William Villalongo, Contributor, Lookie-Lookie
Printed media and the “little magazine,” in particular, grew in popularity throughout the early half of the 20th century leading to the much romanticized “Mad Men,” on which this popularity would be capitalized in advertising, and foment the publication dynasties of today. In a media and Internet-drenched world of 24-hour news cycles, reality TV, and social media, one might find it hard to comprehend a magazine providing hard news or a pulp novel as entertainment. Indeed, they did: such print forms were obsessed over back then as much as Instagram and blog culture is now. Printed media formats including magazines and newspapers would become the battleground of images and ideologies that have proven highly consequential in the Americas towards the development of derogatory representations of Black peoples (amongst others). However, in the hands of the Black press and organizations supporting it, these media formats became critical resources in organizing and informing the Black community, and eventually become sites for counternarratives to Jim Crow era stereotypes.
Well established before the first emancipated American slave felt the plantation at her back, European explorers and ethnographers would sow the seeds of racist image culture centuries earlier with notions of “the dark continent” and “wild savages” to describe their encounters with African peoples and territories. This was language validated as science by the Western Enlightenment period until the Modern era. What measure do we have for the generations of Europeans mired in ignorance about Black Atlantic peoples who were beheld with wonderment and dread? By the time print media ascends to the height of early 20th century popularity and its technological speed, such stereotypes are bolstered, complicated, and expanded upon in the Americas, and were fuelled by white supremacist anger and fears of what African-American progress would mean for a country still recovering from a civil war. A country that long defined itself as a white, Christian nation, despite platitudes of immigrant beginnings and individual freedoms, would now have to face emancipated Blacks as free citizens. American image creations such as Mammies, watermelon eating Sambos, Coons, Pickaninnys, Niglets, and Jigs were well cemented in illustrative forms such as political satire, comic strips, advertising, and photography that accompanied editorial and literary entertainment as well as scientific publications. There are many examples: Crania Americana (1839) published by Samuel George Morton was an illustrated work of serious scientific inquiry at the time, comparing various skulls of the indigenous peoples of North and South America to skulls of Caucasians and Negroes. Its “scientific” data concluded that Blacks have the smallest brains of the “races of man.” The popular Harper’s Weekly happily published infamous illustrations that satirized the Civil War, Reconstruction, and Emancipation while reinforcing brutal stereotypes from 1857 to 1916. Warner Brothers Studio distributed a fury of racist animation from its beginnings in the 1920s well into the 1970s with signature cartoon parodies such as “Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs,” released in 1943. In doing research for the Black Pulp! exhibition, a serious question arose: to what extent is the display of such imagery necessary? How is context formed in an exhibition that proposes a history combating these creations? The answer came in a little satirical advertisement entitled “Wattamellun Jake,” and was attributed to “Unknown” at Emory University’s Rose Library where we found much of the material on display. It is a parody of what a one-dollar bill would look like if the segregationist politics of George Wallace would have prevailed in his run for the White House in 1962: it presents a typical watermelon eating caricature at center. Inscribed at the bottom is “Lurleen Wallace, Treasurer” and “George Wallace, Ruler.” Dark humor, enough said.
Black Pulp! is an exhibition about this battleground of printed media in that it highlights historical efforts within the medium to rebuff derogatory image culture with exceptional wit, beauty, and humor, to provide emerging, nuanced perspectives on Black humanity. The exhibition first opens at the Yale School of Art’s 32 Edgewood Gallery and travels to International Print Center New York (IPCNY). Black Pulp! is an outgrowth of conversations happening within the graduate program at Yale and between co-curator Mark Gibson and myself. It moves naturally to IPCNY, engaging their mission to further educate and understand the importance of the printmaking medium in the world. The works on display range from print media as early as 1912 alongside contemporary works of art made as recently as this year—which continue to confront limited notions of Black peoples—by offering complex and expanded narratives on Black existential concerns in film, video, sculpture and most of all works on paper. In sum, Black Pulp! represents a timeline of over a century of image production by both black and non-black publishers, writers and artists dedicated to foregrounding the Black experience. However, the exhibition is not chronological nor is it hierarchical. It presents a constellation of literary frameworks and aesthetic traditions with the aim of challenging master narratives of Black inferiority. If we were to speak of a beginning of the exhibition it would be the overarching call to action through publishing. A call made by many, but none more thoroughly or passionately than W.E.B. Dubois, Charles Spurgeon Johnson, and Carter G. Woodson, who created publishing dynasties in their time that ultimately nourished what we understand to be the Black press and the study of African-American History. As Woodson expressed: “If a race has no history, if it has no worthwhile tradition, it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world, it stands in danger of being exterminated.” Carter G. Woodson founded the Associated Publishers as a Professor at Harvard University in 1920. The work of the Associated Publishers fostered Black scholarship and established a record of African diasporic contributions in the world. Two wonderful examples in the exhibition, Women Builders by Sadie Lola Daniel (1931), and The Picture Poetry Book by Gertrude Parthenia McBrown (1935) highlight the art of Lois Mailou Jones. Jones’s powerful graphic style sets the tone for these incredible literary works by promising the gift of strength and beauty just beyond the dust jacket.
The most pivotal periodicals on display in Black Pulp! are Crisis, which was founded by the NAACP and W.E.B. Dubois in 1910 and Opportunity—the official publication of The National Urban League, founded in 1923, and edited by Charles S. Johnson. The first of their kind, these magazines contained a fully emancipated perspective for Black folk with sharp journalism, cultural criticism, poetry and prose by leading Black thinkers. They advertised lifestyle, personal care products and editorial geared towards current events most important to communities of color. For example, both magazines and organizations covered the Great Migration of the early 20th century in which emancipated Blacks migrated from the Southern U.S. in staggering numbers to find jobs and safety in the fast industrializing North. The historic migration is so richly captured by Jacob Lawrence in his “Migration Series” paintings represented in Black Pulp! by an exposé on the artist in a 1941 Fortune magazine. Just as significant are the cover illustrations of Crisis and Opportunity by leading African-American artists. On display are exquisite examples by E. Simms Campbell, Laura Wheeler Waring, Gwendolyn Bennett, and Eleanor Paul. However, none are more important than the covers made by Aaron Douglas. Mentee of the legendary German émigré illustrator Winold Reiss, Douglas was the most prolific and sought after African-American illustrator of the Harlem Renaissance era. Eventually, Douglas became the art director of both Crisis and Opportunitymagazines over the course of his career. Douglas’s Afro-Art Deco style can be found on many dust jackets in the exhibition. His contribution to American Modernism is profound in its ambitions to return an African aesthetic back to the Black American image, interrupting European Primitivism by positioning the Black figure between nature and modernity. In doing so, Douglas conjures uncanny and soulful figures posing like the angular, abstract profiles of Congo masks with the gait and swagger of his native Harlem. A fine example of this is Douglas’s dust jacket illustration for James Weldon Johnson’s Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912) featuring the silhouette of a young man sitting on a rock with a bush to his back while gazing upward toward the city at his front. It is this very aspect of Douglas’s work coupled with his love of the illustrative tradition and the populous form of print that makes him a revolutionary amongst so many African-American image makers of the time. Whereas the Jim Crow image machine was about tearing Black folk down, Douglas and the artists of the Harlem Renaissance in Black Pulp! were about lifting them up. All Douglas’s images shout: “You have power, your history is beyond America and you are beautiful!” Douglas’s critically aware figures become the very definition of “The New Negro” a concept introduced and encapsulated as the pinnacle of literary work of this era. The New Negro (1925) by Alain LeRoy Locke is a work of cultural criticism and history, bringing together the most important scholarship on contemporary African-American life and politics in the first half of the 20th century. It is primarily illustrated by Winold Reiss with decorative illustrations by Douglas throughout.
To comment on the title of this exhibition:“pulp” is a term often used to relay dynamic, lurid, sarcastic, satirical or erotic content, which runs throughout much of the work in this exhibition. A few of the more explicit print media examples are Elton Fax’s 1944 NAACP poster featuring a hand choking a crow (Jim Crow) to death, the biting revolutionary satire of Emory Douglas’s illustrations of “pigs” in the Black Panther publication which conjures current images of police brutality. Just as well, the political satire of Owen Middleton and Ollie Harrington take on the dark realities of the Scottsboro Boys Trial in the 1930s and in World War II. The tools of fiction and satire seem to evolve as primary forms of address with which to speak truth to power in the Black press and Black art. In this way, pulp is also a strategy in our exhibition. The pulp impulse foments cunning acts of resistance, punchy expressions of Black agency, joy, and desire.
Much like the strange material associated with the term “pulp,” the exhibition content is concentrated and slippery, yet highly malleable. Therefore, in Black Pulp! conversations around the Black image in relationship to structures of power is not limited to racism. Instead our content oozes into intimate crevasses of Black existence while resisting essentialisms. Even in the tight knit world of the Harlem Renaissance, artists would splinter with the conservative morays of their time in order to push for greater expressions of humanity that exist within the Black community (the good and the savory, alike). The pursuit of a robust and complex image of Black humanity would need a multiplicity of voices and be forged in debate. W.E.B. Dubois is reported to having called Fire!! publication vulgar, for example. Dubois’s statement suggests that this groundbreaking publication of creative expression “devoted to younger Negro artists” did exactly what it set out to do; Fire!!—a publication with a sweltering red and black dust jacket by Aaron Douglas—was meant to shake up the notion that Black uplift would be limited to a picture of heteronormative, buttoned up, model citizens. It’s important to note that Fire!! was edited by Wallace Thurman who is well known for his edgy novel The Blacker the Berry, which broached the subject of color prejudice within the Black community. In Fire!!, authors and artists such as Zora Neal Hurston, Langston Hughes, and Richard Bruce Nugent (to name a few), push taboos of their day with titillating and scandalous tales of prostitution, promiscuity, homosexuality, infidelity, interracial relationships, and color prejudice. Countee Cullen’s controversial and elegiac collection of poetry, The Black Christ, is on view in Black Pulp! It is illustrated with the sinewy, androgynous figures of Charles Cullen, who was not related to Countee Cullen. He happened to be white and closely involved with the artistic milieu of Harlem. In The Black Christ, Countee Cullen compares the lynching of a young Black man to the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Another rare and wonderful rabble-rouser on exhibition display is Ebony & Topaz, published by Charles S. Johnson and the National Urban League. Here Johnson would find an outlet for other poignant conversations that would not be suited for Opportunity. The introduction page of Ebony & Topaz reads as a defense of artistic expression against all odds, while the Foreword page of Fire!! is inscribed with a passionate manifesto for a creative awakening of consciousness almost threatening to set the page aflame! These particular publications were an inspiration to younger artists by creating paths to a depth of human expression with the resolve that Black people are not monolithic.
From the historical to the contemporary the name Black Pulp! is most reflected in the network of ideas and aesthetics that are woven like the fibers of a page. One can grind or shred almost anything and embed it into the wet viscous material of paper, pulp and pigment. Once pressure and time are applied, a unique substrate emerges, a platform for dialogue. Black Pulp! features works by 23 contemporary artists between its two iterations at Yale and IPCNY. These artists are outstanding examples of ongoing critical discussions and visual strategies either directly or indirectly informed by the rare print media on display. Although this is a vast subject with opportunity for greater voices beyond what we have chosen, important themes emerge in the exhibition that connect us over time, such as elegy and heroisms, dark humor, mutable or disfigured bodies, eroticism on the fault lines of history, ancestry and Diaspora. Color becomes almost metaphorical when reconstituted inside the Black subject.
In Black Pulp! we understand this constellation of concerns to be at the heart of narrative contemporary art from the Black Atlantic although this exhibition is by no means limited to them. Whether intended or not, one cannot help but see the elegant Harlem-grown primitivism of Aaron Douglas’s Crisis and Opportunity magazine covers reflected in the sleek profiles of Derrick Adams’s “Changing the Game (Ace)”(2015), or in Wangechi Mutu’s “Ngbaka People”(2011), although these artists are years and oceans apart. Works by Robert Colescott, Ellen Gallagher, Felandus Thames, and Yashua Klos also allude to a type of masquerade, however much more pointed towards primitivism, minstrelsy and empire. They are set inside unreconcilable past, present, and future tenses.
Kerry James Marshall’s “Dailies from Rythm Mastr Series,” (2010) bridges worlds in Black Pulp! His masterful acuity with dynamic figure drawing and pulp graphics produce an unlikely alignment of the elegiac Black figures in Charles White’s lithographs “Portfolio/10,” (1962), E. Simms Campbell’s shim shaming 1939 Esquire magazine spread on “Black Dances of the 1930s,” and the “Luke Cage: Hero for Hire #13” (1973) comic on display— the first of the series to be inked and penciled by William “Billy” Graham for Marvel Comics. In the “Dailies,” Marshall’s sharp-tongued, quick-witted soul brothas and sistas know their history and engage their urban setting with debates on art and politics; as on point as the pencil and hand that made them. Where histories are concerned Deborah Grant comments on the era of the Harlem Renaissance looking at the dissolve of the once luminary Harmon Foundation that helped so many Black creatives at the time in “Profound Consequences” (2011), and in “Abandoned and Warehoused” (2011), Grant recounts the life of artist William H. Johnson while unearthing the timely conversation of how many Black artists from the post-war era through the Black American Civil Rights era fail to be given their due at major American institutions while many hold works in their collections— quiet as kept.
The exhibition presents many heroes and sheroes from Renee Cox’s demure Raje perched on the Statue of Liberty, and Pope L’s sweaty crawl in a Superman costume to the Bronx from the famous landmark in “The Great White Way” or Kenny Rivero’s comically visceral “Supermane.” More lurid notions of power and heroism include the characters of Laylah Ali, Kara Walker, Trenton Doyle Hancock, William Downs, Hank Willis Thomas, Nayland Blake, Lamar Peterson and Alexandria Smith. Similarly presented themes in 1970s Blaxploitation films are recanted in Isaac Julien’s “Baaadassss.” These works often confuse assumed and gendered binaries between the powerful and the powerless, the hero and the villain. One can look to the salacious stories of power and eroticism in Ebony & Topaz or Fire!! accompanied by the darkly elegant illustrations of Richard Bruce Nugent and Charles Cullen as precedents for the framing of such discussions around the Black subject.
It is the grand possibility of allusion in framing the Black subject in the hands of these great visual poets that make the subject of “Blackness” a rich well for deep investigation. Blackness is akin to a precious natural resource embodied in reflective black glass such as Fred Wilson’s “Slender Ooze” (2013), reminiscent of crude oil at the center of much global conflict, which bubbles and drips down the white walls of the 32 Edgewood Gallery. Or perhaps Blackness is a more ephemeral resource dispersed across the vast Atlantic like pollen, whispering in the cane fields and palms, under tobacco leaves, and trying ever so hard to reconstitute itself between the lines of written history and in our minds, like Firelei Baez’s “Memory Like Fire is Radiant and Immutable!”(2015).
Looking at Blackness from Lucia Hierro’s point of view, it could be the impenetrable black ink of a Sharpie marker, redacting critical commentary and contemporary fiction in the New Yorker magazine, that is thereafter reprinted on silk and felt. In her “Untitled (retracted)” (2015), the blunt mark negates words line by line while leaving just a few very necessary words on the page. In this magazine named as the collective voice of all New Yorkers, Hierro distills down short personal truths. Language isolates into miniature islands of poetic clarity amongst columns of black markings – an exercise in speaking for oneself.
The richness of this investigation continues at IPCNY where many of these artists are newly represented by print projects such as Fred Wilson’s “Arise!” (2004), published by Crown Point Press, Wangechi Mutu’s “Snake Eater” (2014) published by Editions Copenhagen, Kara Walker’s “Alabama Loyalists Greeting the Federal Gun-Boats, from Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War (Annotated), 2005" published by the LeRoy Neiman Center for Print Studies. Further deepening the ethos of Black Pulp! is the legacy of Blackburn Printmaking Workshop provided through their recent artist in residence Alexandria Smith exhibiting new work from this experience while pushing printmaking towards sculpture, and Kenny Rivero exhibits a new monotype, “Gotham City Screams” (2016). Even more, we are happy to expand the reach of the shows content at IPCNY with the addition of vintage album covers representing pivotal music connected to the spirit of “pulp” and a sonic accompaniment to the history on display. Black Pulp!’s abbreviated list of groundbreaking hits include the Sun Ra Arkestra’s “The Nubians of Plutonia” (1974 reissue), Donna Summer’s “Bad Girls” (1979), Kurtis Blow’s “The Breaks” (1980) and Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” (1982). Each set precedents in the Jazz, Funk, Disco, Hip-Hop and Pop genres.
At Yale or abroad, Black Pulp! displays important historic media that rarely finds its way into our historical discourse or out of its cloistered resting places. Given this reality, Black Pulp! becomes a platform for much needed discussions in an American society that still struggles to understand the impact and history of the visual cultures it has produced and how they continue to inform our present and future.
 Caroline Goeser explains the popularity and development of the “little magazine” in the United States in her book Picturing the Negro, published in 2007 by University Press of Kansas. Caroline Goeser investigates a critical component of Harlem Renaissance print culture, arguing that illustrations became the most timely and often most radical visual products of the movement. Though there is outstanding scholarship on the subject, we found inspiration for Black Pulp! in Goeser’s critical view of the visual regimes of the Harlem Renaissance.
The above essay appears in the forthcoming catalogue for Black Pulp!, an exhibition curated by artists William Villalongo and Mark Gibson opening October 1 at the International Print Center New York. Black Pulp! debuted at the Yale University School of Art 32 Edgewood Gallery in New Haven, CT January-March, 2016. IPCNY is located at 508 West 26th Street, 5th Floor, New York, NY. Black Pulp! will be on view October 1 - December 2, 2016.
All images and text courtesy William Villalongo, Curator of Black Pulp!