Amos Kennedy’s work is primarily about community and communication. As such, I wanted the online exhibition portion of the Tremaine fellowship to offer a sense of what it’s like to be in his orbit, diving into his archive and hearing him speak about the projects he’s worked on throughout his career. On New Year’s Day, 2023, I visited him at his studio, known as the Pile of Bricks, in Detroit. Below is an abridged transcript of the two days I spent with him, as well as photos we took of our time together. Accompanying them are audio files of Amos discussing ideas and issues that do not appear in the written text but that shed more light on his poster-making practice. — Angelina Lippert, curator
Angelina Lippert: How do you choose the topics that you put in your posters and prints?
Amos Kennedy: My topics are primarily guided by the rebellious nature of my youth. I’ve always had a streak in me to be contrary: if everybody’s going right, I’ll go left. And I identify strongly with those populations that are oppressed, are discriminated against.
Initially I was…going to print for Black people and my people, because I felt that I knew that oppression. But as I continued, I realized that Black people are just one of many groups that are oppressed. And that if you’re going to speak to oppression, it is better…to speak to all of it and not just one [oppressed group].
That’s one reason why I do the posters that I do—because there’s an audience that wants to be heard. There are people who want to be seen because they’ve been invisible. And I feel that they get the same internal feeling of pride and acknowledgement that I got when back in the ’60s we saw Black people on TV.
“There are people that want to be seen because they’ve been invisible.”
The same thing applies to print — I get to see text about me, I get to see words from people who are my ancestors in my struggle. I think people want to connect to that. And for those people who are not in the group, the universality of the message resonates with them. I would like to think that in some way they understand that it is one humanity …. As Fannie Lou Hamer says, “If one of us is not free, none of us are free.” And that’s the truth … If you want to see what true freedom is, when they experience freedom, then you will experience total and absolute freedom.
AL: In a lot of your work, and in a lot of quotes from you, you say things or include images that can be offensive to some people, like racist depictions of Black figures. Or when you say, “I’m a humble Negro printer” — those are not things that people are used to hearing anymore. Why do you incorporate them?
AK: To draw attention! The images — I tell people, if you have a problem with it, get in a time machine, go back to that period and tell them they’re wrong. But this is what they did. What do you want me to say? It didn’t happen? Because if you want me to say that didn’t happen, given enough time, you’re going to want me to say the enslavement of my people didn’t happen. This is what happened. Face it. Look at it and say, this will never happen again. “That offends me.” Well, what do you think enslavement did to my people? And would that offend you if you were living back then? The issue of trans rights — if you’re opposed to that then I know that you’re not an abolitionist in 1850. Because it’s about humanity. It’s about denying somebody their existence.
AL: Earlier you showed me the printing blocks that you had made portraying Black figures like Bojangles, Katherine Dunn, Judith Jameson, and Josephine Baker. How did those figure into your work and what made you want to make them?
AK: Because there weren’t any [black figures that existed commonly in printer’s cuts]. There was someone who would do this and I could afford his work. You won’t find etchings [or] illustrations of a lot of Black people when you go through history until the advent of photography. Some painters were doing work with Black images, and so they would do studies using Black models. But you don’t find that many images in print, etchings, woodcuts.
AL: You have the NappyGrams imprint as well, in addition to your primary work. What is the difference between those two, and how did NappyGrams come about?
AK: Well, NappyGrams was direct rebellion. At Indiana University [where Amos was a faculty member], they printed a report that had been done on the hiring and retention of “non-white” faculty. And I just exploded. I am not “non-white.” Why didn’t you say “colored?” I know some people think it’s a derogatory term, but come on.
I had an organization called NAPPY… And this is a whole backstory because Negros in Art was satirical, but it also was addressing the fact that there were few Blacks in art departments at faculty levels. NAPPY was developed for that. When this report came out from Indiana, I sent [a NappyGram] to the HR Office of Equal Opportunity. I said, “Affirmative action is a joke.” And they felt threatened and they called the police on me, the Indiana University police. When they found out that it was a Black guy, what the fuck are they going to do? And I said, it is a joke. It is a joke because if you wanted us, you would have us. Your football team is 60% Black, so don’t say you don’t know how to get Black people … After the investigation, the first NappyGram was “How does the Office of Diversity react to the first Black faculty member in the art department?” And I said, “Called the police.”
I thought in the art department, you had this freedom that other departments did not. Not in academia! As a matter of fact, you are supposed to be, for lack of a better term, more conservative than other departments because they don’t really want you there.
AL: When you first started with artists’ books and then moved on to posters and prints, what was the reception from places that wanted to collect your work and how has that changed?
AK: I did not aggressively pursue the selling of my books. I think one of the reasons was because when I started printing, I was fully employed in corporate America. But I was welcomed by a couple of libraries that established standing orders with me. So that was my principal mainstay of income for about two years after I left Indiana.
One, at the time I was one of the few Blacks and they wanted to diversify their collection before that was a popular thing. And two, that diversification now took the form of posters because posters are not really collected in academic settings. There are museums that have some poster collections, and those posters are primarily things from the late 19th century that are associated with famous painters. No one was collecting the posters for bands or the posters for civil rights protests. That is just beginning to be collected.
I’d like to say, I take a snapshot of a part of the culture of this civilization that no one else does. That box that I was pedaling [full of posters] is actually a wealth of information for a historian in 200 years. A lot of the posters that I did early in Alabama were for local events, local festivals …. But these are people getting together. How did they get together? What did they do? This is evidence of that community activity.
AL: We have to talk about the School of Bad Printing and how you formed that, what that is.
AK: That’s a very large community, just people who like to play at the press and see what happens. One of my signatures is the multilayered poster.
The name was actually given to me by Andrew Steeves, from Gaspereau Press in Kentville, Nova Scotia. I think he did it as a pun because by that time everybody [in the printing world] said, “well, Amos is a sloppy printer, a bad printer,” and that sort of thing. And one day he just posted [on Instagram] with “Amos Kennedy School of Bad Printing.” I liked it because “School of Bad Printing” — yeah, we are an actual branch of printing that is unique and distinct. It is intentional.
AL: Who’s in it?
AK: Mizdruck is in the Netherlands, and that’s run by Jan-Willem [van der Looij]. Ro [Barragán] is in Argentina. And then there is Fresh Lemon [Phil Gambrill] in Australia. There are a lot of people who identify. My friend Massimo Pesce in Arezzo is part of it. If you say you’re in it, you’re in. The general aesthetic is that sort of layered look, uneven inking. All of that that goes with the things that, when we speak of fine printing, you want to avoid.
AL: Why did you choose that as your go-to aesthetic? Is it just more fun?
AK: Yeah, it was more fun. The nuances that happen are just so exciting to me. The way things layer over the thing, the accident of this almost lining up with that. Now a graphic designer will get on a computer and tick, tick, tick, tick, tick until it’s all [perfect and completed] … That does not have this mark of the maker, this is accidental.
AL: When I talked to you years ago, you said that you don’t think of yourself as an artist. Has that changed over time as you’ve become more well known?
AK: If you remember, you interviewed me one time and I said, “I am now an artist.” Now I can say I’m not one. And that is because I look at art as an artificial construct of the capitalist system. Art is about capitalism. It is about, “I invest in art.” … If you invest in it, it’s not art. Because you can invest in pork bellies. Is that art? No, art is something else. And art has been relegated to the one percenters.
Real art is your neighbor who paints little flower landscapes every Sunday. That’s real art, but it’s not worth anything. It’s worth the joy that individual experienced doing it. Is that not valid? The fact that they receive pleasure, enjoyment from doing this? What’s the value of joy?
If you see it and you like it, that’s what art is to me. … If you say art is a human thing, then yes, I am an artist because I’m a human. But if you say art is this exclusive thing, then I’m not, because I like to make things for the masses. I want to have something that a six-year-old can buy or will appreciate.
AL: This kind of dovetails with the previous question, but what do you consider what you make to be?
AK: I consider what I make to be something to beautify the world with. I consider it more of a craft. And when you think of a craft, you think more of the earth, more just the common masses. So yes, I identify with it more as a craft.
“I started intentionally with this mission to put Black words into this space that they were void in.”
AL: How do you hope that your work is used, particularly the pieces that are not meant to be exclusively decorative, like the fan series?
AK: When I started, I started intentionally with this mission to put Black words into this space that they were void in. As I have gotten older, I realized that what I was doing in a concentrated way was saying, “Here are values that I want to share, but those values are not restricted to the Black world only.” That’s why now I feel comfortable doing anything.
I want people to feel the joy that I experience creating [my work] … When people pass by it, they may pass by it for a whole year and then one day stop and read and say, “Yeah, that’s really nice. I like that.” It isn’t like every day they get up and look at it and say, “Yes,” but there are those moments of just reawakening our renewal that the art gives to them and gives them the idea that the world is really a beautiful place to be in. And we need to continue to make it more beautiful.
“I want people to feel the joy that I experience creating it.”
AL: I noticed that a lot of your work is in a lot of windows in both businesses and people’s homes, specifically in your neighborhood. How does community or the concept of community figure into your practice?
AK: Well, it is why I’m a printer, because it’s about community, to bring the community together. The print shop did that traditionally. I enjoy sharing my work with my neighbors. In Detroit, I will leave posters at places I visit, especially on a regular basis. There’s a bookstore called Source Bookstore where I leave posters at two or three times a year. There was a food truck that did a weekly event. A couple hundred people show up and I would take posters there, because I got rid of [the surplus], but also it helped them because people say, “Oh, I can get a poster there.” And it is nice to have something where people say, that’s handmade, that’s not off the computer. Nobody can buy them [directly] from me.
Angelina Lippert will further expand on this exhibition and her curatorial process in a virtual conversation with Editor-in-Chief Hrag Vartanian on Monday, March 20 at 6pm (EDT). Register here.