Speaking of People: Ebony, Jet and Contemporary Art
Studio Museum of Harlem | November 13, 2014 – March 8, 2015
Speaking of People is a powerful group exhibition that focuses on the many ways contemporary artists have taken inspiration from the pages of Ebony and Jet magazines. For more than a few, the actual pages themselves serve as a point of departure. For others, the socially coded messages of the magazines are revivified, examined, and at times completely transformed. Issues of race, identity, the impact of the media on self-perception, and sexuality comprise the sinews of this politically engaged exhibition.
The show’s curator, Lauren Haynes, has put together a smart collection of essays in an accompanying catalog that describe the historical relevance of these two magazines as organs of black speech, thought, and community. As Thelma Golden writes in an introductory essay, “Ebony and Jet provided and shaped a history—our history, my history, black history.” Hank Willis Thomas, who has several works in the exhibition, corroborates Golden’s perspective. He writes that “[Ebony and Jet] created the greatest living archive of the African-American experience over the past seventy years.” Thomas quotes the comedian Redd Foxx, who called these magazines “the bible for black people.” Without a doubt, they are cultural icons—though none of the artists make any effort to place them on a pedestal.
The first work one sees upon entering the exhibition is a painting by Jeremy Okai Davis, “Makes the Man” (2012), that exemplifies the type of media-oriented identity issues explored in the show. The painting features two cans of pomade on either side of a skinless face. A large black Afro, clear eyes, and broadly smiling mouth appear to float on a field of splotchy pink paint above the phrase “MAKES THE MAN.” The painting references popular advertisements that ran in Jet and Ebony with a critical eye towards the commodification of a person’s appearance as a marker of worth or manhood.
From deeper in the exhibition one hears the phrase, “My complexion is political,” being repeated several times. Following the voice leads to “On Black Foundations” (2012), a compact installation with a video component created by Theaster Gates. The installation is comprised of a vitrine with a range of Fashion Fair cosmetics on display. (Fashion Fair Cosmetics is a sister company of Jet and Ebony that designs skin products for black women.) In the video above the vitrine a dark-skinned woman—without any makeup—proclaims her beauty and self worth. The title of the work plays on the notion of foundations, co-mingling a sense of one’s heritage with a base layer of facial makeup.
The woman’s voice echoes around the exhibition and imbues other work with its message, much of which extends a critical perspective on concepts of beauty, women, and their skin. Hank Willis Thomas and Mickalene Thomas have both created work based on Jet magazine’s “Beauty of the Week” series, in which young black bikini-clad women are pictured beside a list of their hobbies, jobs, educational backgrounds, and often dress sizes. However, each artist uses the material to different ends. Mickalene’s collages reassert a sense of feminine empowerment, while Hank’sinstallation, “Black is Beautiful” (2008) wallpapers a room with thousands of “Beauty of the Week” pictures. The former trades raw sexuality for a sense of intellectual astuteness while the latter shifts the focus from the female body to an analysis of how the female body is represented in the media.
There are many astute pieces that turn from beauty back to beauty products, such as Ellen Gallagher’s “Deluxe” (2004 – 05) which features 60 unique etchings, each of which is based on a magazine page advertising hair pomades, wigs, or skin lightening creams. Like Davis’s depiction of a face in “Makes the Man,” Gallagher remodels afros, eyeballs, and lips with astonishing variety, transforming commercial representations into fantastic images that verge on supernatural. Elsewhere a suite of Glenn Ligon’s early drawings from the mid-’80s juxtaposes famous modernist sculpture, like Brancusi’s “Endless Column,” with hair pomades in a sly move that suggests the influence of African culture on European modernists.
One can hardly move through a show that is so saturated with notions of beauty without pushing into the realm of outright sexuality. Ayanah Moor’s installation “Good News” (2011) moves in exactly that direction. Her work quotes from a 1980s article in Ebony, “What They Say About the Men in Their Towns,” except she substitutes the word “women” for “men,” shifting the gender politics into a queer dimension. It is the only work in the show that brings in a homosexual perspective, and in doing so it upends the traditional notion of women aspiring to beauty to attract men. Furthermore, the piece recognizes a community that has been largely ostracized from Jet and Ebony.
What is absent from this exhibition is just as notable as what’s present. There is no work that addresses issues of outright violence, injustice, or poverty. There are no images of guns, gold, or flashy vehicles. In this sense, the exhibition does not pander in the least to contemporary events or media trends. There is no sense of victimization. If anything there is a quiet sense of racial pride that pulses through the show. This may be on account of the temper of the magazines, but just as likely it emerges from the artists willful embrace and reinvigoration of important historical touchstones.
CHARLES SCHULTZ is a writer based in New York City.