Behind the grand wrought-iron doors of Gropius Bau’s first floor gallery, Chicago artist Theaster Gates presents the legacy of Johnson Publishing Company in an archival photo exhibition honouring the power behind images of black female beauty and culture in post-war America.
JPC delivered America the popular ‘Ebony’ and ‘Jet’ magazines that served to reflect and affirm Black American culture in its own image. These influential publications gave an accessible platform to Black-centric fashion and glamour, prominent personalities, cultural and political news and discussion of the living realities of the racial climate of the time. Plucked from a backlog of over four million photographs, the images on display are chosen by Gates to chronicle this legacy, in particular via the work of two prominent JPC photographers, Moneta Sleet Jr. and Isaac Sutton. ‘The Black Image Corporation’ is a thoughtfully and affectionately curated archive of images of Black womanhood from high-fashion to the everyday spheres of home, work and leisure.
Often labelled a social practice artist, Gates is best known for his community-based works that engage the public and instigate social exchanges, such as those set in unoccupied houses in the South Side of Chicago. In the context of an institutional exhibition in Berlin, the participatory element of the show—the invitation to look closely, touch and rearrange the images on display—is an appeal to engage with a history and identity that is most likely not your own. The magazines’ popularity and legacy to Black American pop culture means many visitors will have at least heard of them, but here, in these quiet rooms, Gates calls upon viewers, with a polite nudge, to really consider the significance of these publications within their particular cultural moment.
You might expect from an archival exhibition to be given plenty of context from behind-the-scenes documentation and lengthy texts. But this is not an archive that does the work for you. Nor does Gates create an immersive or confronting environment where engagement is mandatory. The space is monochromatic and minimal, hosting a hushed reflective mood. Ten striking large-format photographs dominate the wall space, but what is laid out between them in the three gallery rooms is where viewers dictate their own consumption of imagery and information.
Visitors can thumb through, spread out and rearrange the project’s catalogue of hundreds of images printed on small cards. A visitor before me had curated a triptych of mother and child photographs, and next to that lay a series of models in black-and-white couture. You can display your favourites from a selection of photographs mounted on wooden frames and housed in sleek wooden cabinets (though this proved a slightly clumsy activity while wearing the slippery white gloves). Spread messily over a light-box table are copies of original cover sheets from the photoshoots. At first seeming like an interactive gimmick inviting visitors to “assume the role of magazine editor,” these tiny photo sequences flesh out a fuller picture of the individual personalities behind each winning shot.
Two vitrines encase stacks of old ‘Ebony’ magazines and a few of the pocket-sized sister mag ‘Jet’. ‘Ebony’, first launched in 1945, is still in print today, but these issues tell a particular story of an intensifying agenda of self-empowerment. Gates’ curated selection captures an era coinciding, not incidentally, with the American Civil Rights movement. Among beauty and domestic topics, the covers bear affirming headlines such as, “America’s 100 richest negroes,” “TV discovers the black man” and “How to start your own business,” alongside more sober and confronting titles, like “How racists use ‘science’ to degrade Black people” and “Why blacks kill blacks.” Strip away the 1960s fashion and many of the headlines—particularly those alluding to racialised state violence—feel all too familiar from current news media.
There are infinite lenses to view the exhibition’s images from: they are a history of fashion and photography, they spell out a set of cultural codes from which to compare contemporary differences and draw parallels, they celebrate black female beauty while holding up a near-impossible beauty standard. Ultimately though, Gates’ archive is a loving tribute to the people in front of and behind the camera, and the reader’s who saw themselves reflected in them.