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Loop historical exhibit spotlights Black designers
by Ariel Parrella-Aureli
2018-11-27

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Margaret T. Burroughs was an instrumental designer in the South Side Black design community who bridged global divides, design interests and created nurturing environments for artists and designers to thrive. She co-founded the DuSable Museum in 1961 and was largely a part of establishing the South Side Community Art Center in 1940, along with William McBride.

These figures are just some of the Black designers featured in the Chicago Cultural Center's new exhibit "African American Designers in Chicago: Art, Commerce and the Politics of Race."

It opened Oct. 27 and will remain until March 3, 2019. The exhibit is part of Art Design 2018, a collection of exhibits and events that celebrate Chicago's design and art community's past and present. This exhibit brings together art and design from more than 30 Black designers who started in the 1900s—a time when Chicago, and America at large, harbored bias toward Black professionals. The gallery focuses on influential designers creating an alternative narrative to the design history of the city at a time when white-controlled unions and craft guilds prohibited Blacks from entering design trades.

The expansive exhibit has rows of glass-covered tables with advertised posters, cartoons, books, magazines, dioramas, architectural signage, graphic designs, beauty advertisements and old artifacts made by Black designers—many who contributed to Chicago's culture as a prominent place for Black designers in this country. They made it somewhere Black designers could expand and share their craft, according to the exhibit's brochure. "This exhibition celebrates the lives and works of African-American designers, who created a future for the 'Negro artisan' beyond what [civil-rights activist W.E.B.] Du Bois could envision," it said. That vision, said the brochure, was something Du Bois said in 1912: that there were not many skilled African-American laborers in Chicago. "The Negro artisan is losing," Du Bois remarked.

The artistic boom that erupted from Black designers by the middle of the century was due to design strongholds such as the South Side Community Art Center, the Art Institute of Chicago, Ebony magazine and more. The exhibit features art from these institutions; Jet magazine and Johnson Publishing Company represented an age of modernity in the Black design community and further established Chicago as an empowering design environment.

Lake View residents Tim O'Hagen and Julie Osbourne visited the exhibit's opening reception Nov. 2 and found the exhibit to be a strong historical lesson on the importance of Chicago's design community.

"It touches on the Chicago Expo, Sears, Ebony magazine—institutions that are really important for history and Chicago's place in the world," O'Hagen said.

For Osbourne, the exhibit showed a new perspective to history of her own lifetime.

"It is interesting because it brings a certain amount of history that I was not familiar with," Osbourne said. "I was alive but I was a kid; I didn't know about it."

The Great Depression's effect on Black designers was an event she found particularly interesting because it showed the difficulty they had in getting jobs after the industries shut down. While that may sound similar to others seeking employment after the Depression, racism toward Blacks and their fear of not being accepted into the mainstream birthed safe spaces for Black designers to still be creative.

Marjorie Stewart Joyner was one Black artist who used her talent to cater to Black consumers and bounce back from the Depression. Her work was one that struck Osbourne, and the exhibit gives Joyner a whole glass table that showcases her hair-care products to Black women and men with catchy photo of models and loud text. According to the brochure, Joyner was the first Black woman to graduate from Chicago's A.B. Beauty School in 1916, and her hair products influenced the beauty culture industry.

O'Hagan said the exhibit reminded him of all the talent in Chicago and its influence past and present.

"We were really were and are a manufacturing and design center," he said. "It goes back many decades and African-Americans were part of it and not recognized for their talents."

The gallery has work from Black SAIC graduates who went on to create different mediums of art that impacted the Chicago design community, such as McBride, Charles Dawson and William Knight Farrow. Other notable designers include Thomas Miller, a designer at Morton Goldsholl Associates who designed the famous Motorola logo and TV commercials for 7Up and Hamburger Helper. Robert S. Pious, who created posters for the American Negro Exposition in Chicago in 1940, has posters in the show and Emmett McBain, an assistant art director at Playboy, designed record covers and posters of poems and quotes from prominent Black activists. Another Black designer who tied music and art together was Sylvia Abernathy, who designed covers for Denmark Records and the Art Ensemble of Chicago.

Curated by Daniel Schulman, Chris Dingwall and Tim Samuelson, the exhibit has been 10 years in the making, acknowledged the curators in the brochure. They also acknowledged the timing of the exhibit; 10 years ago, design scholars and the public did not give much thought or awareness to Black designers.

"Only recently had scholars of African-American culture attended to the commercial arts as a site where Black people intervened in the shaping of history—their own and the nation's— in what is now dynamic field of inquiry," the curators wrote.

The exhibit is on the fourth floor of the Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington St. For more information, see www.cityofchicago.org/city/en/depts/dca/supp_info/designers.html .


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