The Black Aesthetic photography series has a strange way of drawing you in as soon as you walk into the room.
At first, perhaps, it is the vibrant colors with which many of the subjects are clothed. They wear intricately patterned dresses, soft gold jewelry, and brightly colored durags, each item in dramatic contrast to the dark tones behind the wearer. After a moment, though, the striking intimacy of the portraits becomes even more captivating. One woman is laughing, a few turn back to look at the camera, another looks up at the sky with his hands pressed together – each time, though, the viewer seems to have caught them at a moment of stillness, of vulnerability. They are at peace with themselves.
The Black Aesthetic is an exhibit by Ghanaian-American Rita Mawuena Benissan, an MFA student at Madison and an interdisciplinary artist. Benissan was born in Abidjan, Cote D’Ivoire in 1995 and immigrated to the United States as a baby. She grew up in Michigan and graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Apparel and Textile Design from Michigan State University in 2017. Her works have been featured at Michigan State University, the Baltimore Gallery in Detroit, the Birmingham-Bloomfield Art Center, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The African Studies Program reached out to Benissan to learn more about her new exhibition and her creative process.
Benissan drew her initial inspiration for this project from a book her father owned when he came to continue his graduate studies in the United States: “The Black Aesthetic,” a collection of essays published by Addison Gayle, Jr. in 1971. Although she enjoyed the collection, she noted that it lacked Black perspectives from a wide variety of cultures and backgrounds and chose instead to focus entirely on the middle-class African-American experience. The absence of multicultural voices in this particular text became even more apparent after Benissan read “Shine: The Visual Economy of Light in African Diasporic Aesthetic Practice” by Krista Thompson, a book which describes how aesthetics have been used as an important form of resistance in African diaspora communities the United States and the Caribbean.
Benissan wanted her work to do something different.
With The Black Aesthetic, Benissan seeks to explore the diversity of thought and expression of black culture, therefore broadening perceptions of black identity in Western Society. She told each of the subjects photographed in The Black Aesthetic to bring their own clothing and accessories, allowing each to define their identity and expression for themselves. In this way, Benissan saw herself as a visual storyteller — using photography to highlight the nuances of the black experience.
Her purpose in creating this particular exhibition actually goes far beyond the photographs themselves, however. Benissan hopes that The Black Aesthetic will stimulate discussion about the black identity and culture both within and outside of the art sphere, arguing that these are conversations which black students at the university often want but feel that they are unable to have in their classes, student organizations, and other social circles.
“This is not just an art project,” she says, “But a safe space where people can be confident in expressing their identity.”
In her second year as a graduate student here, Benissan plans to engage with her identity as a Ghanaian-American and to express more of the images, symbols, and ideas that matter to her personally. For now, though, she is focused on showcasing the similarities, differences, and intricacies of the identities of those around her.
Her goal, she says, “is to engage viewers with an understanding that they may never have previously experienced. I hope to leave them examining their own identities in a deeper manner, to consider and honor their aesthetic heritage. I am creating a world where I am broadening the representation of black identity by celebrating the profound beauty and power of black culture.”
Published by Rebecca Hanks.