An image featured in “Theaster Gates: Black Image Corporation.” Photo credit: Moneta Sleet Jr./Courtesy Johnson Publishing Company, LLC. All rights reserved
On gallery walls, large framed photographs feature primarily models and entertainers from the magazines’ pages, images that reflect the glamorous, fashion-centric arm of Johnson Publishing Company. Also occupying the space is a professional photographer’s vintage light box, where contact sheets from the magazines’ archives marked up with red grease pencil give insight into the visual choices made by editors and photographers.
Dominating the larger gallery space is the kind of long wooden cabinet you might find in a library reading room, with a display of framed photographs from the Johnson collections placed front and center. On shelves below, visitors to the museum are invited to pull out and contemplate, even move around more framed images from the archives.
“Theaster Gates: Black Image Corporation” focuses on images shot by African American photographers Moneta Sleet Jr. and Isaac Sutton for Johnson Publishing, which produced “Ebony” and “Jet” magazines. Photo credit: Courtesy Johnson Publishing Company, LLC. All rights reserved
What Gates has created is an archive which from the outside feels slightly austere, even institutional.
But once visitors start digging in, Gates’ approach proves deeply personal, nostalgic and imbued with feeling.
The images on those shelves are varied: cheesecake photos of lithesome young women in bikinis, high fashion models wearing Halston and Valentino, Coretta Scott King and nursing students, church ladies, demonstrators, an African tribeswoman and her baby. As if to emphasize the emotional delicacy of the images, visitors are asked to don the kind of white cotton gloves required in archives presenting rare and sensitive materials. The intent is clear: African American culture is something precious, something worth preserving.
Chicago artist Theaster Gates celebrates black beauty and accomplishment in “Theaster Gates: Black Image Corporation” at the Spelman College Museum of Fine Arts. Photo credit: Moneta Sleet Jr./Courtesy Johnson Publishing Company, LLC. All rights reserved
A testament to the profound impact that JPC had in the black community, contemplating the images in “Black Image Corporation” can feel akin to sorting through the relics and images in a grandparent’s home. Emotional triggers of vintage hairstyles, dresses and demeanor conjure up memories of mothers, grandmothers and aunts.
Gates’ accompanying video is set to a swoony jazz score that moves through the Michigan Avenue JPC Tower, from the product closets to John H. Johnson’s executive offices and even the basement mechanics. It’s all to tell a visual story of a bygone era of shoe shine machines, wall-to-wall carpeting and iconic rust and tan Seventies decor. The video is a reminder of the power of JPC but also — like the images — a melancholy time capsule and touchstone to all that is gone.
“Theaster Gates: Black Image Corporation,” features positive images of black accomplishment drawn from “Ebony” and “Jet” magazine. Photo credit: Moneta Sleet Jr./Courtesy Johnson Publishing Company, LLC. All rights reserved
“Theaster Gates: Black Image Corporation”
Through May 16. 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays; 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Fridays; noon-4 p.m. Saturdays. Suggested donation $3. Spelman College Museum of Fine Art, 350 Spelman Lane, SW, Atlanta. 404.270.5607, museum.spelman.edu
Bottom line: Chicago artist Theaster Gates highlights a positive vision of black life in his pop culture archive and exhibition.