As, Not For exhibition celebrates black graphic designers

The show, held at Baltimore’s Maryland Institute College of Art, brings together work by African-American designers of the last 100 years – everything from Snoop Dogg album sleeves to Malcolm X movie posters

Sun Ra’s Sun Song album cover, by Laini (Sylvia) Abernathy, 1967

As, Not For, attempts to fill in some of the blanks of design education, which often focuses on white designers to the exclusion of designers of colour. Curator Jerome Harris was prompted to stage the show after working on a research project about Buddy Esquire – who created hundreds of flyers for Bronx hip hop events in the 1980s. “There were very few sources about him, his methods, and his impact on hip hop culture,” explains Harris, who is also a Graphic Design Teaching Fellow at the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA). “I figured he couldn’t be the only African-American designer being excluded from graphic design history, and this proved to be true.”

Harris has arranged the show not as a complete record of the past century, but rather as an attempt to increase the visibility of black designers, and hopefully the representation of people of colour in the design field as a result. The 2017 Design Census reported that the vast majority of America’s design industry is white, with only 3.4% of responders identifying as black/African-American. Harris particularly selected work that celebrates black culture, whether music, activism, advertising, literature, education or data.

Malcolm X movie poster by Art Sims, 1992
Self promotional ad by Philip Morris Inc for Emmett McBain, 1974
Snoop Dogg’s Da Game Is To Be Sold, Not To Be Told by Pen and Pixel x Master P, 1998

This includes Laini (Sylvia) Abernathy’s 1967 cover for Sun Ra’s Sun Song, Art Sims’ Malcolm X movie poster and Pen and Pixel’s sleeve for Snoop Dogg’s The Game Is To Be Sold, Not To Be Told. The show also features a striking ad campaign created by Philip Morris Inc. in the 70s.

“There was a lot of cool printed ephemera created surrounding black culture, and it’s awful that this information is so difficult to access,” says Harris. “The documentation of graphic design history should be more equitable. Selective, but equitable.”

“If I only ever learned about Herbert Matter and Joseph Muller Brockman, well, that colours my perception of what graphic design is and can be. Throw Buddy Esquire and Sylvia Abernathy into the mix, and you have a new set of thoughts to inform the way design is seen and made.”

As, Not For poster

As, Not For is at MICA’s Brown Center, and will be on display until 22 September;