In November, 1942, John H. Johnson founded the Johnson Publishing Company and began publishing Negro Digest. Modeled after Reader’s Digest, the weekly publication was the first to focus solely on African-American history, literature, arts, and culture. “People thought he was a fool,” Linda Johnson Rice, chairman of the Johnson Publishing Company and John H. Johnson’s daughter, said. “They didn’t realize there was this completely untapped market.”
Six months later, circulation for Negro Digest had risen to 50,000. Three years later, in November of 1945, the first issue of Ebony was published—and sold out its initial run of 25,000 copies in less than a month.
“They were the first magazines of their kind,” Rice explained. “The magazines were born out of a need that my parents saw, that there were no magazines that really spoke to black people. Ebony wrote about architects and artists, the share cropper who sent his nine kids to college, real African Americans at a time when everyone else only covered them as entertainers and athletes.”
Over 70 years after Johnson began his publishing company, the Studio Museum in Harlem is debuting a new group show of contemporary art inspired by the pages of Ebony and its sister magazine Jet. Opening November 13, “Speaking of People: Ebony, Jet and Contemporary Art” celebrates the legacy of Johnson’s two most popular magazines and their continued cultural relevance.
“It’s incredibly exciting to see how so many artists have been so widely influenced by Ebony and Jet,” said Lauren Hayes, curator of the exhibition. “The idea is that there is no one black experience in America, but all of these artists have been directly affected by both magazines.”
Including such established art world figures as Lorna Simpson, Hank Willis Thomas (who also contributes an artist essay in the exhibition’s catalogue), Kerry James Marshall, and Glenn Ligon, the exhibition primarily features work within the past decade, and reflects a contemporary point of view rather than a historical one.
“This is truly a contemporary show,” said Haynes. “Even though the artists are looking back at that post-WWII moment, when the magazines were starting, there is a very real, living feeling as well, connected to making art today with materials that aren’t of this physical moment.”
With over thirty works by a multi-generational, interdisciplinary group of sixteen artists, “Speaking of People” includes everything from photography and painting to sculpture and sound works. Haynes explained that, “There’s no one way to look at these magazines. There’s a variety of ways to think about them.”
Contemporary artists like Ellen Gallagher, Noel Anderson, and Godfried Donkor plumb imagery from the magazine as a visual archive, the documentation of a shared cultural history, mixing photos and editorial spreads with more traditional artist materials like ink, oil, and watercolor.
“As you look through the pages of Ebony and Jet,” Rice said, “you can see there are instances when it is riotous and aggressive or beautiful and celebratory. It is very much a timeline of our history, from 1942 to today. We consider ourselves the curators of the African American experience, past, present, and future.”
Other artists more glancingly reference the magazines, inspired by their symbolic value as iconic publications with an institutional history. Leslie Hewitt’s 2012 Untitled (Where Paths Meet, Turn Away, Then Align Again) is a sheet metal sculpture with a powder coat so dark it renders the work a void, impenetrable and black. Rather than directly referring to Ebony or Jet, Haynes explained that the work plays off the conceptual idea of “creating a physical space that is wholly black – like how Ebony and Jet created a space for discussion in the black community.”
In June of this year Jet ceased its print publication. Playing against the backdrop of more and more digital landscape, there’s a certain vindication in seeing so many artist use physical copies of the magazine in their work.
“It will be interesting to talk about how in the age of the digital, these magazines contributed physical images that resonated and inspired a generation of artists working today,” Haynes said. “Do we want to lose that? I don’t think so.”