• Steven Heller

African American Media

Speaking of People: Ebony, Jet and Contemporary Art (Nov. 13, 2014–March 8, 2015) explores the ways contemporary artists use the leading African American magazines Ebony and Jet as a resource and inspiration. Published by Johnson Publishing Company for over 60 years, Ebony and Jet are important documenters of black life. As popular, widely circulated print publications, the magazines ushered in a particular phenomenon of collection and display in black domestic spaces. The original artwork in the exhibition uses the magazines’ imagery and text as source material. The exhibition catalog was designed by Bobby C. Martin Jr., Jennifer Kinon, and Michael McCaughley of OCD. I asked Martin to discuss his relationship to these magazines and his inspirations for the catalog’s design.

Did you read Jet or Ebony when you were younger? We never had a subscription to Ebony or Jet magazine at home, but somehow I always came across issues. Ebony kept me up to date with the goings-on of African-American pop culture and current events. We could read more in-depth features of celebrities and sports stars, but it also provided details about important events typically overlooked by mainstream media.

My fondest memories of Ebony and Jet magazine are from childhood trips with my dad to Mullin’s Barbershop. There was always a long wait, so to keep us occupied the barber kept a coffee table piled high with magazines. Jet was a preference because its pithy articles and pictures made it an easy read. And, the kid in the barbershop was a fan of Jet’s “Beauty of the Week,” where each issue featured a photo submission of a young woman in a swimsuit.

What is the importance of these two magazines? Studio Museum in Harlem Associate Curator Lauren Haynes says it best: “The [Ebony] magazine quickly became the nation’s platform for the representation and discussion of black culture, while simultaneously addressing the lack of visibility in the media of the full range of black experiences. This platform informed the entire publication, not only its groundbreaking articles and features documenting the black experience in America and abroad, but also the advertisements, illustrations and graphic design. The magazine’s visual language reflected a mid-century modern aesthetic filtered through the lens of black life.”

Ebony and Jet were probably my first encounter with African-American graphic design. Their use of type and image, in conjunction with advertising targeting the African-American audience, provided a profound body of work that has influenced myriad artists and designers.

You’ve designed the catalog in a very minimal manner—black and red dominate. What was your inspiration? When designing the catalog, we wanted to pay homage to Ebony and Jet, but not copy the design. Similar to the art in the exhibition, it’s not about nostalgia, but rather capturing the influence in a contemporary setting.

We were especially influenced by layouts of issues from the ’50s and ’60s, such as the headlines that run across the gutter tying together both pages of a spread. Red and black-and-white stood out as the main colors of the Ebony brand. We kept the front and back of the magazine primarily limited to that color scheme while the artists pages reproduce the artwork in full color knocked out of glossy black pages.

Ebony was a large full-sized publication while Jet was less than half its size. Throughout the catalog we constantly shift between Ebony’s modular grid to Jet’s simpler columns with wide line lengths. The variety is meant to evoke the feeling of flipping back and forth from one magazine to the other, highlighting the close relationship between the sister publications.

Are magazines devoted to African Americans still a necessity? Johnson Publishing Company was founded in 1942 during the height of racial segregation in America. Publishing magazines for a black audience, about the black experience, was crucial, and could only be done if African Americans chose to do it themselves.

A lot has changed over the years, but any magazine can be relevant if the content is relevant to its audience. There are still barbershops and coffee tables piled high with magazines. There are still curious kids wanting to see people who look like themselves doing things that are meaningful, innovative and exciting amongst the pages of those magazines. Hopefully those same magazines will inspire another generation of artists and designers.

What did you learn from doing this work? We learned how difficult stamping white foil out of red linen can be.

Credits: OCD | The Original Champions of Design Design: Bobby C. Martin Jr., Jennifer Kinon, Michael McCaughley Client: The Studio Museum in Harlem

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