‘As, Not For: Dethroning Our Absolutes’ is an exhibition of work by African-American graphic designers that seeks to “question, inspire, activate, and challenge the design community and beyond with the objective of promoting deep history, design theory and aesthetics of African-Americans,” according to curator Jerome Harris, a graphic designer and Maryland Institute College of Art teaching fellow.
The show at MICA presents printed ephemera from the past century: each piece has been reproduced and uniformly scaled—“in solidarity” as Harris notes—as 24” x 36” posters.
We spoke with the designer and educator about the exhibit’s concept and content, and asked him to select five individual objects from the show to explain their history in more detail.
How did the concept for the show originate?
While in grad school I was required to complete a research project that explored the life, work, influences, and historical context of a designer of my choice. I decided to use Buddy Esquire as my muse, a party flyer designer whose work is now some of the only surviving documents from the birth of hip-hop culture. I had a tough time finding any material about him, and this frustrated me. I returned to this research in the past year, and this exhibition acts as a checkpoint, sharing my expanded yet incomplete findings.
Why did you decide to specifically focus on African-American graphic designers that have utilized modernist and Bauhausian methods, alongside those using more intuitive methods?
In my research, I found works by designers that were analogous to that of their more celebrated white contemporaries. Given that Modernist techniques in graphic design had become the aesthetic of commerce, they couldn’t avoid its heavy hand in their work. Exhibited designers such as Leroy Winbush, Emmett McBain, and Archie Boston had all worked for white agencies before starting their own. Art Sims worked for Columbia Records and CBS before starting his studio. I can’t help but suspect their experience informed their understanding of design, and that they were unaware of designers that came before them like Reginald Gammon and Grafton Tyler Brown.
A handful of African-American designers seemed exempt from Modernism’s influence, which may be because they didn’t work in advertising or commerce. Buddy Esquire and Phase 2 were self-taught as designers, yet began as graffiti writers and translated the expressive qualities of their life-sized work to letter sized paper using Letraset type, Exacto knives, pens, and glue. Cey Adams had a similar start as a writer but was also formally trained as a painter at SVA. When he began designing, Buddy Esquire and Phase 2 were direct influences on his work, in addition to his street and fine arts backgrounds. As for W.E.B. DuBois, he wanted to make some infographics, and he did, with no training at all. Lastly, Pen & Pixel maximized the capabilities of early Photoshop’s layering and manipulations, creating ridiculously imaginative collages with bombastic type, which were art directed by hip-hop artists in the south. Their influence on the design of mixtape art and party fliers are still apparent today.
Tell me about the exhibition title, and how you distilled your concept as curator into the design of the accompanying poster.
“As, Not For” and “Dethroning Our Absolutes” are two remixed fragments of writing by Harlem Renaissance philosopher Alain Locke. “As, Not For” is derived from The New Negro, a critique of Black Aesthetics. In the referenced passage Locke argues that African-Americans “speak as Negroes” from their lived experience rather than explain, translating, or idealizing Blackness. The tagline is a quote from a philosophical essay entitled “Values and Imperatives.” Here, Locke suggests that we assess our subjectivities while also being cognizant that “norms guide our behavior as well as guide our reasoning.”
I designed the poster more as a romanticized graphic designer-as-detective link chart mixed with some jokes about Black media and celebrities that I view as acting “as” or “for.” The poster draws on formal cues from initial brainstorm sessions with students at MICA, and fragments of works in the exhibition. It also includes a column from the Baltimore Afro-American newspaper chronicling the admission of the first Black student, Howard M. Gross, to Maryland Institute College of Art in 1895.
Can you expand on the exhibition’s aim to promote the inclusion of neglected African-American practitioners in the classroom and the field at large?
What would happen if we made graphic design history more equitable, including designers from more than just European and—rarely—Asian decent? Caroline Roberts in her book Graphic Design Visionaries, which I love, tells us in the introduction that the book is severely lacking women. But what about people of color, Caroline? Now, let’s consider this book with Buddy Esquire’s party fliers, Cey Adams’ Def Jam album art, Sylvia Abernathy’s Delmark record sleeves, Art Sims’ movie posters, and advertising work by Archie Boston, Emmett McBain, LeRoy Winbush, as well as publications by Eugene Winslow. I’ll reach and say that the inclusion of more women and people of color would severely shift the understanding of the field, and how people see themselves as practitioners. Of course, the work produced would change as well.
The exhibition also provides young designers with an understanding that African-Americans were working while El Lissitzky, Paul Rand, Massimo Vignelli, and the inventor of the term graphic design, W.A. Dwiggins, claimed their places in design history. Graphic design doesn’t have to be synonymous with the exclusionary “independence” in the Declaration of Independence, seemingly declaring such for white men only. However, it seems like it is as of now. Look at the 2017 design census.
- Reginald Gammon, Houdini Print Mock-Up, 1950.
Reginald Gammon was an artist, activist, educator, and community leader. He did the absolute most in his lifetime, teaching in public schools, at Western Michigan State University, starting a Black artists’ collective, and organizing a program for the children of Harlem to learn art techniques from artists in the community on the weekend. What a guy. This Houdini print mock-up is beautiful. By using the mirror as the O in Houdini, and indicating time passing by repeating the name four times with the man in the mirror fading in each iteration is a simple yet effective way of communicating Houdini’s claim to fame.
2. Sylvia Abernathy, Sun Ra’s Sun Song Record Sleeve, 1966.
First of all, Laini (Sylvia) Abernathy is the only woman in ‘As, Not For’, for several reasons. Also, Abernathy’s career is tied chiefly to her husband, with whom she collaborated often. But that’s wack. Nonetheless, here Abernathy provides a playful treatment for Sun Ra’s Sun Song. In 1966 Martin Luther King had moved to Chicago temporarily, so perhaps the sentiment of light shining on their city is shared by both the musician and designer.
3. Eugene Winslow, Afro-Am Educational Materials. 1978.
Eugene Winslow studied at the Art Institute of Chicago as well as the Illinois Institute of Technology and was also a member of the famed Tuskegee Airmen. Why didn’t I learn this during Black History Month, or ever? Anyway, he started an education publishing company whose output promoted racial integration. I chose this booklet because the sans serif is reminiscent of a Swiss typographic treatment, with a full-page photo of the books in the publication with an orange overlay. Winslow has a handful of similar works that show typographic restraint paired with immersive imagery.
4. Phase 2, Earth’s Edge leaflet, 1983.
Phase 2, born Lonny Wood, is a writer from the Bronx and was known as a member of the Zulu Nation. Word on the street is that he’s an elusive legend, but his graffiti and graphic design works speak for themselves. This flyer in particular displays some of Phase 2’s typographic tendencies that I find particularly compelling. For example, the composition of the title with that tiny “s” gets me every time. Also, the “NYC BREAKERS” along the bottom jumbled as if they’re breaking is excellent. Even the quotation marks are dancing. Phase 2’s attention to detail is great, cutting out the back of the “D” that overlaps the “G” in “EDGE,” and the consistent tight setting of all of the caps is quite lovely when you consider he rubbed each letter on individually.
5. Cey Adams, Violator Album Art, 1999.
Cey Adams is a writer, designer and fine artist currently working out of Brooklyn. He studied painting at SVA in New York and had exhibited with artists such as Basquiat and Keith Haring. He is a co-founder of Def Jam Records’ in-house graphic design team and has created the artwork for the collective soundtrack of my childhood. I was personally gifted this Violator ad proof from Adams himself. Cey had commissioned Cbabi Bayoc to create illustrations for the campaign, which included legends such as Missy Elliot, Big Pun, LL Cool J, Mobb Deep, and Busta Rhymes, pictured here.