top of page

Curated by Kalia Brooks Nelson, PhD

Shine Portrait Studio at Express Newark is pleased to present, In Pursuit of Beauty: Imaging Closets in Newark and Beyond, a solo presentation of new site-specific work by Deborah Willis organized by Shine Portrait Studio Curator-in-Residence, Kalia Brooks. This project marks Shine’s first large-scale artistic endeavor and given the space’s historic function as James Van Der Zee’s professional photography job in 1911, In Pursuit continues a tradition of radical examination of portraiture and self-identification.


The “closet” in the American-English vernacular has long been a metaphor used to describe the psychological parts of ourselves that are kept most private, or hidden from public view. As an expression, it points to the zone of our secrets, or the site of our deepest vulnerabilities. The work shown In Pursuit of Beauty explores these innermost aspects of ourselves, symbolized through closet space, and how we perform our identities based on how we desire to image ourselves to the world.


Willis photographed the closets of residents in Newark, towns and cities in the surrounding area, as well as New York City to examine the complex relationship between self-fashioning and identity in contemporary culture. The resulting photographs expand on her influential work as an artist, scholar and educator studying and creating photographs that reflect on personal and collective memories of beauty. Through her investigation of the closet as a site where beauty is enacted through the representation of our private and public selves, she subverts its implication of hiding something and celebrates the closet as a space of empowerment for individuals authoring their own identities contrary to social or cultural convention.


Deborah Willis, Ph.D, is University Professor and Chair of the Department of Photography & Imaging at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University and exhibiting photographer, where she teaches courses on photography and imaging, iconicity, and cultural histories visualizing the black body, women, and gender. Her research examines photography’s multifaceted histories, visual culture, the photographic history of Slavery and Emancipation, contemporary women photographers and beauty.  She received the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Fellowship and was a Richard D. Cohen Fellow in African and African American Art, Hutchins Center, Harvard University and a John Simon Guggenheim Fellow. Professor Willis received the NAACP Image Award in 2014 for her co-authored book (with Barbara Krauthamer) Envisioning Emancipation. Other notable projects include The Black Female Body A Photographic History, Reflections in Black: A History of Black Photographers – 1840 to the Present, Posing Beauty: African American Images from the 1890s to the Present, Michelle Obama: The First Lady in Photographs, a NAACP Image Award Literature Winner, and Black Venus 2010: They Called Her ‘Hottentot’.

Kalia Brooks Nelson, PhD, is a New York based independent curator and educator. Brooks is currently an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Photography and Imaging at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, and at Parsons in the School of Art, Media and Technology. Brooks Nelson holds a Ph.D. in Aesthetics and Art Theory from the Institute for Doctoral Studies in the Visual Arts. She received her M.A. in Curatorial Practice from the California College of the Arts in 2006, and was a Helena Rubinstein Fellow in Critical Studies at the Whitney Independent Study Program 2007/2008. She has served as a consulting curator with the City of New York through the Department of Cultural Affairs and Gracie Mansion Conservancy. Brooks Nelson is also currently an ex-officio trustee on the Board of the Museum of the City of New York.

bottom of page