Reg exhibit sees color in commodity

Race and the Design of American Life revisits “vexed histories,” extending its reach far beyond a simple exploration of racial tensions.

By Anna Hill

When making your book-laden, hurried way into Mansueto, you might be a bit surprised to suddenly notice the quiet gallery space nestled into the hallway on your left. You might be shocked when, upon peering into the Special Collections exhibition gallery, you observe the spread of glaringly racialized images depicting everything from Aunt Jemima and hair products to Chief Keef and jazz trios. You might even be surprised by the signs that hang calmly in the brightly-lit space, blatantly addressing “The Blackface Industry,” the “Training of White Americans,” and “High Class Design and Low Down Rags.”

However, you should not be surprised to learn that the new show, Race and the Design of American Life: African Americans in Twentieth-Century Commercial Art, extends its reach far beyond a simple exploration of racial tensions. Curated by Chris Dingwall, a Ph.D. candidate in the department of history, the exhibition turns its attention toward the commercial industry and the ways in which it has influenced—and been highly influenced by—black artists and consumers.

Through this lens of mutual influence, the exhibit admirably tackles an incredibly wide array of media, ranging from books, music, and theater productions to cleaning products and cooking ingredients. The exhibition opens with a rare copy of W.E.B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk, which, according to Dingwall’s curatorial notes, “serves as a touchstone for the questions facing African Americans in commercial art in the twentieth century.” He intelligently guides:

“As a text, Du Bois defended the inalienable human soul of black folk against the commercial exploitation that rendered black bodies and black culture into things for sale. As an object of design, however, the book reflected Du Bois’s own savvy attitude toward the powers of the consumer marketplace to stake a claim for African Americans in the nation’s culture.”

In that sense, although Race and the Design of American Life certainly casts a critical and chastising eye toward the products and movements that historically—and, in some cases, currently—have simplified and appropriated entire cultures in the name of commodification, the show does not present black artists as victims. Instead, the works in the exhibition—most notably the inventive abstractions depicted on the vast assortment of jazz records, magazines, and print blocks—celebrate the cleverness and skill of such artists, who manipulate and re-work many of the most offensive images in order to create complex pieces that stand alone.

For example, a tin can of Murray’s pomade, an “early black beauty product,” depicts a man and a woman rendered very stylistically. The race of the figures is largely (and intentionally) ambiguous, their expressions both congenial and lifeless. Then, in another section of the exhibition, a similar can depicts the same scene, but the artist makes a bold change: the text that previously read “Murray’s Superior” now advertises “Murray’s for Obama,” and Barack and Michelle Obama smile up from the jar in place of the anonymous figures featured on the original. This shift not only carries with it many political and cultural messages, but also speaks to the power of the black artist in drawing from a complicated group history in order to produce emotionally and visually engaging pieces. Similarly, the juxtaposition poses a commentary on the very nature of artistic production as considered through the lens of racially-conscious commercial art: The Murray’s company created both the original design and its presidential reiteration as a marketing tool for use as decoration on a commonly-used product (the Murray’s website advertises the latter simply as “Murray’s Original Pomade Special Edition Obama Can”).

Pieces such as this emphasize the dual nature of commercial art as considered in terms of black producers and consumers. Just as the works act as tools for the commodification of black culture, they serve as tools for artistic liberation; just as the products are functional, they possess an inherent aesthetic power. Similarly, just as Race and the Design of American Life applauds the creativity of many black artists who use the vexed past to produce poignant art, the show also highlights the tensions and complexities that still affect today’s commercial arena. The show asks the viewer to condemn and to appreciate, but above all, to question.

Race and the Design of American Life: African Americans in Twentieth-Century Commercial Art will be at Special Collections in the Regenstein Library through January 4.