When Jerome W. Harris, KLN '09, enrolled at Temple University, he was fairly certain of what he wanted to do.
"I just liked to make images, not necessarily fine arts but more visual communications," he says. "So when I got to Temple, in my head the logical thing to do was to study advertising, which is why I ended up in [Klein College of Media and Communication] in the advertising program."
Harris, who grew up in New Haven, Connecticut and spent time drawing and designing images on his family computer, did not know that his interest was called "graphic design." After about a year at Klein College, he decided to apply to Temple's Tyler School of Art and Architecture. He was turned away because the party flyers he made were not considered graphic design, but it all worked out at Klein College.
"It was nice to have more of a communications foundation when I went out into the world [rather] than pursuing graphic design," he says. "Because I had a better understanding of how an audience would receive my work."
Now, Harris uses his work to self-reflect and understand the ways graphic design varies between cultures and experiences. His curated exhibition As, Not For: Dethroning Our Absolutes, explores the history of fellow Black graphic designers from the latter half of the 19th century to the end of the twentieth century. The name of the exhibition is based on passages from "Values and Imperatives," an essay by Harlem Renaissance-era author and philosopher Alain Locke, which stresses the importance of Black people expressing themselves as they are, and not in a way that aims to garner mainstream acceptance.
Harris' interest in studying Black graphic designers began after studying Buddy Esquire for a research project in his master of fine arts program at Yale University. Known as "The Flyer King," Esquire was a graffiti artist who also produced many of the flyers for the first hip-hop gatherings in the Bronx, New York City in the 1970s and 1980s.
"I did a project on [Esquire] and when I graduated almost two years later I was still curious about other Black designers," he says. "In grad school and even in my own research, I was only learning about mostly European, older white men, a couple American, older white men, and a couple white women. But no other Black designers. So I always wanted to have the language and understand why what I was making was not being seen as good design."
While serving as a teaching fellow at the Maryland Institute College of Art, Harris received grants to curate and present As, Not For. The exhibition showcases graphic design rooted firmly in the Black community for Black audiences. Like Esquire, many of the graphic designers featured in the exhibition were instrumental in the success of Black community causes and events. Harris feels that the exhibition's collection makes a huge impact on designers today.
"Young Black designers walk up to me like 'Thank you, I would not have done this work. I would not have thought to have done this work,'" he says.
As, Not For has travelled around the country, including to Virginia Commonwealth University, California College of Art San Francisco and Brooklyn, New York City. The exhibition's next stop is the Minneapolis College of Art and Design later this month. While Harris is grateful for the press the project is receiving, he says he is ready to recharge and focus on other ventures. He is currently the design director of Housing Works, a nonprofit which aims to fight homelessness while assisting those affected by HIV/AIDS. He also deejays under the name DJ Glen Coco and runs an Instagram page that shares original choreography @32counts. This kind of creative flexibility is what he advises current Temple students to strive toward and is the foundational philosophy behind the exhibition.
"Dethrone your absolutes. Don't be so stubborn about what you think you want to do," he says. "Just keep your eyes open for opportunities."
More information on As, Not For: Dethroning Our Absolutes can be found on the exhibition's Instagram page @asnotfor.