The Brief, Enigmatic Career of Sylvia Abernathy

Sylvia Abernathy’s design for Chicago’s Wall of Respect. | Photo from the Smithsonian Archives of American Art, Jeff Donaldson papers, 1918-2005, bulk 1960s-2005 Creator

A certain light-handedness echoed across Abernathy’s body of work, from her record cover for Leon Sash’s I Remember Newport, to the layout and design of In Our Terribleness, a poetic photo book that “both recreates and defines Black life for the Black reader,” as described in a New York Times article from 1971. In the book, prose and poems by renowned BAM writer Amiri Baraka and photographs by Billy Abernathy are held together in a minimal, yet compelling, layout.

Design for the Roscoe Mitchell Sextet by Sylvia Abernathy. | Courtesy of Letterform Archive

Much of Abernathy’s enigmatic life from the ’70s onwards is marked by slippages in information. “Laini Abernathy is one of the great mysteries of 20th century design history. She is a brilliant figure who flashes across the night sky for three years in the late ’60s, and we don’t see her again,” Nishikawa said in an interview earlier this year. But of what little we know of her short-lived career, it is evident that Abernathy was driven by her politics and her ambition to represent Black life as she saw it; her work as an activist and a designer so deeply intertwined, and impossible to separate.

Design for Sun Ra by Sylvia Abernathy. | Courtesy of Letterform Archive

So much of Sylvia Abernathy’s life and work is lost to history. An activist and graphic designer, Abernathy first appears in the annals of design history in late 1960s Chicago, only to be seen for a few years before she’s gone again, her life and career cloaked by a shroud of mystery. Throughout the four short, brilliant years when her career peaked, Abernathy—also known as “Laini,” a name she adopted later in life—remains at the nucleus of the burgeoning Black Arts Movement (BAM) in Chicago, along with her husband, the celebrated photographer Billy “Fundi” Abernathy, one of the most influential figures of BAM, known for creating images that defined Black confidence, elegance, and style.

In 1967, when Abernathy was a college student at Illinois Institute of Technology, she created a framework for the historic Wall of Respect mural on Chicago’s South Side. As a member of the Visual Arts Workshop arm of the Organization of the Black American Culture—or OBAC, pronounced as oba-see to invoke a Yoruba word (oba) meaning “leader” or “chief”—Abernathy led the layout of the community mural that was painted “guerrilla-style” on a decaying building at the corner of 43rd Street and Langley Avenue.

The making of the Wall was a deeply collaborative process. “Abernathy was a very respected member of the Chicago BAM community,” says Romi Crawford, daughter of BAM visual artist Bob Crawford and co-author of the book The Wall of Respect: Public Art and Black Liberation in 1960s Chicago, published in 2017. “She was instrumental in plotting the design scheme of the mural.” Abernathy worked in close collaboration with multiple artists from OBAC, especially with Jeff Donaldson and Bill Walker, who proposed a publicly accessible outdoor mural for the neighborhood.

Abernathy created a modular design, dividing the many facets of the building into seven sections, where muralists painted portraits of heroes and heroines from African American history, figures from the realms of music, literature, sports, theater, religion, and statesmanship. “Drawing on her graphic design training, Sylvia multiplied the frames through which Black life could be seen and witnessed,” says literary historian Kinohi Nishikawa. “She created demarcations between various elements of the mural rather than combine all figures into a single collage. The point isn’t to strictly cordon off the elements, but to recognize the singularity of each frame and their combined unity in the total work.” The mural stood only for a few years before a mysterious fire in 1971 destroyed the building. But during that time, it brought the neighborhood out to the streets. Residents engaged with the muralists, suggesting alterations, and the curbside turned into a space for concerts, poetry readings, and protests. In a handful of images shot at the time, Abernathy can be seen in an olive T-shirt and bell bottoms, a camera slung across her shoulder, watching the muralists at work. 
In many cases, Baraka’s text actually detracts from the photography, providing commentary on the imagined social life of the subjects rather than allowing the images to speak for themselves. Abernathy negotiates the often flat-footed writing by, once again, multiplying the frames through which Black life is seen,” says Nishikawa. Every page is designed as an artful reframing of the image, such that even where text appears, it is always separated (by a distinctive black border, or two, or sometimes three) from the photograph. “Abernathy shows through tactical framing that the text is not descriptive, and that Baraka’s poetic commitments are irreducible to what the images say for themselves. The book’s status as one of the great Black-authored photo books of the 20th century comes down to the way she artfully combined and distinguished text and image in its design.”

Album cover for Joseph Jarman featuring green background and red text
Design for Joseph Jarman by Sylvia Abernathy. | Courtesy of Letterform Archive

In the ’70s, after the release of In Our Terribleness, all mentions of Abernathy from art and design history disappear. It is unclear if she withdrew from her career during the decade, when many artists from OBAC formed groups like AfriCOBRA. “I wish I knew more definitively, but she did withdraw a bit from designing in a formal context,” says Crawford. “I think she might have continued to explore design and produce work, though it seems, very informally. This is not surprising, as many women artists and scholars of the time were less able to continue their practices once they had families.”
The roots of activism that informed Abernathy’s work at the Wall of Respect seeped into everything she created. While working with the OBAC, she began exploring Chicago’s jazz scene and designed a series of album covers for Delmark Records, pushing against the conventions of the time in an industry dominated by white men. Abernathy’s dedication to represent both the realities and the beauty of Black life is perhaps best felt in her album cover for the Roscoe Mitchell Sextet. Black-and-white circles ripple out from the center, framing a photograph of Mitchell taken by Abernathy’s husband, Billy. The monochromatic circles, the high-contrast image shot in rich blacks—emblematic of Billy’s visual language—and the choppy lettering reminiscent of Art Deco typefaces create a hypnotic composition in her debut cover, which is considered to be the first album cover credited to a Black woman designer.

Design by Sylvia Abernathy. | Courtesy of Letterform Archive

The freewheeling spirit of the project sparked a major mural movement; an explosion of murals popped up in Black neighborhoods in the city. “Blacks were rarely seen on billboards, in print, or other public media before 1967,” Jeff Donaldson wrote in a 1991 essay. “The Wall of Respect (and the mural movement it spurred) brought art to the people and, at the same time, permitted people to participate in the process…uplifting the spirits of the people by recognizing their heritage, honoring their chosen heroes, and focusing their righteous anger on real issues and the choices available to them.”
Abernathy’s dexterity with typography is seen in her album design for Joseph Jarman’s Song For, where a frame of antique typefaces holds a mirrored portrait in a psychedelic palette of red and green. But perhaps her most iconic work for Delmark Records was the swirling, abstract orange sun she placed at the center of the cover for Sun Ra’s sun song. The gleaming orange against the red, and the pulsating power of the sun, is emblematic of the Afrofuturist’s cosmic sound, but it is also a nod to the rising energy of creative activism in Chicago. “In 1966 Martin Luther King had moved to Chicago temporarily, so perhaps the sentiment of light shining on their city is shared by both the musician and designer,” noted curator Jerome Harris, who brought Abernathy’s record covers to the fore in his 2018 exhibition, “As, Not For: Dethroning Our Absolutes.”

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