“There were things happening in black America that lend themselves to the conversation in Italy in a way that perhaps people never would have imagined,” says Theaster Gates, a social practice artist and curator of a new exhibition,The Black Image Corporation, dedicated to exploring the legacy of the Johnson Publishing Company archive and its two acclaimed magazines, Ebony and Jet.
Presented at the Fondazione Prada from 20 September to 14 January, the exhibition gathers photographs from the company’s extensive archive of more than four million images, focusing primarily on the work of two photographers – Moneta Sleet Jr and Isaac Sutton. “When the Prada Foundation invites you to do a project, you know there’s already this big and ambitious living legacy; and so it felt really amazing to then put the Johnson Publishing Company in the context of this other fashion family,” explains Gates.
Ebony and Jet magazines, which were published from 1945 onwards, were aimed at African- American audiences, reflecting the mid-century aesthetic in the US at the time but with a lens specifically focused on black life. Against the flow of negative or stereotypical depictions of black women that had preceded it, says Gates: “Ebony committed itself to celebrating black women. This is before black women were on the covers of Vogue, so 30 or 40 years before the mainstream world was ready to see a black image in the most positive sense, there was already this corporation that had the ideology and financial muscle to celebrate black women”.
The Black Image Corporation explores these magazines’ extraordinary legacy, presenting their images together – everyday candid photographs of mothers and working women as well as shots of actresses and models – setting the under-represented beauty of black American life in post-war USA into a gallery context.
Built as a structure reflecting on an architectural form called a studiolo – a small room dedicated to the storage and display of art – the exhibition’s participatory element is crucial. Visitors will have the opportunity to pull prints out of cabinets and display them themselves, creating an ever-changing and self-developing show. In addition to the display of prints, visitors will have access to hundreds of issues of Ebony and Jet magazines, allowing them to peruse the full gamut of the archives in situ. This participation will cast the viewer into the same curatorial role as the editors of the magazines: reflecting on, presenting, and foregrounding images.
“I think that when people are allowed into the artistic process, they leave those situations with a more thorough understanding, not only of the artistic device, but they start to see the subject in new ways,” says Gates.
The exhibition’s opening coincides with Milan Fashion Week, and Gates – an artist known for his interest in bringing cultures together – notes the significance of the overlap. “It’s a tool of image education as much as it is a celebration of something artistic,” he explains, although he hopes that any visitor to the Fondazione’s Osservatorio “would first walk in and be stunned by beauty”.
And, he adds, perhaps Fashion Week audiences will come upon the show and reflect on the deficit of mainstream images celebrating the beauty of black women in the 1940s and 1950s. “These archives investigate the themes of beauty and black female power, and I think today is the right time to dig into the visual lexicon of American history and unveil an iconography that, outside of my community, enjoys poor visibility,” says Gates.