Interview with Unyimeabasi Udoh

last edited on Fri. May 21 2021

Unyimeabasi Udoh is a Chicago-based artist, graphic designer, and co-founder of Plates: An experimental journal of art and culture. Unyimeabasi is also the graphic designer who created the visual identity for the exhibition not all realisms: photography in africa in the long 1960s curated by the Smart Museum’s Curatorial Fellow for Diversity in the Arts (2019–2021), Leslie M. Wilson.

When the exhibition was paused due to­­ COVID, Leslie took the opportunity to sit down with Unyimeabasi for a conversation about their art practice and approach to creating the look of the exhibition.

This conversation took place on December 11, 2020, and has been edited for clarity and conciseness with assistance from Lillien Waller.

LW: I'm so indebted to Erik Peterson, the Smart Museum’s Manager of Family Programs and Student Engagement, who first connected us. The gist of Erik’s message was that we should know each other, and I am so happy that I took that advice. I got to know the breadth of your work across art and design, which includes your work on Plates, an experimental journal of art and culture that launched in 2020.

I was really struck by the ways that your art practice engages the history of conceptual art, especially through language and text, and how you channel that into issues around legibility, communication, the circulation and reception of African art in the West, African diasporic experience, and so much more. I felt so strongly that the kinds of issues that you raised around how we make meaning from images, how artworks move through the world, how people move through the world, would result in a really exciting partnership around my exhibition not all realisms: photography in africa in the long 1960s.

How do you see the relationship between your art and design practices? Are they aligned, or do they live different lives for you?

UU: I'm interested in visual communication and how images communicate, how text communicates—what meaning is transmitted through them, and when that isn't the meaning that they immediately seem to contain. (I know I read Roland Barthes’ Mythologies a couple too many times, maybe.)

I'm really interested in typography and text. I love words. I used to write a lot; I’d write fiction in middle school, but writing and handwriting were always important to me, and so the way the words looked has always been something that fascinated me. Actually, when we were in middle school, my best friend and I would copy fonts, by hand, to make our handwriting look more like the ones that we liked. And so, I think that transferred through to working with digital typesetting—and sometimes, once or twice, metal typesetting.

Thinking about what words mean and how what they look like means, and how the presentation, again, influences these kinds of readings, is something that links my practice as an artist and my practice as a designer. Both are concerned with text, and both generally deal with either images that I'm actively appropriating for my art or that somebody like a client is inviting me to work with them. In addition to the presentation of text, the question becomes, “How do I reinterpret images? How do I rearrange things that I haven't necessarily created myself, that already exist in the world, and make them reveal themselves in some new light?”

LW: Your text-based work is definitely one of the areas where there's a lot of overlap between your art and design practice. Recent projects like Untitled (Politics) (2020), which was part of the Open Sheds Used For What? project here in Chicago this past summer, as well as works like Untitled (Pity Party) (2020), see you making text-based garlands. You also have an ongoing series of cross-stitch works that feature single words or short phrases. And then Practice (2019) is a black braille text. I’ve heard you talk about an early fascination with stencils, with the kinds of tools that help you construct language. And for cross-stitch, for garlands, they speak to craft traditions, gift and party stores, all manner of different uses. Why these formats?

UU: I’m always interested in the different units of language, and the way that their presentation— or, if you look at the cross-stitch and the braille, their actual rendering—impacts their meaning. And so for the cross-stitch, it's generally short thoughts over a long period of time, like spending two weeks embroidering, the words “I cannot.” And sometimes, it's wanting to try a new process, as with the braille. When I started grad school at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC), I saw that the Visual Communication Design department had a braille typewriter that one of the professors donated, and I was like, “Oh, this is so cool.” I also have fairly poor vision; I have the worst vision in my family. I think it's plateaued for now, but—beyond working on a screen a lot of the time, and in visual media—my own obsession was super low contrast, like black thread on black fabric, is not helping. In Practice, the text read, “This is practice.” There was the sense that maybe it wouldn't be such a bad idea to learn braille before I might have to learn braille.

LW: Some of these ways of making take quite a bit of time, such as with the cross-stitching. It takes time to stitch. It's a different kind of relationship of return to the language itself, its parts and whole. And they offer distinct forms of tactility.

UU: As someone whose trade is graphic design, I’m trying not to make a poster. If I'm working with text and working with appropriated images, to what degree can I both separate myself from and subvert the standard forms of what's considered graphic design output? I'm always trying to see, “Okay, what can I do that's different?” I wouldn't want to put vinyl straight on the wall…Lawrence Wiener already did that. I'm never going to be that cool. I have to move on… [laughs] Wall vinyl is over!

LW: First of all, is vinyl over? I’m just gonna throw that out there and just keep that as an open question, I…

UU: I definitely have used vinyl, but I try to put it on an intermediary between it and the wall.

LW: There is also a recurring use of black in your work. Not just for Practice, which features braille on black paper. Black is also key for My Country (Object Removed for Study) (2019), in which you have constructed pedestals with museological style labels against a black wall. While Unstandard Manual (NASA 1976) (2018) features redacted text on black paper. Within all of these works, texture, sheen, tonality, and the material are really emphasized. Sometimes black is performing a removal or redaction, but it’s also doing other kinds of things (suggesting a void, hiddenness, a slick quality). Why do you find yourself returning to black?

UU: I first started mainly working in monochrome, and specifically in a lot of black, when I was in undergrad, studying architecture. When you're presenting projects in final critique, you use large-format boards that you get printed with all of your drawings and renderings, and we had to pay to print them ourselves. Printing in color is a lot more expensive than printing in black-and-white, and so as a measure of frugality, I started to see how much I could do with very little color and thought a lot more carefully about my use of color.

My final project in undergrad was redesigning a space for the National Black Theatre, who were planning on upzoning their plot in order to build taller on it. Having gotten used to working in a lot of monochrome, I started thinking really deeply about the color black, both in relation to some kind of idea of blackness and in terms of how conceptually loaded it is, how much content and history and how many expectations are collapsed into the color and the idea of the color, even before you start getting to race and the history of racism.

That same year, if not the exact same semester, Kerry James Marshall’s retrospective Mastry opened at the former Met Breuer. I saw the show and read his profile in the New York Times, where he spoke about painting black skin and the nuances of black as a color. And so for the National Black Theatre project, I decided, “You know, I'm going to lean in and do an all-black theater and make all of my graphics to match it.” I think it was the first time I really sat down and started delving into it, and once I started I thought, “Ah, this is it.” I still do like colors, though.

LW: Speaking of colors: We embraced a very bright and bold color palette for the exhibition that I have been working on, taking inspiration in part from the album covers from the 1950s, ‘60s, and ‘70s in West and Southern Africa that often incorporated photography. This ranged from E.T. Mensah and his Tempos band, the Black Beats band, the Ramblers International, Celestine Ukwu and his Philosophers National, Geraldino Piño and the Heartbeats, Fela Kuti, Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela, and many others. In short, we went down a huge, wonderful rabbit hole to look at all of these covers. Can you talk about how you approached incorporating aspects of the visual culture of the long 1960s into the design identity for the show?

UU: The first step was looking and cataloging the most salient or common interesting aspects of the design of the ‘60s, compared to what we’re trying to say with the show and its identity. After that, the question is, “How do we make it a little more interesting?” So it's not just a period piece. Looking at the album covers was a great time. They’re all excellent. And, of course, there’s the ‘60s color scheme: it's not quite bright. It's not quite pastels, though. Some of that has to do with printing technology and the fact that the stuff that we're looking at now often has faded, which contributes to the vintage vibe. In order to update them to a modern application, avoiding that feeling of a period piece, I decided to use the saturation at which they would have been originally printed, plus an extra bit of brightness. We also talked about not wanting the color scheme to be overly reminiscent of objects steeped in specific histories and traditions such as a national flag, or textiles such as Kente cloth, so it was important to pursue colors or color combinations that could be more open.

LW: And I think with that, it was this question of not trying to lean too heavily on any particular iconicity that might pull us too heavily in one direction.

UU: Yeah, we didn’t want it to read as the South African show, or the Malian show. We wanted it to be more general.

LW: Which is hard because, obviously, with a whole continent, there are a lot of flags, so much dynamism around pattern and color that conjure so many associations. I think we both wanted to gesture toward that, but also try to hold the space so that the show felt like it was doing something very specific on its own.

UU: Yes, exactly. And the same balance of historical reference and subverting stereotype applied to typefaces. A lot of the album artwork used hand-lettering and custom cuts or weird off-brands of major typefaces that were made for phototypesetting, but haven't been turned into digital typefaces. I spent a lot of time looking at what typefaces, in addition to those, were common in this decade—how they were used and how that use sits with the feeling of the show. We had talked a lot about wanting to keep it lowercase; the feeling of a hashtag.

One of the common graphic motifs that I kept coming across was the rectangle with condensed all-caps sans-serif type, like Franklin Gothic, that you’d see on record labels or publications like Drum or Time. But the all-caps, it's not really the feeling that we were looking for. You'd see a lot of Futura in lowercase—think of Volkswagen advertisements from the time. You’d also see Futura in a very light weight and all-caps, like on Miriam Makeba’s album covers. But, again, it was too uppercase and too spiky, and the lowercase could read too contemporary too easily. Finally, we decided, “Okay, if we're going to go funky, it’s got to be Cooper Black. This is the ‘60s.”

LW: Yes, we love the funky side of it, where it felt like it said, “This is the ‘60s,” but it also felt current. What do you hope viewers will see through this design?

UU: I hope viewers will see the historical design references while having their assumptions about Africa and its relationship to the history of global popular culture challenged. The ‘60s in Africa were also steeped in pop and funk. At the same time, we’re not trying to induce a state of nostalgia, and a good deal of the material in the show is quite serious. My goal was to balance the playfulness associated with the era with the fact that we’re looking back on it with a critical and contemporary eye.

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