Presented at the Osservatorio Prada from 20 September to 14 January and curated by the artist Theaster Gates (1973), “The Black Image Corporation” spotlights the heritage contained within the Johnson Publishing Company’s archives that span almost seven decades of artistic output. Stemming from a strong belief in the uniquely creative legacy of the Afro-American culture, the exhibition features a selection of negatives, transparencies, color slides, contact sheets and photographic prints which have not seen the light of day for many years.
These archival documents all buttress the inherent potential within the context of a determined milieu and reveal a spectrum of events and personalities that have contributed to shape both black and white lives on a daily basis.
Founded in 1942, the publishing house spawned two publications considered pivotal for African Americans: the monthly Ebony and its weekly counterpart Jet, which rose to fame respectively in 1945 and 1951.
Entering the first floor of the Osservatorio, one is suddenly confronted with a couple of sober vitrines, each bearing piles and piles of negatives made available for scrutiny – the majority of them portraying well-coiffed women of color caught in a variety of slightly different attitudes and moods and clad in tarty fashionable garments as insignia for the modern woman. Composed not to be attentively listened to, but to conflate with the background buzz as if it was a visual and sonic wallpaper, a video realized by Theaster Gates with a soundtrack by the rock group The Monks of Mississippi, shows the environments of the Johnson Publishing Company as-of-then. Nearby, a toasty armchair lures viewers with a rather affable invitation to unwind over a handful of scattered original magazines and perhaps indulge in palavers with a stranger fortuitously passing by. Tucked in the corner stands a reclusive yet vibrant golden loveseat patterned with geometric motifs and finely coupled with a twin carpet in front it. A photograph of a singer hanging atop this fitting dialog completes the enigmatic scene. Despite the liveliness of her gesture and countenance, further enhanced by a white line rimming her silhouette, she appears as unreal and stiff as if she was a cartoonish rendition of herself – one that could easily fit into advertising snippets from the paper without bringing discord of any sort.
As we transition to the upper much more open-spaced floor, the narrative picks up steam and achieves greater depth by its connection to large-format black-and-white photographs hung along the walls or on wainscoted support structures. As a curator, Gates redeploys several ephemera created ad hoc by Arthur Elrod for the offices of Johnson Publishing Company, located in downtown Chicago. Formerly known as the “Ebony/Jet Building”, the publishing house’s headquarters were designed by John M.Moutoussamy and belongs today to the city’s recognized architectural patrimony.
The recreation of these interiors sends out an equally compelling invitation to indulge either in the steamy effervescence of the Jet floor or in the much more Apollonian restraint of the Ebony floor according to ones taste and mood. In a nod to what we might call “site-specificity”, Gates furnishes two settings for the sake of socialization as an embodied, affective process with a hint of nostalgia. Far from being solely a backdrop, the original décor marks an on-going historicization of society in which an opportunity is found to recast certain narratives and accounts of the self.
Organizing such a comprehensive and seemingly unusual show in the spaces of the Osservatorio might be a hard task to pull off. Embedded in the most typical Milanese scenario, in ever so close proximity to the Duomo, and historically oriented towards mainly white-based artworks, they might function as a major deterrent for non-aligned artistic procedures.
However, “The Black Image Corporation” shifts conversations within this context in hopes of toppling the systemic barriers that often keep people of color out of the rooms where the best art is showcased in order to garner a more inclusive perspective on a determined cultural moment and enterprise. By operating from a community–first approach, Theaster Gates offers a comprehensive study of what it’s like to navigate the world in a black body at a particular moment in time. For him, the archives symbolize beauty and Black female power. “Today it seems to be a good time to dig into the visual lexicon of the American book and show images that are rarely seen outside of my community. I wanted to celebrate women of all kinds and especially Black women.”