The cover of Ebony magazine’s February 1968 issue consists of a montage of images of paintings by Charles Alston, Hughie-Lee Smith, Romare Bearden, William H. Johnson, Merton D. Simpson, and Edward Mitchell Bannister beside the headline “Evolution of Afro-American Art: 1800-1950.” Above these images, in the upper righthand corner, is another headline: “Was Abe Lincoln a White Supremacist.” This copy of Ebony sits atop a pile of others in one of the vitrines in “The Black Image Corporation,” an exhibition curated by Theaster Gates and running at the Martin Gropius Bau until July 28. In a single montaged image, this cover captures many of the themes and questions that define “The Black Image Corporation.” For example, how does a people stripped of a multiplicity of histories reconstruct an identity? What defines “Afro-American Art?” How can the diversity of the Black experience be distilled into a portable, mass-audience format? And, perhaps most troublingly, are the defining figures of American history so intrinsically corrupted that the national project they constructed is beyond redemption? Gates’s impossibly powerful exhibition makes no pretense toward answering these questions, but enjoins its visitors to face them honestly.
The contents of the exhibition are largely culled from the extensive archives of the Johnson Publishing Company which produced Ebony and Jet magazines, two of the most successful publications directed toward African-American audiences in the Post-War period. Photographs make up the majority of the works on display. These images, produced by the company’s legendary photographers — the Pulitzer Prize-winning Moneta Sleet Jr. and the criminally underappreciated Isaac Sutton — depict an intensely atmospheric period of Black American history, tracing the arc of the Civil Rights Movement and the golden age of Motown. The so-called “Black is Beautiful” cultural revolution that began in the 1950s moved hand-in-glove with the images that magazines like Ebony helped to create and popularize. Gates’s use of the word “corporation” in the title of the show is deft in its acknowledgement of the economic concerns that were enmeshed with the rise of the Johnson Publishing Company. While the exhibition contains a number of images depicting the everyday lives of African-Americans of the period, many photos from the archive are ultimately commercial images aimed at projecting a certain notion of sophistication and glamour. Inevitably, these entail certain limitations; “aspiration” is often a watchword in the world of Ebony and Jet. Like the aspects of Black life they depict, these images are undeniably beautiful, chronicling a period of African-American style and fashion that resonates into the present, but they are only one aspect of a multidimensional story. Perhaps this was why I was so drawn to the magazines themselves. Visitors cannot interact with them as directly as with the photographs — in the latter case, purpose-built “viewing cabinets” are placed in the exhibition to allow viewers to select from a set of photographic images on wooden plates and view them in detail. Nonetheless, the magazines have a way of interacting with the viewer. To offer some sense of the experience, here are a just a few of the headlines from copies of Ebony on display in the show: “What Can Blacks Expect from Nixon,” “TV Discovers the Black Man,” “Atlanta’s Winning Fight Against Black-on-Black Crime,” “How Racists Use ‘Science’ To Degrade Black People.” Days later, these headlines still haunt me.
Gates has also contributed several works to the show. Two works featuring photographs printed on wall hangings reference the photographic archive directly, integrating the aesthetics of editing and the production processes of advertising. Gates’s video “Michigan Avenue in Full Bloom” takes the viewer inside of the physical space where the Johnson Publishing Company was based in Chicago. Soundtracked by Gates’s own musical project, the work is haunting in its own way. It is part blues requiem for a sacred space that has been dismantled, part celebration of a city’s capacity for reinvention. Walking through the exhibition, the music from the soundtrack to “Michigan Avenue in Full Bloom” sometimes asserts itself in ways that cannot be ignored. The occasional cry from the screen in another room can cut through the exuberance of the images on display as an anguished reminder that Black life is often lived simultaneously in major and minor key.