Artist Deborah Willis’ work on African American culture visits Harn Museum


Since 2009, award-winning author Deborah Willis’ prestigious work has traveled the country.

But for nearly five months, her master creation, “Posing Beauty in African American Culture,” will call the Harn Museum of Art its temporary home.

“Beauty to me is power,” Willis said during a recent visit to the Harn, giving life to works that to this point had been voiceless. “To be empowered in understanding what it means to create a language about beauty was important to me.”

Deborah Willis sits across Jade Powers inside the Harn’s Eloise R. and William H. Chandler Auditorium (Rafael De Los Santos/WUFT News).

Willis’ traveling exhibit has featured more than 45 artists responsible for more than 100 works of art encompassing three conceptual themes: “Constructing a Pose,” “Body and Image” and “Modeling Beauty and Beauty Contests.”

Her curated photographs, videos and advertisements work to explore the contested ways in which African and African American beauty have been represented in historical and contemporary contexts.

She begins with the first of three thematic sections, “Constructing a Pose,” Willis considered the interplay between the historical and the contemporary, between self-representation and imposed representation.

“The storytelling aspects of photography is a way of showing people that their lives are important,” Willis said. “We deal with a lot of tragedy every day and have an opportunity to talk about joy and respect, this is what we see in this exhibition.”

Alachua County Inaugural Poet Laureate E. Stanley Richardson, 61, was among the many visitors who has drawn inspiration from Willis’ work. To him, the exhibit has transformed the Harn’s Contemporary Arts Wing into home.

“These photographs are very familiar to me. They’re like looking through my family’s photo album as a kid,” Richardson said. “I would implore young people to think about culture, to visit the museum and see it through a different lens.”

Harn Museum of Art Curator of Contemporary Art Jade Powers was amongst the leaders in the effort to bring Willis’ traveling exhibit to Gainesville. According to Powers, the exhibit extends beyond the confines of the art-viewer relationship. To her, Willis’ exhibit presents the museum with an opportunity to relay the importance of representation and identity in art.

“There have been timeless examples of people who have used minority groups to create artwork but haven’t given those people the opportunity to create work that’s seen by the masses,” Powers said. “This is a great opportunity for nonwhite bodies to see nonwhite people hung on the wall and to really talk about the importance of the image of nonwhite people.”

Phylindia Gant finds herself in Renee Cox’ 1998 digital print “Chillin’ with Liberty (Rafael De Los Santos/WUFT News).

Willis’ works have given way to receptions and talks where guests can revisit the works with new insight in hand — allowing University of Florida Geology graduate student Phylindia Gant to find herself in Renee Cox’ 1998 digital print “Chillin’ with Liberty.”

“I feel like I’m black and I’m beauty,” said Gant. “Trying to see myself in a lot of the photographs is very interesting.”

Though the exhibit will leave the Harn on June 4th, Willis hopes that the importance of the exhibit stays with the museum and its surrounding community.

“It would be fascinating to have the Harn, accept some of the images in their collections,” Willis said. “These stories are essential for people to know that. These are people who are political activists, people who are mothers, people who are fathers, children who are part of the narrative of building community.”

About Rafael De Los Santos

Rafael is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing

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