Posters by Rush Jackson of Onyx Self-Imaging Lab.

For Rush Jackson, the young artist and designer behind graphic design studio Onyx Self-Imaging, design’s value lies in its usefulness. “Graphic design by itself is empty,” says Jackson. “It is a vessel that you can fill with what you want.” With their studio, founded this year, Jackson has filled this vessel by providing Black, Brown and queer initiatives and communities with design centered services. 

One of their most prominent recent projects is the design of Antwaun Sargent’s book The New Black Vanguard: Photography between Art and Fashion, which they worked on with Mark Owens in partnership with Sargent and the Aperture Foundation. The tome is a compilation of images by 15 contemporary Black artists and photographers—job titles that prove interchangeable within the context of the book—with a grounding essay by Sargent on the changing role of the commercialized Black body, as well as a smattering of conversations between inter-generational voices within the Black image-making community. The design process was entirely non-hierarchical, with experience and seniority cast aside, mimicking Jackson’s political alignment and philosophical ideals.

Jackson used their skills in graphic design (which they note were acquired mostly outside of academic spaces) to situate the work of these photographers in a sensitive and clear context that spoke to their individual practices and experience within the fashion industry. “It was a monumental project,” says Jackson. “The process was very interesting: How do we talk about this emerging class of image makers, many of whom are super young, that have transcended labels, working through fashion and art contexts, without pigeonholing themselves?” This was the central question throughout the text, which Jackson also addressed in the publication’s design, by rooting the images in a clean, clear, and straightforward frame. 

As the only Black designer working on the publication, questions of sensitivity and accuracy, as well as some large decisions, fell on Jackson’s shoulders. “While designing The New Black Vanguard, my main concern was to avoid making a book that would feel essentialist in its design and logic,” they said. “The book’s visual language ended up heavily relying on the usage of color and the idea of a spectrum. The color wheel is non-hierarchical. Language should expand an idea, not limit.” Upon publication, The New Black Vanguard contributed significantly to the discussion of representation within the historically ugly world of fashion, both behind the camera and in front of it. It’s proven popular in several circles—artistically minded or not, Black or White—providing more opportunities for the “Black gaze” to be considered and enjoyed. 

The field of graphic design is still overwhelmingly White, as almost every field is in the Western world. Because of the supremacist nature and history of the field, a Black cultural lexicon is still taking shape within it. “I hated everything about what design institutions were, because of how inaccessible they felt to me,” says Jackson. “I haven’t seen design pedagogy I agree with or can connect with in academic spaces. It all felt antiquated, outdated, and a way of thinking that mimics Whiteness and white supremacy.” 

Regardless, they still found value in the form. For Jackson, this realization came in college, as they thought through the most effective ways to spread awareness and information. “There was a turning point when I started to see the worth of publications in getting a message across,” says Jackson. “A book can travel and change so many folks’ lives. Books are accessible. They can be printed cheaply.” 

While living in Philadelphia in 2017, Jackson also embraced an arguably humbler form of dissemination—the poster—again through community. “I got really involved in the DIY music scene in Philly,” says Jackson. “All of the amazing Black artists and thinkers in the area—like Philadelphia Print Works for instance, an exciting community-centric Black-woman-run print shop—led me to want to participate somehow, so I started to do poster designs for a lot of events across the city.” Jackson’s graphic design work during this period usually fell within a limited black and white palette. For musician Isaak Pancake’s show at The Sound Hole in West Philly, Jackson layered navy blue text over intersected white rectangles with naive smiley flower doodles fading into the foreground. Grey indecipherable shapes dominate the background, calling to mind early X-rays or mistaken xeroxes. Also within the same year, Jackson worked on a series of short-duration video works titled “anti-oppression rituals.”

“Designers know the power they have culturally. There is way too much complacency within the field.”

Jackson used a similar format in a 2017 poster for a performance by musician Orion Sun and Black Power Ambiance (a side project of rapper Andre Altrez) at Philadelphia Print Works. In a notable departure for this period, Jackson produced a colorful poster for Philadelphia based musician Whomst’s Spring 2017 tour.

Part of what makes Jackson’s practice particularly interesting is their refusal to pigeonhole themselves. Jackson works across a multitude of mediums, including fine art and art direction. “Most of my creative career I’ve been very ambiguous,” says Jackson. “I have a studio in Ocean Hill, Brooklyn, that I use for everything. There are some interesting ‘slippages’ that happen in that space because of the overlap of mediums.” Jackson’s practice, which so far has encompassed performance, painting, writing, and art, consistently considers topics past image and text. “ONYX Self-Imaging is the amalgamation of my past collaborative projects and a dedication to community-centric models of working through graphic design,” says Jackson. For a project to appeal to them it has to have a personal relevance and be beneficial to the communities they are a part of both in Philadelphia and New York.

One of the most engaging projects Jackson has worked on recently was produced with the Baltimore-based Afro American Newspaper’s archive: “The sheer scale of content I was working with for Savannah Woods’ To the Front: Black Women and the Vote was incredibly ambitious. I, with the help of Jerome Harris, handled photographs, newspaper clippings, and other archival material for the design of the book. Some of this material went back as far as 100 years in the past, centering the Baltimore suffragette struggle, as well as the ongoing fight for voter equality that rages on today,” says Jackson. Disseminating such valuable, little known information within (and outside) of the Baltimore community is exactly the sort of impact that excites Jackson. And with good reason. “I think culturally we are experiencing a communication crisis at this moment. It’s projects like this that can help us inch our way out of that,” they say. “Designers know the power they have culturally. There is way too much complacency within the field.”