Graphic design history, like the history of many American industries, excludes Black practitioners’ work and methods, which I suspect is the reason why there are so few of us in the profession now. So in response, I’ve curated “As, Not For: Dethroning Our Absolute” an exhibition celebrating the work of African-American designers, partially as a bit of soul searching for myself, but mostly as an effort to foster educational and professional equity in the industry.
“It is important for young designers to have role models of their so-called ethnicity. This gives them the feeling, “If he or she can become this, so can I.” Archie Boston, an exhibited designer in As, Not For.
As a professional Black designer, I still feel like an anomaly, often finding myself in majority white educational and professional spaces. And having normalized this feeling of alienation, my formal design education is rooted in methods developed by mostly white men. I’m sure any African-American who has pursued a career with little representation can empathize. This feeling, however, is new, because the start of my life in design actually took place within my own community.
"I taught myself Photoshop as a teenager and began designing party fliers for friends and family, before developing a hustle during my undergraduate days, designed for mostly Black nightlife in Connecticut, Philadelphia, and New York."
I was also actively consuming Black media, looking at mixtape artwork, album covers, and movie posters. When it was time to apply type and image to the page, my initial sources of inspiration— designers such as Pen & Pixel (Cash Money Records), Cey Adams (Def Jam), Art Sims (Spike Lee), and LeRoy Winbush (Ebony and Jet magazines)—were Black, and they were guiding me. In graduate school, I completed a history project about Buddy Esquire, a prolific flyer designer who worked during the rise of Hip-Hop in the Bronx. The research process left me frustrated. Beside a scholarly article by Cornell University graduate student Amanda Lelonde and a few interviews online, there were no sources. I figured Buddy wasn’t the only historically influential Black designer without visibility. This was the seed for “As, Not For.”
During the past year,
I’ve tried identifying every African-American graphic designer active between 1865 and 1999, following breadcrumb trails to compile a list of designers, locate institutions, visit archives, and bask in Black graphic-design greatness. I was, for example, stunned to find out that multiple active Chicago based Black-owned advertising agencies were creating stunning campaigns for huge American brands in the 1960s and 70s. Emmett McBain’s 1972 campaign for Marlboro cigarettes featured photos of the most fly 70s-styled Black man smoking a cigarette at the barber shop, or buying a hot dog on the street, the copy below reading “Where The Flavor Is.”
I had to ensure that this Black excellence got the exposure it deserved, and it was this expanded research that manifested into “As, Not For,” which celebrates unsung African-American designers and acts as a life-sized bibliography, my sources listed within each piece. The exhibition is separated into four sections. “Parties & Protests” celebrates hip-hop party flyers and the Black Panther newspaper, documents used to activate cultures which eventually made an impact internationally. “Advertising & Commerce” features designers who ran Black-owned advertising agencies (including the legendary Art Sims, who is currently living in California). “Black Data” focuses on infographics created by W.E.B. DuBois documenting African-American life in the early 1900s. And “Musicality” displays hip-hop and jazz album art by designers who were agents in the rise of popularity of both genres. Collectively, this work honors a specific aspect of Black culture within its respective decade.
The two main conceptual inspirations for the show are Harlem Renaissance philosopher, Alain Locke, and a 1977 exhibition in Ann Arbor, Michigan titled “Ritual: Baptismal In Black.” My exhibit’s title reflects two pieces of Locke’s writing: “As, Not For” is a three-word summary of a passage in his book, The New Negro, in which he argues that there is no need for Blackness to be performative to be essential within the culture in which it exists. “Dethroning Our Absolutes” is from Locke’s philosophical essay,
“Values and Imperatives,” which prompts readers to assess their subjectivities while being mindful that social norms guide our behavior.
“Ritual: Baptismal in Black” asked its patrons questions that exposed the knowledge gaps the organizers attempted to fill:
“Can your faculty/staff/students each name five nationally or internationally active Black artists?” and
“Do your major art books include the work of major Black artists?”
According to the design census administered by the AIGA and Google, as of 2017, African-Americans account for only 3.4% of all practicing graphic designers in the industry. Luckily, a handful of Black designers have seen this as a call to action. Individuals such as Dian Holton, Antionette D. Carroll, Silas Munroe, Lawrence Burney, and Glenford Laughton, along with websites like peopleofcraft.com, huntgather.design, and goodforpocin.tech, are working to shift the narrative of graphic design history, as well as increase the visibility and representation of Black people in the industry. I curated this exhibition in solidarity also considering these goals. “As, Not For” seeks to interrogate and challenge the design community and beyond with the objective of promoting deep history, design theories and aesthetics of African-American designers.
“As, Not For: Dethroning Our Absolutes” is currently on view at Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore until September 30.