African American Designers in Chicago: Art, Commerce, and the Politics of Race


  • Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs & Special Events

October 27, 2018–March 3, 2019

Robert Savon Pious, American Negro Exposition, 1865-1940. Poster, 55 x 35 cm (21 5/8 x 13 inches). Ryerson and Burnham Archives, The Art Institute of Chicago.

Presented at the Chicago Cultural Center, African American Designers in Chicago: Art, Commerce, and the Politics of Race explores how African American designers in Chicago worked across different media and practices to define a role for African Americans in the design professions. Featuring work from a wide range of practices including cartooning, sign painting, architectural signage, illustration, graphic design, exhibit design and product design, the exhibition is the first ever to demonstrate how African American designers remade the image of the black consumer and the work of the black artist in a major hub of American advertising/consumer culture. 

Black designers in Chicago pushed back against long-standing design conventions that traditionally diminished the potential of African Americans; they also navigated and seized a measure of power in often-racist workplaces. Designers such as Charles Dawson, Emmett McBain and Eugene Winslow were also decisive in using commercial art as a site to advance African American political causes, from the Exposition of the American Negro in 1940 to the founding of Burrell McBain Advertising in 1971. As negotiators between local businesses and major corporations and Chicago’s black community, they raised still-relevant questions about how, and with what consequence, African Americans engaged commercial design as a site to shape the politics of uplift and protest.

By emphasizing both the design and the lives of the designers, the exhibition traces how African American design professionals shaped images of the race and fashioned their own careers during major transformations in black life in the twentieth century, from the Great Migration to the Civil Rights Movement and beyond.

This exhibition will be on view at the Chicago Cultural Center.