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.
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.
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.”
“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.”
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.”