WATERVILLE — Carlos Beason looked forward to visiting his friend’s aunt’s apartment growing up in Harlem, because she subscribed to Jet, a weekly news magazine for black America that began in 1951. In the pages of Jet, Beason saw everyday black people portrayed accurately and fairly. He couldn’t find similar images anywhere else, and looking at the magazine changed how Beason saw himself and his place in the world, as well as his aspirations.

“That publication was the equivalent to my New York Times or Daily News,” said Beason, a 22-year-old senior at Colby College in Waterville. “Those publications didn’t have stories about people who looked like me. Had I not read Jet, I probably would not have believed it was possible for a black person to become president or win Oscars or Grammys or become Miss America or be successful in any career. Or go to Colby College.”

This spring, Beason is talking up a new exhibition at the Colby College Museum of Art that uses thousands of images from Jet and Ebony magazines, filed in and displayed atop open shelves, to contextualize the experience of African Americans like him. The exhibition, “Facsimile Cabinet of Women Origin Stories,” is the latest installation by Theaster Gates, who became an artist in residence at C0lby last year and serves as director of artist initiatives at the Lunder Institute for American Art at Colby.

Beason hosted his lacrosse teammates for a tour and talk and is working with other campus groups to do the same. He wants his peers to see this show so they have a better idea of who he is and what America looks like to him. “It’s nice to take the time to look at the images and, after 15 or 20 minutes of reflection, come back as a group and have a better understanding of our place on campus and how we can be better members of the community and simply understand each other better,” he said.

 

Theaster Gates’ installation “Facsimile Cabinet of Women Origin Stories” uses thousands of images from Jet and Ebony magazines to contextualize the experience of African Americans. The exhibition is at the Colby College Museum of Art. Courtesy of the artist

 

In case you’ve missed the news, Gates is the hottest artist in America right now. In December, the New York Times called him “the style world’s current cultural idol,” a figure so hot that tastemakers Kanye West and Venus Williams sought his counsel during the most recent Art Basel gathering in Miami Beach. He just opened an exhibition in Paris that features the story of Malaga Island in Phippsburg, where a mixed-race community was forcibly evicted by the state of Maine in the early 1900s to improve tourism.

He’s a social-practice artist, which is to say the work he creates comments on society and aims to address social ills. He focuses much of his work in Chicago, his home, where he became famous for turning discarded materials into sculpture and repurposing broken buildings into art centers and neighborhood hubs. In March, he was chosen to participate in Chicago’s Architecture Biennial, a citywide cultural event that’s designed around self-reflection and social justice and civic purpose.

Those themes have been the hallmark of Gates’ work for a long time, and they’re present in the piece at Colby. “Facsimile Cabinet of Women Origin Stories” includes nearly 3,000 images from the archive of the Chicago-based Johnson Publishing Co. That archive may well be the most important archive of the visual culture of black America in the 20th century, said museum director Sharon Corwin. At its height, Johnson was the largest black-owned publisher in the country. In addition to Jet, which began in 1971, Johnson also published Ebony, beginning in 1945. The company sold the magazines in 2016, and last week filed for bankruptcy in Chicago, formally ending its era and casting this exhibition in somber poignancy.

Gates’ cabinet, installed in the lobby of the museum, honors women and grew out of his “Black Madonna” show last year at the Kunstmuseum Basel in Switzerland, in which he grappled with the death of his mother, Lorine.

A photo of actress Janet MacLachlan is one of the 3,000 images in Gates’ installation at Colby. Courtesy Johnson Publishing Company, LLC.

“As I reflect on the ‘Facsimile Cabinet,’ I’m reminded that everyday women all over the world have moments when they manifest the divine,” Gates wrote in a statement, emailed in response to questions about the exhibition. “In some ways, the ‘Facsimile Cabinet’ is about citing those women, showing the world what divinity looks like in the Black community. The miracles that Black women perform are not necessarily miracles that we understand from the prophets or the sages, but they’re miracles nonetheless. Holding our countries together, ensuring that our children are safe, healing us, helping us get through school – these everyday acts, which so often go unrecognized, are made plain in the cabinet.”

Gates’ cabinets are installed in the interior lobby of the museum to the left of the main entrance into the galleries. The black walnut cabinets are lined along two walls, and there’s one column that extends into lobby. The images we are asked to look at aren’t hanging on the walls, but are placed on the shelves of the cabinet, like books on a bookshelf. To consider them, we must don white cotton gloves, remove the framed images from a shelf and place them on an angled surface atop the cabinet. In itself, that act feels reverential, almost spiritual.

The cabinets were custom built for the exhibition by Maine woodworkers Dan Bloomer and Mark Roman. To provide context for the wood craft element of the installation, the museum has placed Gates’ piece among wooden sculpture and relief work by Louise Nevelson and Bernard Langlais.

The framed images are reproductions of pictures from the magazines, of the newsmakers, athletes, stars and leaders of the 1960s and 1970s – the activist Coretta Scott King, singer Nancy Wilson and actress Janet MacLachlan are a few random examples. Other images document the working processes of the photographers, designers and editors at the magazines. In addition to the hundreds of finished photographs, we also see contact sheets, crop marks, notes and other indications of artistic practice. Gates licensed the images from Johnson, for use with this and other exhibitions.

With these images and this exhibition, Gates is making the world blacker.

“Can I jump in and assign myself temporary CEO of Johnson Publishing and have that temporary assignment lead to a redeployment of Black images so that people don’t view them as nostalgic, but rather as the ongoing reoccurrence of Black power within the contemporary art world and without?” he asked in his email. “In this way, it is not an intellectual journey of the archive, or my intellectual investigation of Johnson Publishing, in fact, it is just the opposite. It is is my visceral deep desire to occupy the Black image and to see the Black image do positive damage in the world so that the world wants more and more to be Black, to value Blackness, to understand the complexity of the histories of Black Americans, so that the image wins for us all – not just for me.”

Viewers can decide what images they want to spend time with, how many they want to take out from the shelves and whether to return them to the shelves or leave them out for public view. It’s democratic and self-directed at the same time. The idea is to spur questions and investigations.

“Who are these people and what is their story in American history?” said Daisy Desrosiers, director of programs for the Lunder Institute for American Art at the Colby Museum. “It is only through the process of looking that you get to discover the images.”

Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Courtesy Johnson Publishing Company

The hands-on approach is a hallmark of Gates’ artistic practice. At first, visitors aren’t quite sure what to do “with his generous invitation to touch,” Desrosiers said. When they realize they can and must handle the work, their surprise quickly turns to delight, she said. “Part of Theaster’s generosity as an artist, he is offering us a structure. The interaction is up to you.”

This exhibition is a collaboration between the museum and the Lunder Institute. The museum organized and is hosting the exhibition, while the Lunder Institute provides programming and scholarship that amplify it. For “Facsimile Cabinet of Women Origin Stories,” Desrosiers is hosting 15 women scholars from various fields to each spend a day with the collection of images when the museum is closed to the public. The scholars will come one at a time from across Maine and New England, and they include artists, copyright attorneys, archivists, anthropologists and documentarians, among others. The idea is to open up the archive to them and allow them the opportunity to explore it, study it and create conversations around it, Desrosiers said.

Desrosiers has enjoyed encountering the women in these photos – and the artists who made these images – at different moments in their lives. As a young black woman from Montreal, Desrosiers has found the archive to be an opportunity for a history lesson, and getting to know it has led to her own self-awareness. “As a young professional, it speaks to who I am in the world and what it means to question your identity and to be evolving and growing through these images,” she said. “You have access to something that opens up your eyes and allows you to meet people and allows you to meet your history in a very different way. It gives me answers and a way into history I did not have access to or did not know. It’s an aesthetic moment I didn’t witness but am glad to know that happened. It’s a huge gift, and one I never get tired of unwrapping.”

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