Exploring 'black bodies' through war posters


Posters from professor Tukufu Zuberi's personal collection trace the history of black bodies in political campaigns


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The “Black Bodies in Propoganda: The Art of The War Poster” exhibit opening in the Penn Museum contains posters from the personal collection of Penn Professor Tukufu Zuberi.

Photo by Amanda Suarez


A new exhibit at the Penn Museum aims to provoke second thoughts through posters of war propaganda.

The exhibit, “Black Bodies in Propaganda: The Art of the War Poster,” includes 33 rare, original posters from the personal collection of the Africana studies professor and Sociology Department Chair Tukufu Zuberi. The gallery, which opened this past Sunday, traces the depiction of black bodies in politically driven campaigns, especially focusing on war.

Organized by sections, the layout of “Black Bodies in Propaganda” allows viewers to see how certain issues fueled the use of black bodies in wartime prints.

The exhibit, which includes the American Civil War, Colonialism and World War II, are not in chronological order. Rather, the exhibit allows the viewer to go from one side of the room to the other and understand connections between many eras of history.

Zuberi began seeking out these historical artifacts in 2005.

“I wanted to collect something to use to make a political point,” Zuberi said. “This exhibit is the materialization of a dream.”

Each of the posters had to meet three conditions in order to be included in the exhibit: they could not be made by Africans, they could not have been made specifically for African audiences and they had to be used to encourage people to engage in war.

The opening of Zuberi’s “dream” was signified at the exhibit’s ribbon-cutting ceremony. Julian Siggers, director of the Penn Museum, and Zuberi were joined by a special guest, Eugene Richardson, one of the Tuskegee Airmen.

A living part of history, Richardson easily captured the minds of members as he wandered through the exhibit, examining the many posters including one WWII war bond poster depicting a member of his famous regiment.

For Samira Alston, a College of Liberal and Professional Studies graduate, the opening of the exhibit provided an opportunity for her to explore black bodies in a more in-depth way.

“My family owns a small military shop here in Philadelphia, so I’ve always had an interest in African-American participation in war,” she said. “I came to learn about the impact it has had on American culture.”

Zuberi and Richardson both gave lectures after the ribbon cutting ceremony. Zuberi focused on the hopes he has for the exhibit and examined how the use of black bodies is still relevant in today’s culture. Richardson gave detailed accounts of his time as a Tuskegee Airman and talked about racism that he has faced in his life.

The new exhibit is the second one Zuberi — who is a host of PBS’s “History Detectives” — has curated. His first was “Tides of Freedom: African Presence on the Delaware River” at the Independence Seaport Museum.

The exhibit will be on display in the museum until March 2 of next year. Pam Kosty, the assistant director for public information at the Penn Museum, said that the museum plans on having future events later this year to promote the exhibit to students once the fall semester has begun.

Richardson remains confident that students will take away meaningful lessons from the exhibit.

“I hope [students] learn that in spite of the propaganda, African Americans had full participation in the development of America,” he said, “even if they did not have full rights at home.”

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