Theaster Gates Wants You to Browse This Archive of Black Excellence

At Spelman College, the artist’s selection of images from the Johnson Publishing Company celebrates ‘a house that black entrepreneurship built’ 

Upon entering ‘Black Image Corporation’ at the Spelman College Museum of Fine Art, visitors must shoulder a solemn responsibility: endowed with white cotton gloves and an invitation to remove images from the display, not only can they determine what others will see, they can also undo the curatorial work of those who have come before. The exhibition presents Theaster Gates’s own selection from a sprawling archive of over four million images produced by the Johnson Publishing Company, the rights to which the Chicago-based artist acquired prior to the company’s dissolution in April 2019. Founded by John H. Johnson in 1942 and best known for the magazines Ebony and Jet, the company minted the image of upwardly mobile black America in the postwar era. Both publications performed a delicate balancing act: documenting racist violence visited upon African Americans while presenting a carefully crafted vision of what black beauty and success could be.

Courtesy: Johnson Publishing Company, LLC; photograph: Moneta Sleet 

Facsimile Cabinet of Women Origin Stories (2018), the exhibition’s centrepiece, features portraits of stylish, poised African American women, enshrined in identical black frames and tucked into the niches of a large cabinet. These images of celebrities, models, activists and ordinary women were produced for the Johnson Publishing Company by two in-house photographers, Moneta Sleet Jr. and Isaac Sutton, whose impact on American visual culture deserves greater recognition. Ten wall-mounted archival images by Sleet constitute the only truly static aspect of the exhibition.

Courtesy: Johnson Publishing Company, LLC; photograph: Isaac Sutton

In addition to the large central cabinet, two smaller bureaus, crafted in warm wood, produce a votive effect, resembling altars upon which visitors are encouraged to place images of these fashionable women for reverence. Sleet’s wall-mounted photo of a doe-eyed model peering from under a blunt bob makes for a press-kit-ready highlight, but Gates is as focused on the unseen labour of transforming disparate images into public media as he is with the sleek finish of a headshot. For instance, certain prints have been framed to expose the verso rather than the retro, revealing mark-ups left by past editors and art directors, as if to underscore the deeply self-conscious sensibility of many images in the Johnson archive, part of a decades-long project of aspirational uplift.

Each framed image stored within the cabinets bears a label on the back establishing its date, creator and place within a system of Gates’s design. Perhaps in order to draw attention to the ways in which categorical methods effectively produce knowledge, these designations seem inadequate and arbitrarily appended: how, for example, are ‘model’, ‘professional’ and ‘female impersonator’ determined, much less mutually exclusive?

Courtesy: Johnson Publishing Company, LLC; photograph: Moneta Sleet 

A corner of the gallery converted into a petite black box theatre screens Michigan Avenue in Full Bloom (2018), a video tour of the Johnson Publishing Company headquarters in Chicago, eerily vacant and apparently undisturbed since their 1970s heyday. Tarnished by time, the reception areas, boardrooms, lounges and executive offices appear faded to the tawny stain of a Kodachrome. The low electronic pulse of Gates’s original soundtrack courses throughout, occasionally providing a wavering chorus of two simple words: ‘This house.’ With a possible nod to a quintessentially Chicago medium – house music – Gates frames the Johnson Publishing Company as a house that black entrepreneurship built. At Spelman, the nation’s only museum dedicated to exhibiting work by and about women of the African diaspora, these visions of African American femininity seem particularly at home, delivered from the liquidation of the institution that produced them.

Main Image: Theaster Gates, ‘Black Image Corporation’, 2020, installation view, Spelman College Museum of Fine Art, Atlanta

Lauren DeLand is a writer, critic, and curator based in Atlanta, Georgia. Her essays and criticism have appeared in TDR: The Drama Review, Performance Research, Criticism, The Art Newspaper, and regularly in Art in America.

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