Recent interest in a century-old series of infographics has been providing a ray of hope amidst our country’s current muddy quagmire of racial hatred and violence. I’m referring, of course, to renewed interest in the hand-drawn charts that civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois produced for the international Paris Exhibition in 1900. Designed as part of “The Exhibit of American Negroes,” the work is an investigation into the lives of black Americans. That fanned interest in his work began with features on Hyperallergic and Public Domain Review, quickly followed by Jessica Farris’ Print article, which you can read here. Since then, design history teachers such as Kenneth FitzGerald, have been enthusiastically incorporating the work into their curriculum. And most recently, Du Bois’ designs have been the foundation for “Observe | Make | State,” a Seattle Pacific University gallery exhibition subtitled “A Collection of Design Reproductions and Artifacts that Convey Issues of Social Justice.”
Reproductions of a set of Du Bois’ chart is the linchpin to the show, curated by SPU Art and Design professor Karen Gutowsky-Zimmerman. Also included are three contemporary artists who are known for their active participation in design activism. 2015 AIGA medalist Emory Douglas—who served as art director for the Black Panthers’ newspaper from 1967 through the 1970s—is represented by tearsheets of the provocative graphics he created. Designer/filmmaker Chaz Maviyane-Davies—who came of age experiencing the tyrannies of white separatist in Zimbabwe during the 1960s—exhibits posters he designed for human rights organizations that tackle issues ranging from race and the environment to Palestine and anti-globalization. And then there are the silkscreens and offset newsprint images of designer/educator Garland Kirkpatrick. The body of Garland’s work on display was designed to memorialize the upswing of racial killings by police and hate crimes in the 1990s.
Garland himself is no stranger to the contemporary art scene. He served as the graphic designer for L.A.’s Center for the Study of Political Graphics—you can read my interview with Carol A. Wells, CSPG’s founder, here—where he designed its current visual identity. You can find his work there and in the permanent collections of the L.A. County Museum of Art, the Oakland Museum, and Self Help Graphics, the Cooper-Hewitt, the Smithsonian, and the AIGA Design Archives as well as the Zurich University of the Arts’ Museum of Design. As an educator, Garland did a 12-year design faculty stint at CalArts before joining Loyola Marymount University in 2003 to teach Social Design. (He also hired me for my current LMU adjunct professor job back in 2007.)
Growing up in the racially divided Chicago during the 1960s and 1970s provided the roots for Garland’s astute cultural awareness. In 1995, he set up a consultancy studio, which operated under the 1950s-Modernist-type-meets-1970s-Blacksploitation-flick monicker “Helvetica Jones”—specializing in design for cultural enrichment. He continues in that vein as director of the project base gmatter.la, where he produces design devoted to nonprofits as well as art and cultural institutions with progressive agendas. He succinctly spells out his design agenda in a 2008 AIGA profile feature: “We all know that design is not a benign activity. It has the power to inform and also to obscure. Graphic design has become inseparable from corporate and special interests. I think there’s a huge potential for design to visualize diverse ideologies and to keep issues alive. The work I’m interested in concerns the latter.”
His gallery display reveals his training under Armin Hofmann and Paul Rand at Yale, where he earned his MFA in Graphic Design in 1990. Bold, forceful shapes become more icon than image. Immediate and urgent communication is stripped down to the essentials, yet with enough nuance to invite reflection. Here’s a sampling from the exhibit, which closes November 17, so Seattleites should mark their calendars—and beyond.
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