Observatory Online Co-Creation Workshop
Developing spaces for digital collaboration and sharing
Reflecting on Data Visualization
“The Exhibit of American Negroes”
Some of the most brilliant early examples of what we call today ‘narrative data’ or ‘data visualization’ emerged from an urgent need to communicate crucial information. One such example is Florence Nightingale’s visual data from the Crimean War and W.E.B. DuBois’ “The Exhibit of American Negroes”. Both these visionary examples come from intellectuals who were often disenfranchised and faced obstacles to be heard and seen as valid. While of course creativity and an understanding of narrative are paramount to tell a story with data, perhaps another driving factor behind their respective work far beyond their time was a profound need to communicate quickly, effectively and capture an audience’s attention in a short window of time. Though they were not battling the short attention necessitated by social media and streaming they faced a different kind of challenge, prejudice.
Today we look at these examples and they are still relevant as references for the data that they communicate and their artistry. While yes, we should consider the data and it’s narrative, perhaps it is just as important to pull the curtain back further and see the narrative behind the data narrative.
Consider first, W.E.B. DuBois’ “The Exhibit of American Negroes” at the Exposition Universelle of 1900 in Paris. Many articles have been written and reference this incredible work undertaken by Du Bois along with his students in collaboration with Thomas J. Calloway and Booker T. Washington.
‘It was decided in advance to try to show ten things concerning the negroes in America since their emancipation: (1) Something of the negro’s history; (2) education of the race; (3) effects of education upon illiteracy; (4) effects of education upon occupation; (5) effects of education upon property; (6) the negro’s mental development as shown by the books, high class pamphlets, newspapers, and other periodicals written or edited by members of the race; (7) his mechanical genius as shown by patents granted to American negroes; (8) business and industrial development in general; (9) what the negro is doing for himself though his own separate church organizations, particularly in the work of education; (10) a general sociological study of the racial conditions in the United States.’
However, on further digging through articles written by Calloway in the African American newspaper, ‘The Colored American’ his reasoning is far more profound than just showing progress post emancipation. His article expressed a need to show people with African ancestry as capable, intelligent, worthy of citizenship, and respect. Ultimately this exhibition was about combating incredible stigma.
Calloway in a piece as to why the exhibit is necessary is nested in a few problematic paradigms, however it starts with a reference to the Fashoda Incident and the Boer Wars stating that hopefully showing the progress of ex slaves will provide insight to the future relations between Europe and Africa in such that the those from the ‘Darker Continent’ are seen as capable ‘laborers, producers, and citizens that those of the Old World will be wiser in the shaping of it’s African policies’. The story behind this data narrative is the need to show the world that the conceptions around race, especially concerning the inferiority of darker skinned and formerly enslaved peoples are simply wrong. This message still resonates today and perhaps what keeps us captivated is both the foresight of how this message was communicated and the message itself.
“City and Rural Population. 1890” 1900, via Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division
While researching this article and the visual aesthetic, a comment by Alison Meir stood out where she notes, ‘Looking at the charts, they’re strikingly vibrant and modern, almost anticipating the crossing lines of Piet Mondrian or the intersecting shapes of Wassily Kandinsky.’ Jason Forest’s research on this comment has shown a similar opinion in, ‘Brainpickings, The Public Domain Review, and on the Smithsonian’s blog.’ Which is quite the compliment except “The Exhibit of American Negroes” predates both of these artists’ foray into abstract painting by at least a decade with the exception of Hilma af Kint whose most similar work came four years after the exhibition.
How did they do it?
Jason Forrest’s investigation into the process of putting together the images is revealing. ‘ Du Bois began assembling the exhibit on December 28, 1899. The Paris Exposition began on Apr 15, 1900 and the travel would take at least 6 weeks by ship.’ This gave his team no time to do block prints and instead left them with one recourse, painting by hand. Forrest goes into detail about the process alluding to various materials, existing charts and visuals from the period and the different influences that may have pushed the work in the direction that made it so striking.
However, Forrest discounts that this work might have been a precursor to the modernist movement in the art world. However, let’s not forget that art history often ignores the contributions of people outside the traditional schools and cannon. Consider the influence of African art on what the world once saw as Georges Braque and Picasso's unique genius creation, cubism. Only four years after the Paris exhibition did Hilma af Klint embark on her series of abstract paintings. While she was not in Paris at the time, we cannot deny that ideas travel, especially good ones. Considering that the Vienna Circle and Bauhaus were inspired by natural and social science is that this work famously exhibited in Paris which part of what was then ‘the axis of modernity (Paris/Munich/Milan)’ influenced not just data but art in more ways than we might know.
Looking Towards the Future
As a developing platform it will be important to incorporate conversations that connect to social movements and organizations that are finding new ways and mediums to communicate and having conversations that cultural heritage needs to take into account.