19 May 2010

Analysing text by Sylvia Harrris

Searching for a Black Aesthetic in American Graphic Design:

Sylvia Harris has drawn together evidence to add weight to her understanding of the impact of black culture behind the key figures and points of style in art and design. She is trying to focus young African or African American graphic designers to draw on their cultural influences rather than to emulate the established main stream aesthetic. She has highlighted quite poignantly the pitfalls for African cultural groups within the design industry. Her belief that by not embracing and intermingling the culture of African and African Americans within design we have lost a style aspects which would benefit the industry as a whole, and that African and African American have inadvertently done themselves a disservice as by adopting the main stream norm they feel under confident with what they have to offer.

She has also made it obvious that she believes it is because of the industry that culturally this group of new designers did not have any other option if the where to succeed in the profession. Her spirited words highlights that people from this culture are now starting to have more confidence and belief in their heritage is allowing them to showcase their culture in their work but this confidence is something which needs to spread through the African and American African design community before their input will be truly recognized and fully appreciated. She encourages the reader to investigate this further as she fully accepts her research is not complete.

Our profession has always been open to new ideas but these ideas mainly came from northern America or Europe, the major more successful designers came from these areas and like all people starting out we try to emulate those we admire so with no one using their heritage ("memory feeds projects, projects guide activity " – (Fabrizio M Rossi-Typographer) as a basis for their work the cycle becomes self perpetuating.

Fabrizio M Rossi

The article opens rhetorically to emphasize the point that awareness of African & African American graphic designers has gone largely unrecognized throughout history. The facts are produced so quickly it emphasises your own ignorance and draws you in to the subject; and offers us a possible alternative through the voice of our piers although in reality their influence is almost unacknowledged and forgotten.To enable us to relate more easily to the text she reflects on her situation as a consequence of history (both personal and global) and how this has caused true talent to be unrecognized, undiscovered or undeveloped ("communication in every which way is everything for the leader")– John Meada-Graphic Designer). Harris tries to help us understand the psychology behind how this has happened and how this has caused under developed talent. Which has left designers feeling like an outcast in the industry and has put inspirational young black designers at a disadvantage. This has lead to imitation & a lack of imagination and innovation by a groups of designers trapped within a demoralizing system.

John Meada

To emphasise the point Harris looks at the contradiction in leading designers work ethos that challenges the accepted boundaries against the disadvantage of having boundaries to which African and African American do not fully relate. It seems that she is stating the obvious once it has been pointed out to you. Every child rebels against it’s own upbringing at some point and at the end of this rebellious period they have developed into their own person. How can some one who has had to suppress their own heritage and feels they have to accept another rebel and develop into the designer they should, their rebellious period has been spent trying to absorb the more acceptable culture of the industry.

King Olivers 1920's

Harris talks of black music history as strongly inspirational for black creators to re-enforce this point and to show that it (inspirational black design) isn’t reflected through the design industry. Inspiration from style and from flair which are present not just subject matter but these attributes have more often than not been over looked by focusing on European influences. The text seems to show the hypocrisy in this focus as there is a hidden depth to our culture provided by African influences which have been buried in design and culture archives. Our culture and design history is full of utopian ideas, a design culture that nurtures and feeds budding designers but we appear to be trying to reach it without acknowledging what every one has to give to it.

To help remedy this chasm in design history Harris pieces together small elements of recorded African culture design history to try and show what the Black ethnic legacy within the industry has been and how much had gone unnoticed but as she explains the task is often difficult as work and disciplines are widely scattered across the genre, and often misrepresented by piers and records alike. We are only offered small glimpses through Harris’ piece to the genuine origin for African-American inspiration. Through it Harris takes us through the 20th Century with brief incidences and attitudes that give us an idea of the tone of the design world over these decades.

(examples of Picasso)

1920’s New Negro Movement; Harris writes about this era with vigor. She opens this section with the essential point of initial inspiration pointing out that early cubist artist, one being Picasso took a lot of inspiration from African art something that I have never looked for nor considered but an obvious point that which visually you could not dispute. To me the most obvious of these comes through the screaming colours as well as some of the abstract geometric almost symbol representation of people and places, and how these inspirations in turn came round full circle as 1920’s American Jazz culture saw a revival of cubist aesthetics through African art.

(examples of Harlem Art, 1920's)

Jazz over this decade had become the stylish word. It started as a style of music for African American people of the time. This style in one word I’d say “energy”, it was a fresh expressive style built on confidence that was both Black inspired and owned. This energy spread outwards across all communication media resulting in a buzz of new publications; these were often produced at Black owned and localized printing presses in order to produce a true reflection of African-American culture as the racist attitudes of society at that time greatly hindered. This freedom in self-expression resulted in a whole array of art, graphics, literature and music dedicated to the energy of African culture. Over this decade Harris depicts a scene of blurred professions and experimentation, and tells that from this came the magazine “Fire!!” designed to quench the thirst of the Anti-Victorianism at the time. Aaron Douglas Covered for this quarterly magazine and through it produced some of the most iconic graphics of the Jazz era.

Harris talks about the confidence and energy of Jazz and how the same ideals could be used to fuel the designers of today and also makes points on the importance of being able to link your inspiration to your heritage. I believe this to be a fundamental factor in realizing yourself as an individual just as much as understanding yourself as a designer. This is in part why I don’t agree with Harris talks of the art phenomenon “Cultural Hybridity” as being an element that would squash imaginations of African American designers. To me the ideas of “Cultural Hybridity” are those of collaboration for all ethnicities and an equal foot holding for all but this could only be truely achieved if we honor all creatives from any generation and ethnicity.

An interesting point of irony and some what shocking situation cited in Harris’ text comes from the statement that in the early 90’s Arthur Jaffa an established filmmaker, at the first ever Organisation of Black Designers (OBD) Conference named David Carson’s “Gun Ray” Magazine as offering the best example of “jazz aesthetics”. This seemed to be a clear example of how white designers and the industry have utilized African and African-American culture with certain design styles. Inspiration from black culture and the position of white designers such as Keith Haring along with white influences running the western design industry were able to successfully market and in some opinions exploit some key style features of black tradition.

(Examples of Keith Haring)

Harris concludes the piece on an aspiration note giving us examples of black designers still working solely for black audiences and incorporating African style and expression, and that in doing so are keeping a long line of design tradition most of which if not realized by now is yet to be discovered. This is where we are left with the reminder that every morsel of information we’ve been given is exactly that. The whole piece down to the last paragraph is designed to ignite curiosity mainly amongst African American’s and any budding black designer but also to anyone who would seek the truth of the history behind their vocation, and offers the starting points for us to initiate our own fact finding missions in the hope that one day true recognition will be made to the black design society for their contribution to the arts and media since the beginning of the 20th century.










African American Modernist/

Aaron Douglas, 2007/ Museum of Art, The University of Kansas, Laurence.

The Art of History: African American Women Artist Engage the Past/

Lisa Collins, 2002/ Rutgers University Press, New Jersey.

Walls of Heritage: Walls of Pride African American Murals/

James Pridoff, Robin J Dunitz, 1997 / Pomergranate Communications Inc. Europe Ltd

Rediscovering the Harlem Renaissance, the politics of exclusion/

Eloise E Johnson, 1997/ Garland publishing inc. New York & London.

A History of Graphic Design/

Phillip B Meggs 1998, John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

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