The Designs of African American Life

Chris Dingwall's picture
November 2, 2018 to November 3, 2018
Illinois, United States
Subject Fields: 
African American History / Studies, American History / Studies, Art, Art History & Visual Studies, Journalism and Media Studies, Public History

The Designs of African American Life

Chicago Cultural Center

Friday and Saturday, November 2-3, 2018


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?


This symposium gathers scholars and design practitioners who will address all aspects of design in African American life. It marks the opening of African American Designers in Chicago: Art, Commerce, and the Politics of Race, an exhibition that will run at the Chicago Cultural Center from October 2018 to March 2019. While the exhibition celebrates the works of Chicago-based graphic artists in fields ranging from sign-painting to doll-making, the symposium will go 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 place of design in African American life, speakers will illuminate critical problems at the intersection of art, politics, and the economy.


Preliminary Schedule:


Friday, November 2

Opening Keynote:

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


Saturday, November 3, 2018

Panel 1: Politics and Power

  • “Newsstand Politics: Chicago’s Black Magazines and the Re-presentation of Blackness”
    Brenna Greer, Wellesley College
  • “Black Bookstores and the Design of Black Power”
    Joshua Clark Davis, University of Baltimore


Panel 2: Commerce and Community

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


Panel 3: Aesthetics and Being

  • “Modeling across the Color Line”
    Elspeth Brown, University of Toronto
  • “Art and Being-ness: Black Vernacular Design and Aesthetics on Chicago's South Side, 1968-70”
    Romi Crawford, School of the Art Institute of Chicago


Panel 4: Canons and Archives

  • “Hidden in Plain Sight: Charles Harrison and the Canon of Twentieth Century Design History”
    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”
    Michelle Joan Wilkinson, Smithsonian Institution


Closing Keynote:

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