International Print Center of New York
October 1 – December 17, 2016
Currently up at the International Print Center of New York (IPCNY) is an exhibition that delves deep into the history of African American culture (and collective imagination one could say) through printed matter. Black Pulp! presents a historical survey of how African American writers, journalists, poets, activists, artists, and organizations utilized printed media to offer “counternarratives to Jim Crow era stereotypes.”1 In effect, the exhibition attempts to showcase the rich history of African Americans using the democratic and outward reaching medium of print as a way of reclaiming their own history through disseminating alternative, empowering, and inventive forms of black imagery.
The show’s curators, artists William Villalongo and Mark Thomas Gibson, mined visual archives, most notably Emory University’s Rose Library, to present a breadth of work that spans the period of 1912 to 2016, and offers a historical thread between black propaganda posters, political satires/caricatures, and journal and book covers—all dating back to the 1940s, ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s—and the aesthetic investigations of contemporary artists who reimagine or speak to this historical tradition as a transgressive and progressive medium for people of color. To this degree, the show is not only a historical exhibition ipso facto, but a window into how artists are using the medium today as a conduit for expressing their own political views on race and history predominantly.
The show can be clearly divided into “what is in the vitrines” (i.e. historical printed ephemera) and “what is hung on the walls” (i.e. works by contemporary artists). In the vitrines showcased are the graphic propaganda posters of Emory Douglas; Elton C. Fax’s NAACP Poster (1944) in which a black crow with “Jim Crow” printed across its belly is being strangled by the hand of the NAACP; the cover art of W.E.B. Du Bois’s journal The Crisis and Charles S. Johnson’s The Opportunity, illustrated by artists such as Aaron Douglas; a reproduction of Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series in a 1941 Fortune Magazine issue; and many historical documents. Some of the more revealing materials housed in these cases, however—some of which I’ve personally never seen before—are the examples of comics on black subjectivity dating back to the 1940s. Comic strips like George Herriman’s Krazy Kat (1944), or Billy Graham’s Marvel comics Luke Cage and Black Panther from the 1960s are featured, as well as Don Arneson’s Lobo, the first African-American standalone comic hero.
Black Pulp!, on the one hand making reference to the physicality of the form—of paper pulp—has a double meaning, perhaps more overtly crediting the genre of “pulp fiction:” from inexpensive paperback fictions like comic books to Blacksploitation movies. However, the implication here seems to propel a stylistic or conceptual connection between the archival materials and contemporary artworks, through the theme and imagery of comics—and perhaps more specifically superhero comics.
Mark Gibson’s essay “The Redaction of My Heroes,” published in the exhibition catalogue, clearly examines the archetype of the superhero and black heroism through the history of comic books and Sci-Fi, as a cultural vision empowering the black figure/community while also threatening white dominant culture. As Gibson points out in his essay, the onus placed on these early comic book writers focusing on black subjectivity was not only to present more and more black figures as fantasy heroes, but also to cast them in light that is both genuine and authentic, thus debunking the “conventional comic book stereotypes for blacks.” As a result, the stylistic and narrative tropes of comic books become a creative locus where black heroism and black realism meet—an exciting space for artists to explore contemporary viewpoints on black subjectivity. For example, Dominican-American artist Kenny Rivero’s Supermane (2015)—a painting of superman with a large afro represented by the artist’s own hair glued onto its surface—and Gotham City Screams, Issue #4, Page 12 (2016)—a monotype in black ink depicting a naked child, covered only by a Batman mask and cape, within an abstracted space—present personalized permutations of iconic superheroes that vary between social commentary and the revealing of a black subconscious. Other examples include Kerry James Marshall’s Dailies of Rythm Mastr (2010), a series of silkscreen prints creating a fictional comic strip where black characters discuss Nat Turner, Afro-Modernism, post-blackness, and white supremacy; and Fred Wilson’s etching titled Arise! (2004), depicting clusters of black spots surrounded by speech bubble quotes from black characters created by white writers.
Of course, tracing the history of comic books is only one of the many threads drawn throughout the exhibition––works by artists Ellen Gallagher, Renee Cox, Hank Willis Thomas, Derrick Adams, Kara Walker, and many more, look to other sources for inspiration. All works in Black Pulp! seem to straddle the line between Afrofuturistic narratives of black excellence and the abject realities of blacks’ victimization. In fact, the question of black representation, especially in today’s media, is an urgent issue that forces the hand of the artist to make important decisions on how best to render blackness in contemporary imagery. To do so with clarity, perhaps one needs only to look at this saturated history.
- William Villalongo, “Strange Material: Black Pulp,” in Black Pulp! (New Haven: Yale School of Art, 2016), 8.