-making had evolved to be something that we all had access to.” Social media platforms (particularly Tumblr, Twitter, and Instagram) have “made us all think about images in our daily lives.” 

Sargent felt compelled to write the New Black Vanguard book because he noticed art-world conversations about contemporary photography often excluded Black photographers’ voices and work, even while the world was inundated with images of their artwork online. Sargent wanted to reroute the conversation to draw attention to the burgeoning movement of Black contemporary photographers working across the fine art and fashion worlds. “Historically, that has just always been the case of Black art, that you have this thing that is happening, and it’s just being willfully ignored,” Sargent says. “I wanted to do this project because I wanted to make sure that we were taking seriously the concerns of the next generation of image-makers.” 


Tyler Mitchell

A traveling international exhibition curated by Sargent and named after his book, The New Black Vanguard: Photography Between Art and Fashion is currently on view at MICA. (Due to COVID-19, it is only open to MICA’s on-campus community.) With the exhibition, Sargent sought to expand the conversations that the book began and to include work that was representative of the artists’ specific location, “to create a cornucopia of voices, to show the ways in which Blackness and Black photography is not a monolith.”

With the book and the exhibition, Sargent has not only rerouted the conversation but also brought these photographers to much broader audiences. The New Black Vanguard show, originally exhibited at Aperture in New York City, is migrating concurrently both nationally and internationally: One set of prints travels across the United States while another travels abroad, exposing the work of these Black image-makers across the globe.

Each exhibition features work by fifteen international artists who originally appeared in the book, accompanied by a salon-style wall of images that evolves from place to place. For each city the show travels to, at least one local photographer’s work is brought in as part of the show. (In Baltimore, Faith Couch’s work is featured.) The images have traveled from New York City, to Narre Warren, Australia, to Doha, Qatar, and then Arles, France, before arriving in Baltimore. From MICA, the show will travel to the Detroit Institute of Arts, then the Cleveland Museum, then California’s Museum of the African Diaspora. The European exhibition will go to Fotografiska in Stockholm, Sweden, and then Switzerland after that. 

In terms of display and curatorial layout, the show is physically expansive, taking over most of the Meyerhoff Gallery in MICA’s Fox Building. Taken in all at once, the pink and fuchsia walls with photos in wooden frames create a collage of Black contemporary fashion editorial photography. I nearly felt disoriented with all of the options for where my eyes could land. At the show’s entrance is a physical copy of the book that you can thumb through with a video featuring artists in the show. 

The groupings of photos provide space for the viewer to experience a small immersion into the world of each artist. Vitrines hold magazines featuring these photographers’ works, placing those that were historically Black, like Ebony and Jet, alongside The Fader’s cover of Megan Thee Stallion that Renell Medrano shot. 

The artists in this space are in a symbiotic relationship, and in viewing the exhibition I imagined an invisible web connecting this commune of a new Black aesthetic tradition: Awol Erizku who shot Beyoncé’s pregnancy photos, Ruth Ossai who shot Rihanna’s Fenty campaign, Nadine Ijewre who in 2019 was the first Black woman to ever shoot any Vogue cover in its history. This show both revels in and reveals Black fashion-oriented subjectivities. It is a microcosm of Black artistic production in recent popular culture.


Salon wall from The New Black Vanguard exhibition, featuring work by Lawrence Agyei, Daveed Baptiste, Faith Couch, Yannis Davy Guibinga, Delphine Diallo, Rhea Dillon, Justin French, Erica Génécé, Denzel Golatt, Travis Gumbs, Texas Isaiah, Seye Isikalu, Adama Jalloh, Manny Jefferson, Joshua Kissi, Myles Loftin, Ronan Mckenzie, Tyra Mitchell, Travys Owen, Lucie Rox, Makeda Sandford, Cécile Smetana Baudier, Isaac West, Joshua Woods
Awol Erizku

In London-based Campbell Addy’s Adut Akech, 2019, the model sits poised, her skin brilliant against folds of tufted fabric. Her crown of a textured coif is nearly indiscernible from the photo’s matte black background. Her face is bare, and her brown eyes register a quiet luxury. Addy’s figure holds court over this portion of the gallery; her pink dress immediately drew my attention as it contrasted with the gallery walls’ pink paint. Petals of the pink fabric, a floral mimicry spilling out into her collar, softly touch her hair, and her hands with chocolate-colored nail polish rest softly at her waist. With this pose and dress, Addy references photographs of royals, and here it is Black luxury, Black power, and Black softness.

Like many of the artists in the show, Tyler Mitchell initially began to gain traction and popularity through the digital realm. Mitchell began posting his work on the internet and gained a huge following; when he was 23, Beyoncé selected Mitchell to shoot her Vogue cover. With the September 2018 issue of American Vogue, he became the first African American photographer, and one of the youngest photographers period, to shoot the cover in its 125-year history. Mitchell became a Gordon Parks Fellow in 2020 and is represented by Jack Shaiman. He has shot campaigns for Marc Jacobs, JW Anderson, and Givenchy. Mitchell has also photographed Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez for Vanity Fair and Kamala Harris for a digital cover of American Vogue earlier this year.

Perhaps the most familiar moment was with Mitchell’s Untitled (Hijab Couture), 2019, which is also the cover of The New Black Vanguard book. Originally shot for the 2019 issue of American Vogue, the photo features American fashion model Ugbad Abdi, born in Somalia and raised in Kenya and Des Moines, Iowa, who has modeled for Valentino Haute Couture, Fendi, and Lanvin, wearing hijab. Abdi’s face is framed by a resplendent bouquet of large pink flowers composing her hijab. In the image, the model is made majestic; her face, shoulders, and torso are layered in petals of pink material that is bright against the blue bokeh background. 

This moment of high fashion addressing Black variations of religious experiences references the show’s global nature—and while it is about the global, it’s also about the specificity of place and locality, about time and temporality, about now and about history. 

This photo is fashion, Sargent says, “but it also had all these connotations. [That image] really, for me, gets at the essence of the layered possibilities of identity, of desire, of beauty… I didn’t want this exhibition to be one thing. Blackness isn’t one thing, so to do that you have to include as many voices.” 


Campbell Addy
Micaiah Carter
Namsa Leuba

Throughout the show, wall text includes quotes from the photographers, allowing viewers to better understand the ethos of their image-making, like Micaiah Carter’s: “Blackness can get pigeon-holed into a one-dimensional viewpoint, but in reality, it is as diverse as the galaxies in the universe.” In Carter’s photo Three Men, originally published in L’Officiel USA Magazine, November 2018, a trio of figures stands dressed in coats and hats of herringbone, plaid, and stripes. The black and white photo showcases Carter’s skillful wielding of light and shadow.

I can’t look at Carter’s work without thinking of Malick Sidibe, without hearing the colors of Janet Jackson’s “Got Til It’s Gone,” which played in my head as I viewed those photos in the gallery. This was one of the show’s strongest sartorial moments, and it appears among a group of four white-framed photos, each depicting Black men in exquisitely detailed menswear, elegantly posed, fashioning themselves as gentlemen of taste and grandeur. 

Carter’s Adeline in barrettes (2018), in a golden frame, is an unconventional portrait displaying the back of the subject’s head. The figure’s hair is plaited and decorated with multicolored plastic barrettes. I recognized some of the shapes that my mom clipped on my own hair so many years ago—the vibrant plastic bows, butterflies, bees, and unicorns are whimsical and nostalgic. The brightness of the baubles is stunning against the soft print of the peach and ivory wallpaper before her. 


Renell Medrano

Renell Medrano’s photos were most familiar to me, and two in particular captivated me. Solange Knowles, in her 2019 Office Magazine cover photoshoot with Medrano, wears a black leather coat and sits before a backdrop of olive and ivory curtains with shadows and light penetrating barely through. Arms outstretched, she turns towards the camera, elegantly pointing her heeled foot to the rear of the room. A sonic superhero, her hair in an ebony cascade of waves toward the floor, she is a performer suspended in motion, a work of art fixed in time and transported by Medrano’s lens. 

In Medrano’s 1984, Harlem, New York, 2018, model Aweng Chuol (in a shot for the Autumn/Winter 10 Men Magazine) sits in a cocoon of supple burgundy leather. The model’s green velvet outfit starkly contrasts the copper orange volume of her mane. She gazes back at the viewer from the driver’s seat, her hand on the stick/gear shift of the dated car, all the details cohering to really look like the year 1984. 

Medrano, who has shot numerous editorial fashion campaigns, built a practice that centers Black people, integrating fashion photography in New York City and various cityscapes. Even when they’re famous (like Jay-Z in front of a Derrick Adams painting for the New York Times), Medrano’s subjects seem taken directly from real life—I feel as if I could inhabit the confines of her photographs. She highlights scenes in her home of New York and masterfully captures Black style and culture, especially in her images of rappers and singers. Medrano brings hip-hop to haute couture, carrying on the tradition of Ming Smith before her who brought the interstellar icon Sun Ra onto gallery walls.  


Dana Scruggs

The New Black Vanguard transformed, for me, that which was digital into analog. The physical exhibition expands on the book by letting viewers interact with the work in a more fully realized way. Produced here on a larger and more robust scale than their digital forms, details of certain works stood out more. And by traveling with the salon wall that organically integrates photographers from the regions that the show is exhibited in, The New Black Vanguard weaves threads between Black image-makers internationally. 

Another strength of the show is the diversity in representations of Blackness, in skin tone and body type and gender. This is apparent in the work of Quil Lemons’ The Glitterboy, a 2017 portrait and interview series featuring figures with their faces shimmering and iridescent against various pink backgrounds. The series is an exploration of masculinity, beauty, expression, sexuality, glamour, and adornment.

Dana Scruggs’ Adonis #1, 2014, confronts neo-classical/Eurocentric standards of beauty with this Black Adonis. Her photo of this Black model, named Adonis (also the Greek god of beauty and desire), offers a 21st-century recasting. Adonis, with half of his face obscured by a fold of denim, and a silver nose ring suspended between sculpted cheekbones, opens up new standards of beauty. 

As a project, The New Black Vanguard challenges the notion that Blackness is a monolith, and exemplifies the multiplicity of Black artistic endeavors. With various creators capturing their subjects in a wealth of settings, poses, and compositions, The New Black Vanguard showcases what editorial fashion photography is to a group of contemporary Black artists. It is an exhibition of subversion in its most eloquent and elegant form, a powerful, Black aesthetic movement for the digital age. 



The New Black Vanguard is on view through November 23, 2021.


Images courtesy of MICA

Related Stories
Two Community Organizers Were Immortalized in a Mural that Ended up on the Front Page of the New York Times as an Illustration for Baltimore's Clap-Back to Donald Trump

It takes a minute to wrench myself out of the cosmic nerve center of this 40-foot wide, 20-foot-tall mural, which Santos created in 2011, and move on to clues and cues that will help piece together the narratives that figurative murals promise to offer up... So, who are these women?

The Seasonal Party That's So Much Fun it Should Convince You to Join the Art Space Even if You Hate Art

Last Saturday, the most recent Members Party featured live projections by Tony Rutka and beats from DJ Paul Campion. I am kicking myself for being out of town last week, but thankfully digital and film photographer Oliver Maddox captured the fun and sent some photos our way to stoke my FOMO.

As Rubys Artist Grant Applications Open, New Alumni Initiatives Announced

Moorhead has been selected from a pool of more than 170 past Ruby grantees to receive a fully-funded residency and material stipend through a new partnership with Art Omi in the Hudson Valley.

Wood firing is one of the biggest community events at Baltimore Clayworks and it is attended by ceramic artists from Maryland, Virginia, and Pennsylvania.

“The imprints of elemental properties inherent to ceramics fired in a wood kiln often yield mesmerizing finishes; it almost adds a fourth dimension to the artworks.”