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The Designs of African American Life Symposium

A two-day symposium focused on all aspects of design in African American life

Nov 02
  • November 2 – November 3
  • Chicago Cultural Center

Marking the opening of African American Designers in Chicago: Art, Commerce, and the Politics of Race, this symposium gathers scholars and design practitioners who address all aspects of design in African American life. While the exhibition celebrates the works of Chicago-based graphic artists in fields ranging from sign-painting to doll-making, the symposium goes beyond Chicago and beyond the graphic arts in order to take stock of current work in the field and to explore new directions for research and practice. As they advance new narratives and methodologies that grasp the history of African American design, speakers illuminate critical problems at the intersection of art, politics, and everyday life.

Where is design in the history of African American life? In many respects, it has been, and continues to be, everywhere. As artisans, mechanics, milliners, tailors, sign-painters, hair dressers, book makers, art directors, commercial photographers, architects, product engineers, and digital media specialists, African Americans have taken up design work and entered the design professions not only to earn a living but also to elevate the value of African American life over and against the racism that has devalued that life from the age of Atlantic slavery to our present moment of global capitalism. Yet, in several critical respects, we have only begun to reckon with design as a practice for African American life and as a mode for African American living. As a field of social practice in which people seek to transform the sensory world according to aesthetic and ethical principles, design opens a fresh perspective on the relation of African American art to African American life. How have African Americans used design forms and practices to represent identities, evoke desires, build institutions, direct political action, distribute wealth, and realize social justice? How does the history of African American design relate to histories of culture, society, and political economy? What pasts and futures are contained in archives of African American design, and what methods are needed to preserve, exhibit, and (re)animate them?

Friday, November 2, 5–6pm: Opening Keynote Address

  • "Common Things Surprise Us: Black Chicago's Artists and Models Balls and the Politics of Middlebrown(n) Taste" by Jacqueline Goldsby, Yale University

Friday, November 2, 6:30–8:30pm: Exhibition Opening Reception

Saturday, November 3, 9:30–10:30am: Print and Power

  • "Black Cheesecake: Johnson Publishing and the Marketing of Female Sexuality" by Brenna Greer, Wellesley College
  • "Black Bookstores and the Design of Black Power” by Joshua Clark Davis, University of Baltimore
  • Chair: Amy Mooney, Columbia College

Saturday, November 3, 10:45–11:45am: Commerce and Community

  • "Liberation Art or Just Advertising?: African American Commercial Artists in the 1960s and 70s" by Jason Chambers, University of Illinois
  • “Herbert Temple and the Black Arts Movement” by Kinohi Nishikawa, Princeton University Chair: Korey Garibaldi, University of Notre Dame

Saturday, November 3, 1–2pm: Aesthetics and Being

  • “Modeling across the Color Line” by Elspeth Brown, University of Toronto
  • “Art and Being-ness: Black Vernacular Design and Aesthetics on Chicago's South Side, 1968-73” by Romi Crawford, School of the Art Institute of Chicago
  • Chair: Nadia Field, University of Chicago

Saturday, November 3, 2:15–3:15pm: Canons and Archives

  • “Hidden in Plain Sight: Charles Harrison and the Canon of Twentieth Century Design History” by Michelle Millar Fisher, Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Graduate Center at the City University of New York
  • “Collecting Design for the National Museum of African American History and Culture” by Michelle Joan Wilkinson, Smithsonian Institution
  • Chair: Bess Williamson, School of the Art Institute of Chicago

Saturday, November 3, 3:30–4:30pm: Closing Keynote

  • "Craft/Freedom: Regarding the Value(s) of African American Design" by Adam Green, University of Chicago
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