This weekend, our nation celebrates Juneteenth, a holiday that commemorates the anniversary of the abolition of slavery in the United States (the day the last Black slaves were freed in Texas, two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation). Today, many mark Juneteenth as a day to celebrate freedom, but also to shed light on various systemically racist constructs, including the prison-industrial complex and cannabis prohibition, which make our country unequal. Part of this legacy is understanding how to represent Black culture fairly and in full dimensionality. In honor of Juneteenth, we take a look back at Poster House's "Black History is Poster History," because we agree with the event organizers that Black history is to be celebrated year-round.
Poster House Presents "Black History Is Poster History"
On February 22, New York City’s Poster House, the only museum in the United States dedicated to the art of the poster, hosted an event titled “Black History is Poster History.” The event explored how “Black representation in poster history has evolved over time, drawing from a curated selection of posters from the museum’s permanent collection.”
The event was organized by Salvador Muñoz, Associate Director of Public Programs and Outreach at Poster House, and Maya Varadaraj, a Poster House Lead Educator. Varadaraj is also Programs Lead for CMYK Council, Poster House’s advisory board of BIPOC designers, artists and educators who organize the museum’s programming. (CMYK is a reference to the four ink colors used in printing - Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Key/Black.)
Jonathan Michael Square On Black History, Art And Culture Through Posters
“Black History is Poster History” was hosted by Jonathan Michael Square, Ph. D, Assistant Professor of Black Visual Culture at Parsons School of Design. He is also a fellow in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute and runs the digital humanities project Fashioning the Self in Slavery and Freedom, which explores the intersection between histories of enslavement and the fashion system.
Throughout the event, Dr. Square showcased posters that represented Black history from the earliest known portraits of enslaved peoples in the United States in the mid-1700s to modern protest posters designed for the Black Lives Matter movement.
Presenting these posters in chronological order, Dr. Square allowed the audience to understand both how public perception of African-Americans evolved over time and how African-Americans themselves began to express their own feelings through art in different ways as culture evolved.
Black History And Poster History Through A Critical Lens
Maya Varadaraj spoke about how “Black History is Poster History” differentiated itself from other recent Black history-centric exhibitions at the museum, stating, “The program felt fresh because we weren’t just looking at posters as we usually do (from a technical design standpoint). We were looking at them from a critical lens. It felt more like a survey of ephemeral images from the time that Dr. Square is an expert in.”
As both an appreciator of the arts and a scholar of history, Dr. Square has combined his two passions to analyze art from a strictly historical perspective. In the words of Dr. Square himself:
“I’m not a maker, I’m not an artist. I don’t know the materiality or what goes into making certain art forms. I’m more into the sociocultural contexts behind art and fashion. For instance, when I’m analyzing the artwork, where some people might analyze colors or technique, I’m more interested in ‘Who owned this?’ ‘How much did it cost?’ ‘What was going on politically that motivated the museum to buy it at that time?’”
Beyond Black History Month
“Black History is Poster History” was not only curated to celebrate Black History Month, but to reflect upon how Poster House has spotlighted Black history through its collection. Coming near the end of February, after exhibitions like “You Won’t Bleed Me,” an exploration of Blaxploitation cinema’s most famous posters, the “Black History is Poster History” event served as the conclusion to Poster House’s Black History Month programs.
Additionally, the program’s intent on analyzing art created over centuries emphasizes the point that Black history is not something that can easily be relegated to just a single month. Salvador Muñoz commented on this idea, saying:
“One thing to note is that our approach to what we call ‘heritage month programming,’ so ‘Black History Month,’ ‘Asian American-Pacific Islander History Month,’ is that we do try to address and acknowledge these months because one: we’re a public-facing institution and it's important that we, as an institution, are acknowledging these things, but, for us, it’s a depriority [sic] to engage with these topics outside of these heritage months because Black history is a year-round thing, as is any sort of heritage month.”
After the event ended, Poster House published the complete program on the museum’s Vimeo page. Watch the full presentation from "Black History is Poster History" below!
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Featured image: "Black Is Beautiful" Courtesy of Poster House