okai davis - makes a man

A NEW EXHIBITION AT THE STUDIO MUSEUM in Harlem was inspired by the pluck of a young Chicago entrepreneur. When positive images of black people were absent from America’s most popular household magazines, John H. Johnson started his own. Fixtures on the coffee tables of countless black families across the country, Ebony and Jet served as cultural barometers, vital news resources and bibles of aspirational imagery in their mid- to late-20th century hey days.

“Speaking of People: Ebony, Jet and Contemporary Art” considers the innovative ways 16 artists reference the storied publications in their practices. Godried Donkor, Ellen Gallagher, Lorna Simpson and Mickalene Thomas appropriate black-and-white images. Hank Willis Thomas’s Ebony Life and Jet People works draw on the symbolism of the logos juxtaposed with their mainstream counterparts. Ayanah Moor manipulates editorial content from the 1980s about the quality of eligible men in several American cities. Other artists pursue more conceptual and documentary approaches.

After viewing the show last Friday, I spoke by phone with Associate Curator Lauren Haynes, who organized the exhibition. She discussed how “Speaking of People” developed, the ways in which the largely vintage material resonates with the artists’ contemporary practices and her vision for the exhibition’s catalog.

CULTURE TYPE: What was the genesis for the exhibition?

LAUREN HAYNES: The first time I started thinking about it seriously was around the time two springs ago when we had an exhibition by David Hartt, one of the artists in the show, called “Stray Light.” He was able to connect us to the Johnson Publishing Company building shortly before they actually sold the building and his photographs and the film he made were really interesting meditations on this building that looks like a time capsule. So much of the space had been preserved from its original ’70s décor.

Also, thinking a lot about Theaster Gates and his work with the Johnson archive. Artists like Lorna Simpson, who recently started working with the images, and Hank Willis Thomas, and realizing that there were many artists of African descent who were looking at the magazines and turning them into works that didn’t feel similar at all. I wanted to delve deeper into that and explore other artists who were using the materials.


DAVID HARTT, “Carpet at The Johnson Publishing Company Headquarters, Chicago, Illinois, II,” 2011 (archival pigment print mounted to Dibond and framed, Edition of 6 + 1 AP). | Courtesy the artist and Corbett vs Dempsey, Chicago, IL


There is a range. Can you talk about the various ways the artists have interpreted the publications in their work?

The artists are using this material in a way that already exists in their practices. For someone like Hank, he’s very much interested in and worked a lot with the language of advertisements and ads and taking away text and adding different text and what that all means. Lorna’s interest is in the female form and now her interest is in collage and Ellen Gallagher as well. It’s interesting to see how artists from various media, different backgrounds and points in their careers are using this material and taking it different ways that still very much fits in with the rest of their work.

“It’s interesting to see how artists from various media, different backgrounds and points in their careers are using this material and taking it different ways that still very much fits in with the rest of their work.”
— Lauren Haynes

Are there any particular pieces that stand out for you in the exhibition or maybe works you were unaware of until you began to do research for the show?

It’s always exciting to come across the work of artists who have not really been seen before and particularly artists who are working in different parts of the country. Artists like Martine Syms who’s based in California or Jeremy Okai Davis who’s based in Portland, the experience of getting to know their work better and seeing how it fits in with the exhibition is always exciting.


Donkor_Ebony Accra
GODFRIED DONKOR, “Ebony Accra edition,” 2014 (collage on paper). | Courtesy the artist


There was a South Africa edition of Ebony magazine, published for about five years post-apartheid before it was shuttered in 2000. A thirst for the kind of validation Ebony and Jet offered existed internationally. Historically, how have Ebony and Jet influenced black artists outside of the United States such as Godfried Donkor, the Ghanaian-born artist who lives and works in London?

The magazine that Godfried Donkor is thinking about and combining with Ebony is Drum. It’s a South African publication that was based loosely on Ebony, but it was very much its own thing by a different company. He was interested in how growing up—not in the United States but still having familiarity with Ebony and Jet and seeing them come across to him while he was growing up in London—how that affected his interest in magazines and newspapers. How those magazines always affected and have been a part of his work.

It’s really interesting to see how the magazines sometimes would get to other countries, maybe not at the same time they are published here, but being sent to people’s family members who were living in the Caribbean or different places as almost a packing material at the bottom of a drum that’s full of other things. It’s imminent. The information exists and then eventually gets passed around that community there.

Donkor’s boxing image is not from Ebony or Jet?

What he’s done is make a fictional cover for his own magazine that is a combination of Ebony and Drum. The images could be from a variety of sources. They may not be from either of the magazines. They could have been sourced from somewhere else, but these fictional covers pay tribute to both of those magazines.


HANK WILLIS THOMAS, Detail of “Black is Beautiful (1953-2014),” 2014 (archival Inkjet print on adhesive paper, Dimensions variable). | Courtesy the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York | Photo by Victoria L. Valentine


How have people reacted to the downstairs gallery where the walls are papered with six decades of Jet’s Beauty of the Week, from black-and-white images in the 1950s to the women featured in the magazine’s final print issues earlier this year? Hank Willis Thomas created quite an immersive experience.

We’ve only been open for about a week, so I don’t really know how everyone is reacting. When we did our staff walk through, there was a lot of excitement from many people who had grown up reading and experiencing Jet and Beauty of the Week. Seeing them all, there were lots of people looking at them and connecting with them, saying, “Oh, I remember this, I remember seeing this one, and I remember that.” Also, people were thinking about the various ways the images are perceived and what it means to see so many black female bodies in one space. I think it will be a work that many people have a variety of reactions to.

The catalog has a cloth cover in a bold red reminiscent of the Ebony and Jet logos. How did you want to document the exhibition in the catalog in terms of the concept, design and content?

We worked with a New York City-based design firm OCD, Original Champions of Design, and they are very thorough and detailed when they begin to work on projects. They do a lot of research and immerse themselves in the materials and the art that the project is going to be representing. It was a conversation and back and forth with the team there.

I want it to be a document of the exhibition, but also something that can stand and live on its own. The catalog (available at the museum store) will be around much longer than the exhibition will be around, so it is important that if someone comes across the catalog in a couple of years that they not feel like they are only getting a part of the story. They are able to read the essays by many different contributors and have a full picture of the ideas we were trying to pull out with the exhibition, as well as getting a little bit more background about the 16 artists in the show.

“Speaking of People” provides a range of entry points into what Ebony and Jet have symbolized for more nearly 70 years. For those who grew up with the magazines and really cherish what they represent and for other artists who will view the work, what do you hope they will take away from the exhibition?

One thing that was really interesting to me as this exhibition was developing is the way that artists are using materials that may be slightly historic, of a moment that is not now, to reflect and think about contemporary ideas. That’s something that I hope people engage with and are in touch with. Also to let them know that no exhibition is completely comprehensive. There are only 16 artists in this exhibition and that is not to say that only 16 black artists are engaging with this material. It’s a starting point for a variety of conversations that will hopefully continue and live on. CT


This interview has been condensed and edited.


IMAGE: Top of page, JEREMY OKAI DAVIS, “Makes the Man,” 2012 (acrylic on canvas). | Courtesy the artist


Published to coincide with the exhibition, “Speaking of People: Ebony, Jet and Contemporary Art” features full-color images and contributions from Studio Museum in Harlem Director Thelma Golden, curator Lauren Haynes and artist Hank Willis Thomas, among others.


ELLEN GALLAGHER, “Hare,” 2013 (ink, watercolor, oil, pencil and cut paper on paper). | Private Collection. Courtesy Hauser & Wirth, Photo by Ernst Moritz, © Ellen Gallagher


Ligon_Endless Column-Nu Nile Yellow
GLENN LIGON, “Endless Column/Nu Nile (Yellow),” 1985 (synthetic polymer, ink and graphite on paper). | Courtesy the artist, Photo by Ronal Amstutz


HW Thomas_Jet People
HANK WILLIS THOMAS, “Jet People,” 2010 (gouache acrylic on canvas). | Courtesy the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York, © Hank Willis Thomas


Anderson_Ebony Painting 1
NOEL ANDERSON, “Ebony Painting 1,” 2012 (manipulated Ebony page and carpet foam 20). | Courtesy the artist and Tilton Gallery, New York


Young_Horses Figures and Railroad Tracks on Ebony
PURVIS YOUNG, “Horses, Figures and Railroad Tracks on Ebony,” c. 1994 (paint on paper, diptych). | Courtesy Skot Foreman, New York, NY, Photo by Marc Bernier


Mickalene Thomas - Clarivel Right
MICKALENE THOMAS, “Clarivel Right,” 2013 (color photograph and paper collage on archival board). | Courtesy the artist


Installation view: From left, AYANNAH MOOR, “Good News, 2011S (site specific installation of silkscreen on newsprint, Dimensions variable) | Courtesy the artist; NOEL ANDERSON, “Black Past-iche (to be looked at farandaway),” 2014 (fabric dye, collage and digital transfers in custom doubled-sded frame; collage, silkscreen, acrylic and digital transfers on rug). | Courtesy the artist and Tilton Gallery, New York | Photo by Victoria L. Valentine


Simpson_Riunite & Ice_1
LORNA SIMPSON, “Riunite & Ice” Collage #1,” 2014 (collage and ink on paper). | Courtesy the artist and Salon 94, New York


HW Thomas_Ebony Life
HANK WILLIS THOMAS, “Ebony Life,” 2010 (gouache acrylic on canvas). | Courtesy the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York, © Hank Willis Thomas


ELLEN GALLAGHER, “DeLuxe,” 2004-05 (portfolio of sixty etchings with photogravure, spitbite, collage, laser-cutting, screenprint, offset lithography, hand-painting and Plasticine). | The Studio Museum in Harlem; Museum purchase made possible by a gift from Thomas H. Lee and Ann Tenenbaum, New York 05.8.1


Syms_Johnson Publishing Company Building 1971
MARTINE SYMS, “Johnson Publishing Company Building,” 1971, 2013 (altered archival photograph). | Courtesy the artist


Gates_My Beauty is Political
THEASTER GATES, “My Beauty is Political,” 2014 (sound and color video, TRT 00:02:56). Courtesy the artist and White Cube; Installed with Gates’s “On Black Foundations,” 2012 (wood, glass, plastic, paper and makeup) Dimensions. | Courtesy the artist and White Cube


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