A Celebration of Chicago’s African-American Designers
By Noah Liedtke
The Chicago Cultural Center, previously the Central Library building, serves as a location for countless cultural exhibitions, including for music, performing art, literature, and visual art. One of the most recent exhibits on display is “African American Designers in Chicago: Art, Commerce, and the Politics of Race.” It opened on Oct. 27, 2018, and will remain open until March 3, 2019.
The exhibit itself focuses on how African American designers in Chicago have worked across different mediums in order to establish themselves in professions that they were minorities in. It features a range of works -- namely architecture, advertisements, cartooning, graphic design, and product design -- and focuses on how these designers redesigned the image of the black consumer throughout the twentieth century. It is also the first exhibition to exclusively celebrate the full range of achievement in these fields.
The exhibit consisted of 23 display tables, wall art, and a video with a additional seating area. Each table had a theme of the art shown: from haircare, to album covers, to advertisements, and each grouping was cohesive. Display cases were organized into one of four categories: Futures, Renaissance, Abundance, and Revolutions. Although the four categories were not defined anywhere in the gallery, they were explained in the pamphlets at the entrance of the exhibit. Futures refers to the late 1800s and early 1900s, where African Americans has to fight for basic rights and respect in the workplace. Renaissance refers to the years after World War I, with the influx of African Americans to Chicago from the south, transforming neighborhoods across the city. This also brought an influx of black creatives and entrepreneurs, founding magazines like “Reflexus” and companies such as Madam C.J Walker’s Beauty Colleges. Abundance refers to the 1950s, where an increase in economic and consumer activity lead to more commercial and recreational design, including album covers, product design, and cartoons. Finally, Revolution refers to the late 1900s, when art was politically focused and oriented around segregation, injustice, and white supremacy.
Designers such as Charles Dawson, Emmett McBain, and Eugene Winslow were featured not only for their design but for their contributions to the advancement of African Americans in the design sphere. Events such as “The Exposition of the American Negro” in 1940 and the founding of Burrel McBain Advertising in 1971 were explained by their respective pieces.
Anyone interested in viewing the exhibit can visit the fourth floor of the Chicago Cultural Center, located at 78 E. Washington St. Admission is free, regardless of residency, and the building is open on on weekdays from 10:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m, and from 10:00 a.m to 5:00 p.m. on weekends.