Preview: GLAMAZONIA exhibit offers view of African beauty

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Demeatria Boccella has a passion for promoting African-American beauty and culture that stems back to her childhood in Hazelwood.

"I grew up with low self-esteem, but I wanted to be involved in the [fashion] industry in some capacity," she says. "I loved Vogue magazine. ... I wanted to see images that looked like me in the magazines, but I didn't see that."

For more than a decade, the executive producer and founder of FashionAFRICANA has used her annual art showcase and fashion show to celebrate this spirit of diversity. Her latest effort is "GLAMAZONIA," an exhibition of portraits and magazine covers spotlighting African beauty and hairstyles by Cameroon-born Paris-based photographer Mario Epanya, on display at the August Wilson Center for African American Culture, Downtown, through April 30. This Sunday, a screening of the 2012 documentary "Versailles '73: American Runway Revolution" will accompany a special tour of the exhibit.

'Versailles '73' Pittsburgh premiere and 'GLAMAZONIA' exhibit

Where: August Wilson Center for African American Culture, Downtown.

When: 5:30 p.m. Sunday. A VIP reception will be held at 4 p.m., with a Q&A with Pat Cleveland, Mikki Taylor and Deborah Riley Draper at 7 p.m. and a "GLAMAZONIA" tour with desserts at 7:30 p.m. "GLAMAZONIA" will be on display through April 30.

Tickets: General admission for the screening is $25 at VIP tickets are $50.

Information: A post-event VIP reception will be at 9 p.m. at the SAVOY restaurant, Strip District.

Mr. Epanya's work drew attention a few years ago when he pitched the idea of launching a Vogue Africa publication to Conde Nast, which publishes fashion magazines such as Vogue. The publishing house declined, but Vogue Italia published an article about the proposal. Mr. Epanya shot mock magazine covers with the title Vogue Africa, which he posted on Facebook.

Ms. Boccella felt her mission to highlight diversity in fashion and art aligned with the photographer's work, so she friended him on the social media site and cultivated a relationship with him over the course of a couple of years.

"I thought, 'Wow, this is great. I would love to bring it to Pittsburgh, to America for the first time, actually,' " she says. "He accepted with great, great joy and enthusiasm."

The photos came to Pittsburgh in December as part of last year's FashionAFRICANA festivities. In addition to Mr. Epanya's work, the exhibit features sculptural art from Pittsburgh artists Vanessa German and Thaddeus Mosley, as well as dresses from FashionAFRICANA. There's also a video interview of Mr. Epanya explaining the photographs and his inspiration.

"A lot of the comments, [people] haven't seen anything like it before," Ms. Boccella says.

She plans to extend its reach beyond the August Wilson Center by taking photos into schools and to other cities across the country. She's also eager to invent new ways to entice people into the center to see the show. Her latest idea is to hold the Pittsburgh premiere of Deborah Riley Draper's directorial debut, "Versailles '73."

The film recounts the "runway rumble" in France in November 1973 in which on-the-rise American ready-to-wear designers Anne Klein, Stephen Burrows, Bill Blass, Oscar de la Renta and Halston faced off with -- and outshined -- European haute couture giants Yves Saint Laurent, Christian Dior, Hubert de Givenchy, Pierre Cardin and Emanuel Ungaro. It is the first full-length movie devoted solely to this milestone in American fashion.

"The Americans were not regarded as designers because they had always looked to the French for inspiration, because the French owned fashion," Ms. Draper says. "But they didn't have to copy what the French were doing. They could simply be American ... and not only was that good enough, it was better than good. Not only did they impress themselves, they impressed the French."

The show was held to raise money for the restoration of the Palace of Versailles and attracted an audience of notables, including Andy Warhol, Princess Grace of Monaco and Christina Onassis. The American designers shattered runway tradition by using music and more movement in their presentations and casting African-American models, something unheard of at the time and still rare for some designers today.

"It was so groundbreaking on so many levels," Ms. Draper says.

Filming took her to New York, Paris and the chateau where the event was held. The project put her in touch with many people who knew someone involved in the event, or who took part in it themselves. Some of the models who walked the runway in Versailles, including Pat Cleveland, Billie Blair and Norma Jean Darden, appear in the documentary.

In Pittsburgh, a Q&A with Ms. Cleveland and Essence Magazine editor-at-large Mikki Taylor, joined by Ms. Draper, will follow the screening. Women from across Pittsburgh, from designer Kiya Tomlin to Pittsburgh Fashion Week founder Miyoshi Anderson, have been involved in planning the evening.

"It's about staying true to who you are and what you are and not trying to be someone else," Ms. Draper says about the film. "I thought it was a good message then, and it was a good message now. ... It's about doing something different and being different. That's innovation."

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Sara Bauknecht: or on Twitter @SaraB_PG. First Published February 26, 2013 5:00 AM


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