Arts, Features

Artist amplifies Black voices through graphic design

People of color often are mis- or underrepresented in history books, and in the arts, that’s no exception.

A traveling exhibition curated by graphic designer Jerome Harris is currently on display at the College of Fine Arts’ Stone Gallery until Feb. 19. The exhibit aims to amplify the work of Black designers who have not received the recognition they deserve. COURTESY OF BOSTON UNIVERSITY COLLEGE OF FINE ARTS

Jerome Harris, a professional graphic designer who curated the traveling exhibition “As, Not For: Dethroning Our Absolutes,” brought his work to Boston University’s College of Fine Arts to call attention to the ignored history of Black graphic designers.

The exhibition, which first opened Nov. 4 in CFA’s Stone Gallery, features a variety of work from Black designers. The gallery, composed of re-printed graphic designs from Black creators over the last century, will remain on display until Feb. 19.

With 15 featured designers, the exhibition is divided into several different categories, including protests, commerce, advertising, parties and Black data — the collection of the Black experience told through photography, charts and other memorabilia.

Mary Yang, an assistant professor of art and graphic design in CFA, said the exhibition aims to spark conversation within the BU community about Black designers who were denied recognition in classrooms and history.

“To have it all in one space, especially an exhibition, really helps to highlight and honor that work,” Yang said. “Being able to host this work in the BU Art Galleries, especially since its newly renovated, really gives the work the importance it deserves.”

Jay Li, a senior studying graphic design and advertising, worked with Yang and three other BU students on organizing the exhibit. He said the title of the exhibition, “As, Not For,” is inspired by African American writer Alain Locke.

“It’s called ‘As, Not For’ because you’re not speaking for a group of people, but rather speaking from a personal experience standpoint,” Li said. “[It’s] just to really create this conversation about both the work and the people behind the work.”

Yang said one of her major goals for this exhibition was to create a “learning space” for students so they can understand the importance of the work from the designers featured.

She said she hopes the exhibition provides an atmosphere where visitors can engage with art but then continue to educate themselves outside of the exhibit.

“We hope to inspire and challenge visitors, no matter what field that they’re in, to be able to critically examine and challenge their own fields, past, present and future,” Yang said, “but inspiring people to also walk away and leave with the desires to also further research these designers and others, and to be able to reassert them in their conversations.”

Li, who organized the exhibit over the past two months, said he was intrigued by Sylvia Abernathy’s piece in “As, Not For” — Abernathy was a 1960s graphic designer and one of the first Black designers to be credited for album artwork.

Abernathy’s “bold and radiant” album covers stood out to Li, he said, as well as her struggles as a Black woman in graphic design.

“I think she’s the only female designer in the exhibition,” Li said. “As an African American designer, but doubly as a woman, a lot of her work is often wrapped up with talking about … her husband’s work as well, so it was sort of ‘the Abernathys,’ rather than Sylvia Abernathy specifically.”

Another BU graphic design collaborator, CFA senior Angela Lian, wrote in an email the exhibit’s purpose is to start a conversation within the BU community that goes beyond the institution, encouraging students to take action by seeing the problem before them.

“This exhibition is a starting point because it provides some of the vocabulary and tools to begin actively dismantling the discrimination of Black people in fields dominated by white people,” Lian wrote. “‘As, Not For’ also uplifts and puts names to influential African-American graphic designers, empowering them from a perspective unlike that of the reality of design education.”

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