Downtown Milan. The Fondazione Prada Osservatorio hosts The Black Image Corporation, a project by the artist Theaster Gates, that offers to the audience the atmosphere of the Ebony/Jet Building in Chicago, headquarter of the Johnson Publishing Company and of two of the most significant magazines in defining the aesthetic-cultural codes of contemporary Afro-American identity.
In the Osservatorio glass-stained area (so similar to the early photographic studios), looking out onto the roofs of the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, Gates has conceived a participatory exhibition focused on Moneta Sleet Jr. (1926-1996), a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer, and Isaac Sutton (1923-1995), photographer and artist. Both of them have been creating images for more than 40 years for the JPC magazines.
Theaster Gates with his project explores the heritage of the Johnson Publishing Company’s archives (founded by John H. Johnson in 1942) with their over 4 million images. Gates , in collaboration with Linda Johnson Rice, President of JPC, has imagined their redeployment in order to celebrate the Afro-American identity, especially of the period 1960s – 1980s. “In these years the monthly magazine Ebony and the weekly Jet, became extremely important for representation of black life and culture in the States, dealing with events, sports icons and celebrities as well as moments of everyday life. They engaged a network of more than 7 million readers. Today it seems to me a good time to dig into the visual lexicon of the American look and show images that are rarely seen outside of my community. I wanted to celebrate women of all kinds and especially black women”, Gates says.
The Osservatorio displays several original interior design elements (by Arthur Elrode) from the JPC offices; visitors can read original copies of the magazines, also having a look to negatives and transparencies. On the upper floor the images Sleet and Sutton shot during the 1950s and 1960s are shown as a series of ten large format prints plus many more pictures displayed in some cabinets that the audience is invited to freely explore.
“The exhibition, including the original cabinets from the JPC offices, recall the allure of the main editorial archives of the golden age of newspapers”, Gates adds. “JPC too was affected by the crisis. And this amazing archive is one of its last assets, somehow museum material. We tried to highlight its incredible content. You can see it both on large prints and in the cabinets, so visitors can extract and touch the images. All photos where shot by professionals, that were fashion and also street photographers: the results were quite interesting, offering particular points of view between the fashion and the street”.
Paola Sammartano is a journalist specialized in arts and photography based in Milan, Italy
The Black Image Corporation
20 September 2018 – 14 January 2019
Fondazione Prada Osservatorio
Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, Milan, Italy