As part of a new exhibition at Fondazione Prada in Milan, archival imagery from Jet and Ebony show how the publications helped define contemporary African American life
Fondazione Prada’s latest exhibition, The Black Image Corporation, is a vital look back at two of the earliest, and most prominent, black-centric magazines in America. Breathtaking archival images from Ebony and Jet magazines (launched by black entrepreneur John H. Johnson in 1945 and 1951, respectively) have been blown up and hung on the walls of the newly opened Osservatorio venue in Milan. The exhibition repositions the images, which were primarily shot by legendary black photographers Isaac Sutton and Moneta Sleet Jr., as being much more than simply pretty photos. They are among the earliest examples of black fashion photography.
The exhibition feels like a necessary revision of pop culture history. Jet and Ebony have never received the attention and praise they deserve – both from white and black audiences. Jet was billed as “the negro bible” during its heyday, boldly covering the murder of Emmett Till when few other publications dared to. But as black politics changed (case in point: the very term “negro” falling out of fashion) Jet and Ebony’s place in black culture changed too. Jet and Ebony were not sources of radical leftist news; they were something you casually came across in black salons – magazines to mindlessly flip through as you waited to get your haircut. And, at the same time, the black consciousness shifted to other mediums. There was BET, which was black people’s equivalent to MTV. Now, Black Twitter. After a 63-year run, Jet ceased print publication in 2014.
“I’m personally invested in how black archives are so underexplored,” says artist and professor Theaster Gates, who conceived Black Image Corporation (his second exhibition for Fondazione Prada). “It feels like some equity for black people has come in fashion today, but I feel like it was on the shoulders of John H. Johnson. He was the first person willing to put a dark-brown sister on the cover of a magazine.”
The irony of an exhibition so singularly focused on the black American experience taking place in Milan, instead of a typically African American hub like, say, Detroit or Chicago, is not lost on Gates. “We wanted to take images that were unknown to the European public and make them accessible,” he explains. To him, Black Image Corporation is actually very relevant to Italy, a country grappling to deal with the immigration of black and brown bodies. “By having this exhibition, you get to see black people in all their splendour. I wanted a moment where people could pause and look at the black body without it being exploitative or fetishistic.”
Black Image Corporation also represents black-centric journalism being embraced and celebrated by the luxury fashion world. Fondazione Prada is co-chaired by powerhouse couple Miuccia Prada and Patrizio Bertelli. “She’s a really thoughtful activist and intellectual,” Gates says of Prada. “The conversations we had were less about fashion and more about what it means to preserve history.”
One image in Black Image Corporation feels like it could have been taken today. Shot by Moneta Sleet Jr. (who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1969), a woman is turned away from us. The focus is on her luminous hair, which is meticulously rolled into hair curlers so large, they resemble soda cans. The photo illustrates black fashion photography is nothing new – the glamour in our bodies and identities have always made for great images. Mainstream publications have just started tuning in on the fact.
Black Image Corporation is on at Fondazione Prada, Milan Osservatorio until January 14, 2019.