Devon Zimmerman is a scholar of modern European and American art and design whose research focuses on the intersection of the history of the decorative arts and the historical avant-garde and is associate curator of modern and contemporary art at the Ogunquit Museum of American Art. He co-curated the exhibition, Deconstructing Power: W. E. B. DuBois at the 1900 World’s Fair, opening December 9th, 2022 that critically examines modern design at the 1900 World’s Fair in Paris by exploring how currents of nationalism, imperialism, and colonialism shaped objects of modern design and their display at the fair. He received his Ph.D. in 2020 from the University of Maryland, College Park.
What Makes Deconstructing Power: W. E. B. Dubois at the 1900 World’s Fair such a special exhibition?
Visitors will have the rare opportunity of seeing, in-person, a selection of the original data visualizations Du Bois, and his students at Atlanta University, created for the fair. They are beautifully handmade objects that represent the vanguard of information design at the turn of the 20th century. They are also incredibly fragile. It is a remarkable thing that these data visualizations survived in the first place—they were, keep in mind, conceived as temporary information graphics for an ephemeral installation. It will be the first time a selection of these diagrams has gone out on loan from the Library of Congress since the institution acquired them. It will also be a unique opportunity to see these data visualizations in critical dialog with magnificent objects from the Cooper Hewitt’s collection.
What Were some of your favorite areas to research for the show?
I really enjoyed studying the source materials—such as Popular Atlases and US Census Data—that informed the creation of the data visualizations. Du Bois and his team did not just copy from, but challenged the narrative content conveyed by these sources of information design in a remarkable process of intertextual critique. For example, questions about what constituted “Blackness” were widely debated in the 1890s as Jim Crow laws—recently codified by the 1896 Supreme Court decision, Plessy vs Ferguson—relied upon a binary construction of race to enact their oppressive restrictions. The United States census of 1890, and related 1894 Statistical Atlas, reflect this fascination with categorizing race biologically through hereditary bloodlines. While echoing the form of a diagram from the 1894 Statistical Atlas charting population growth, Du Bois’s diagram, The amalgamation of White and Black elements of the population in the United States, gradually blends colors from white to yellow to brown to black, blurring (and thus critiquing) the binary logic underpinning Jim Crow’s racialized hierarchy. These subversive critiques of 19th century information graphics continue throughout Du Bois’s diagrams.
What do you love about being a curator? How does it challenge you?
I love working with people and objects. Being a curator is most rewarding when I am learning from, and bringing in, the voices of colleagues. I have also always reveled in the presence of works of art and design. This joy being around and studying directly from objects has only grown after working remotely during the pandemic. Conceptualizing an exhibition is always a challenge because it is its own unique form of storytelling. It is always difficult finding the right balance between letting visitors just look and providing the right amount of contextualizing information through exhibition labels and didactics. It is a constant push and pull, but a fun challenge to work out with each show.
How might you encourage someone to experience this show?
An idea I have held onto while working on this exhibition has been that of “entanglement.” Design is about giving form to a set of values—think “good” design. These values are intrinsically tied to, and operate within, systems of personal, national, and global power. I hope that visitors will see how the cultural and economic forces driving global apartheid and colonialism at the start of the 20th century can be entangled with and connect a diagram by Du Bois, a work by Henry Van De Velde, and a souvenir from the World’s Fair. Our world is, and has always been, a deeply entangled one.
This work is over a century old, why do you think it endures?
Because “progress” is neither linear nor equitable. Du Bois’s critique of racism as a systemic force—one driven by and for power—is as relevant now as it has been since the 1900 Paris World’s Fair. His diagrams confront the color line in all its explicit and systemic forms. He challenges issues such as labor oppression, inequitable treatment under the law, misinformation, and racist stereotyping, all of which endure at the forefront of social challenges today. Du Bois, though, does not let these systems of oppression outshine his celebration of Black life, and his technicolor diagrams chart a future of possibilities if such systems are dismantled.