Theaster Gates: On Black Foundations, 2012, wood, glass, plastic, paper and makeup, dimensions variable; at the Studio Museum.

In January, Chicago’s Johnson Publishing Company, the force behind the magazines Ebony and Jet, announced that it would offer for sale its photo archive, which spans 70 years and includes five million images of African-American life, from pictures of Martin Luther King Jr.’s funeral to glamour shots of Billie Holiday. The company hopes to garner $40 million, which would help make up for declining revenues and facilitate the transition from print to digital. In the right hands, Johnson’s CEO recently said, the archive could be the “black Getty.”

John H. Johnson founded Ebony in 1945, at the tail end of the Great Migration, when millions of African-Americans moved from the rural South to cities like Detroit, Chicago and New York. Johnson meant for Ebony to highlight the achievements of African-Americans and to “show not only the Negroes but also white people that Negroes got married, had beauty contests, gave parties, ran successful businesses and did all the other normal things of life.” In 1951, Johnson established Jet, a digest-size weekly that balanced hard-hitting reports on racism and the civil rights movement with celebrity gossip and dieting advice. Jet was so successful that it was dubbed “the black bible.” 

“Speaking of People: Ebony, Jet and Contemporary Art,” at the Studio Museum in Harlem, registered the importance of these magazines not simply as archives of representations of race, but as materials with which so many African-Americans worked to make sense of the world. Copies of Ebony and Jet tended to pile up in black households, and in doing so they marked the passage of time, the acquisition of rights, the procession of trends. Many of the works in the exhibition excavate these piles, including Hank Willis Thomas’s Black Is Beautiful (1953-2008), 2009, which presents a complete record of Jet’s swimsuit-clad “Beauties of the Week” in the form of wallpaper, here encircling an entire gallery. Looking at any individual photograph, one might simply lament the ostensible celebration of women through their objectification. When viewing hundreds of images, this feeling is complicated by the conspicuous desire of so many women to be recognized in this forum and by its audience. The artwork ultimately acts as an exercise in the discernment not only of styles of photography and swimwear but of expressions of personality.

While Thomas aggregates images in order to see each one differently, Ellen Gallagher posits a flight from the realm of uplifting consumerism. With DeLuxe (2004-05)—60 etchings on Ebony advertisements for wigs, pomade and skin-bleaching solutions—Gallagher distorts and transforms idealized black faces and bodies until they appear otherworldly and alien. Theaster Gates’s On Black Foundations (2012) is more appreciative of Ebony’s marketing of femininity. The installation features a vitrine carved out of a wooden armoire, on top of which sits a bound collection of Ebony issues, open to an advertisement for Fashion Fair (“Great Glamor”!), Johnson’s cosmetics brand for black women. The vitrine contains additional copies of Ebony and precise arrangements of Fashion Fair lipsticks, eyeliners and foundations. In an accompanying video, black women speak about their notions of attractiveness—“My complexion is political,” one repeats—in a way that seems rooted in, if no longer bound to, the images of female beauty propagated by Ebony; the magazine and the makeup both appear as materials with which to mold one’s body and consciousness.

None of the artworks in “Speaking of People” address or employ the digital manifestations, or afterlives, of Ebony and Jet, and for this reason the exhibition seemed rather elegiac, a testament to the power of material culture in a world that is increasingly doing without. This passage is deftly invoked by Martine Syms in Johnson Publishing Company, 1971 (2013), which utilizes an archival photograph of the historic modernist headquarters, sold in 2010; Syms copies the brick hotel and overhanging tree on the building’s right, along with a sliver of its facade, and pastes them on its left. Thank to this simple intervention, the image can be read as a clause that is endlessly repeating, a sentence that is ever expanding, but also as a portrait of an esteemed icon of black culture evanescing into memory.