capturing the radical black beauty pageants of 70s london

Photographer Raphael Albert spent three decades documenting aspiring models and beauty queens at community events, immortalizing the local energy of an empowering global movement.

by Hannah Ongley
28 June 2016, 5:05pm

Miss Black & Beautiful Sybil McLean with fellow contestants, Hammersmith Palais, London, 1972.

Beauty pageants are often reductive, outdated, and altogether exclusionary. The black beauty pageants that cropped up in west London from the late 1960s through the 1980s were none of these things, and in 2016, still feel very relevant. The community events were aimed at celebrating a feminine beauty that was being sidelined by the mainstream, and photographer Raphael Alpert was there to capture them in all their empowering glory. A new exhibition at London's Rivington Place will be the first major gallery show of Alpert's portfolio since his death in 2009. The Grenadian photographer also helped promote the pageants — including Miss Black and Beautiful, Miss West Indies in Great Britain, and Miss Grenada — while founding his own magazine and associated modeling school. At a time when the "black is beautiful" cultural movement was beginning to resonate across the globe, the hyperlocal events created a space for Afro-Caribbean women in London to articulate an aesthetic largely absent from podiums and catwalks. 

(unidentified) Miss West Indies in Great Britain contestant posing at Blythe Road, Hammersmith, London, 1970s.

"This historical archive offers a unique and fascinating collection of rarely seen photographs that document the ambivalent cultural performance of gendered and raced identities at a particular historical conjuncture," says curator Renée Mussai. "Imbued with an exquisite, revolutionary sensuality and a certain joie de vivre, Raphael Albert's photographs embody an aura of hedonistic confidence in a new generation of black women coming of age in Britain during the 1970s, fueled by complex (body) politics of national identity, difference and desire."

Raphael Albert: Miss Black and Beautiful incorporates over 50 modern exclusive black and white prints, color and vintage photographs, and a selection of archive materials and ephemera. Many of the works are now shown for the first time as a curated selection. 

(unidentified) Miss Black & Beautiful with fellow contestants, London, Hammersmith Palais, 1970s.

(unidentified) beauty queen, London, 1970s. 

(unidentified) beauty queen posing in front of alpine backdrop, London, 1970s.

(unidentified) Miss Caribbean Queen with fellow contestants, Hammersmith, London, 1970s.

"Raphael Albert: Miss Black and Beautiful" runs from July 7 through 24 September, 2016 at Autograph ABP, Rivington Place, London.


Text Hannah Ongley
Images courtesy of © Raphael Albert/Autograph ABP

black beauty pageants
raphael alpert