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Picture it: in one frame, Coretta Scott King is practicing scales to accompany her daughter’s living room flute performance. The duo rub shoulders with six coiffed choir performers whose beehives shine on stage. Neighboring women are weaving familial love into straw hats, baskets, quilt threads, and braids, while playboy bunnies hop past wet grasses below the gaze of Ertha Kitt, who rides a ferris wheel wrapped in a shawl. 

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In the U.S. debut of Black Image Corporation, Theaster Gates rewinds 80 years of praise to the lives, accomplishments, and visual aesthetics of Black women. The artist’s careful edit of nearly 2,000 images from the Johnson Publishing Company’s Ebony and Jet magazine photographic archive features photographs of Black women, famous and mundane, named and unnamed, side by side. Gates employs these photos to round and restore the looming icon of the Black Female Body which has been continually defaced around the world. The exhibit is a breathtaking and dynamic celebration of Black enterprise and the lasting legacies of this country’s Black women. 

Photo of selection from Black Image Corporation. Photo by the author.

Spelman’s Museum of Fine Art—the only museum in the country dedicated exclusively to the work of women of the African diaspora—is a fitting home for the installation’s first U.S. stop. Many student visitors uncover pop-culture histories they’ve learned at home or in classrooms. One student huddled in a group asks her peers, “Do you know who this is?” pointing to fashion designer Ann Lowe. More come for inspiration, striking poses to mimic those of the magazine. 

“The invitation to experience and interact with the photographic archive is reminiscent of Faith Ringgold’s 1991 story quilt Sunflower Quilting Bee at Arles,” says Anne Collins Smith, the museum’s Curator of Collections. “Black Image Corporation is an affirming, intergenerational, and shared inheritance that celebrates every woman.” 

Reminiscent of record digging, Black Image Corporation’s interactive installation allows visitors to assume the role of museum curator or magazine editor and flip through three decades of images of Black women from the famed African-American press. This subversive approach aligns with Gates renown as a self proclaimed “non-artist” on a mission to “upturn art values, land values, and human values.” As museums are looking for new ways to decolonize cultural histories, it is practitioners like Gates who lead by example. 

Gates’ installation is  an intervention into the exclusivity of curatorial practices. In 2018, Gates purchased licensing and reproduction rights for 2,000 of the JPC images. This costly undertaking was independently steered by the artist before the archives’ most recent dissolve into the collections of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture and The Getty Research Institute. However, the Black Image Corporation interactive exhibit effectively grants public access to these photographs, a mere 0.005 percent of the JPC photo archives, which total 4 million images over their 76-year run. Under Gates’ caring curation, this selection of images focused on Black women and girlhood is able to remain under Black stewardship, continuing the legacy of JPC who in its time was one of the few voices creating Black images for Black audiences. 

Courtesy of the Spelman College Museum of Fine Art. Photo by Mike Jenson.

Circulation of Ebony and Jet magazines began in 1941 and 1945, respectively. The monthly lifestyle publication Ebony was accompanied by the weekly tabloids of Jet, both documenting the beauty and accomplishment of  Black American life in the country and abroad. Gates collaborated with Linda Johnson Rice, daughter of JPC founders and former CEO in putting together the installation which also commemorates her parents’ lasting legacy. 

Reminiscent of record digging, Black Image Corporation’s interactive installation allows visitors to assume the role of museum curator or magazine editor and flip through three decades of images of Black women from the famed African-American press.

The majority of the photographs, spanning the 1950s through the ’70s and rendered in black and white, capture countless women of the African Diaspora. The deeply contrasting grayscale highlights the richness and variants of melanin in all tones. The few color reproductions are almost as surprising as the frames left empty – filled with blank white cards joining rank in file in thin black frames, some acknowledging the editor’s notes or the reverse side of photographs. All of these elements work together to build the exhibit’s largest display: Facsimile Cabinet of Women Origin Stories (2018). 

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In combed over visual detail, the project crops Black girls and women from unknown contexts of strife and suffering while expanding narratives of Black commitment to community, individuality, style, success, and tender goodness. The wryly constructed frames of Facsimile Cabinet of Women Origin Stories leave the sacred images of Black women in a fragile state. The corners of these iPad-sized pictures are nicked from constant handling and reshelving, their wooden frames marked by chipped paint and use.Headshots of working women, tightly cropped, leave the unnamed subjects shaking in their frames. Faces stare back blankly with smiles constructed with various degrees of desire and force. The massive selection of this larger cabinet promotes more than visitor contemplation and collaboration. Guests are encouraged to dawn white archival gloves to interact with the artwork. Black Image Corporation Assistant Curator, Daisy Derosiers states that some guests have uncovered their personal and familial histories, rifling through the collection.

The author searching through 2,000 images. Photo by the author.

Four of the smaller cabinets receive far more individual attention from visitors. JCP staff photographers Moneta Sleet Jr. (1926 – 1996) and Issac Sutton (1923-1995) are highlighted here for their prolific contribution to documenting the power, beauty, and persistence of Black womanhood. This time in color, these heavier displays show models mid-turn, flashing joy in fur-lined and crystal dripping rags. 

Under Gates’ caring curation, this selection of images focused on Black women and girlhood is able to remain under Black stewardship, continuing the legacy of JPC who in its time was one of the few voices creating Black images for Black audiences.

Black Image Corporation is an evolving remix, punctuated by time and choice at each visitors’ discretion. Publicly projecting biographical narratives once saved for private family photo albums, birthday greetings, and burials, these images possess beauty and rile steam. 

Forgoing a traditional cataloging system and with a sparse interjection of gallery wall texts, the gallery space shifts into a warm house full of beloved guests, clinking to accomplishments. Black Image Corporation produces a personal edit of American history by trumpeting the stories of the Black women who built it.

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Ming Joi

Ming Joi believes in looking cute and having fun. She advocates for blackness, girlhood, and justice for Palestine. Ming is a multidisciplinary maker, poet, and member of the AUC Collective for the study of Art History and Curatorial Studies at Spelman College. You can find her on instagram @mingjoi.