A unique collection of posters, collected and curated by Penn professor and PBS History Detectives host Tukufu Zuberi, forms the basis of a provocative new exhibition at the Penn Museum: Black Bodies in Propaganda: The Art of the War Poster, opening at 1:00 pm on June 2, 2013, and running through March 2, 2014.
About the Exhibition
Propaganda has long been used to mobilize people in times of war, and this exhibition presents 33 posters, most targeting Africans and African-American civilians, in times of war. These carefully designed works of art were aimed at mobilizing people of color in war efforts, even as they faced oppression and injustice in their homelands.
The exhibition explores changing messages on race and politics through propaganda—from the American Civil War, to World War I, World War II, and through to the African independence movements.
“These posters tell a story about the dynamics of race,” said Dr. Zuberi. “Black bodies are racialized in these posters as they capture defining moments in history. Race is always about second-class citizenship, it is always about a relationship between two groups and how one group is defined as superior and the other group is defined as inferior. These posters represent definitive moments in this historical process.”
In addition to the posters, the exhibition features three objects, soldier attire from Sudan, circa 1900, from the Penn Museum’s African Collection. Additionally, interactive multimedia allows visitors to explore some of the posters’ distinctive iconography, while archival military recruitment films and a related segment from PBS’ History Detectives enrich the exhibition.
A History Detective Begins a Collection
Tukufu Zuberi, the Lasry Family Professor of Race Relations, and Professor of Sociology and Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, began collecting propaganda war posters with a focus on Africans and African Americans in 2005, inspired by colleagues from the hit public television series, History Detectives. The first poster he collected was used as an advertisement for a film made during World War I to recruit African Americans to fight. The collection has since grown to 46 posters.
In the 2012 season, History Detectives turned the table on Dr. Zuberi, and investigated one of his posters, with his help. A powerful human story behind “Our Colored Heroes,” a 1918 war poster showcased in the exhibition, emerged—and is presented in the segment of the History Detectives on view in the exhibition.
Dr. Zuberi was a member of the Penn Museum’s Imagine Africa Community Communications Advisory Board, and the Black Bodies in Propaganda exhibition was conceived as an offshoot of that ongoing project. Imagine Africa, an exhibition and community engagement project adjacent to the Africa Gallery, invites the community to explore aspects of the Penn Museum’s extensive African Collection through diverse themes—and offer input on possible themes and content for future exhibitions and programming.
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