Representation of African Americans in popular culture is incredibly important. Whether it is in print or television, African Americans have always fulfilled a certain role in media that is presented specifically to the dominant culture. Media and visual representation of African Americans that is meant to be viewed by African Americans themselves can help define issues of race, identity, self-perception, and sexuality in the African American community. Beginning in the 1950’s the magazines Ebony and Jet were released with the intention of targeting an African American audience, and proved a great influence and inspiration for many African Americans who saw these magazines.
The exhibit Speaking of People: Ebony, Jet and Contemporary Art, which had been at the Studio Museum in Harlem from November 13, 2014 to March 8, 2015, explored the influence of Ebony and Jet as inspiration for contemporary artists. The magazines Ebony and Jet have been an important cultural icon for African Americans for over sixty years, since the Johnson Publishing Company first began distributing the magazines. Ebony and Jet offered a place in which black thought and culture were freely exchanged in a safe environment outside the influence of negative outside perceptions of African Americans. The importance of Ebony and Jet’s portrayal of African American culture, art, and beauty is clearly seen in the exhibit, as the artists displayed art that has taken on new social standards for African American beauty. Speaking of People includes thirty works of photography, painting, sculpture and video by sixteen different artists of different art disciplines that will were housed in the Studio Museum’s main galleries and project spaces.
The exhibit Speaking of People: Ebony, Jet and Contemporary Art is not meant to convey the idea that all black people have shared the exact same experiences, but to show that many African Americans have shared or similar experiences in their lives. The curator of the exhibit, Lauren Hayes, was quoted as saying “It’s incredibly exciting to see how so many artists have been so widely influenced by Ebony and Jet. The idea is that there is no one black experience in America, but all of these artists have been directly affected by both magazines.” Though both Jet and Ebony have been around for around sixty years, the exhibit is more focused on contemporary art that has been created in the past decade. The influences for the art may have come from sixty years ago, but the art is definitely new. Bringing in magazines such as Jet into contemporary and digital art like this exhibition does is definitely an interesting choice because as of June 2014 Jet ceased publishing print copies of its magazine, and has since turned more to digital publications with focus on their website.
One particular work in the exhibit that I found fascinating and relevant to the readings from this week was the work of art by Hank Willis Thomas who first created the installation “Black is Beautiful” in 2008. “Black is Beautiful” is comprised of an entire room that is wallpapered with images of the Jet magazine’s Beauty of the Week. Pictured to the right, the “Black is
Beautiful” installation features black women with their bodies clothed in bikinis in traditional pin-up style poses with a small blurb of information about the model next to it. The wall organized chronologically from the 1950’s to 2000’s tracks the changing beauty standards in African American women, and the styles that were prevalent during those changing times. To some the scantily clad women displayed next to their name, occupation, or hobbies represent a society in which black women are displayed in provocative ways for men’s enjoyment, or amusement. To others, the women portray African American women in a way which celebrated black beauty and sexuality, and the chronicles the diversity and beauty black women portray. The portrayal of African American women in overtly sexual positions, or in sexual situations for the enjoyment of others has been something I have struggled with internally for years. On one hand, the negative stereotypes of African American women who are over-sexed and under-dressed can warp a young black girl’s perception of what it is like to be a black woman in today’s society and perpetuate undesirable tropes to non-African Americans about what it is like to be an African American woman. On the other hand black women should have the right and freedom to celebrate and express their own sexuality in whatever way they choose. Black women have historically had to mold themselves to fit the beauty standards of others, and the right to express them in whatever way they see should be embraced. Positive visual representation of African Americans, such as the models in Ebony and Jet, meant to be viewed by African Americans themselves can help alleviate issues of identity, self-perception, and sexuality in the African American community.