Deconstructing Power : W. E. B. Du Bois at the 1900 World's Fair
This exhibition was on display from December 09, 2022 to May 29, 2023.
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Deconstructing Power revisits the 1900 Paris World’s Fair to explore the meaning of "progress" and to expose hidden prejudices in design. It places decorative arts from Cooper Hewitt’s permanent collection in dialogue with original diagrams created for the fair by the Harvard-educated sociologist and political activist W. E. B. Du Bois to trace ideas of progress and power across history, culture, and geography.
The World’s Fair was a grand contest to prove national superiority on a global stage. Forty-seven countries competed to demonstrate their cultural and economic advancement through carefully crafted installations of the latest in art, imported materials, and cutting-edge innovations. Many of these displays were born out of European violence against and exploitation of Indigenous peoples in Africa and Asia. Although suppressed, Indigenous knowledge, labor, and resources—ever present within European conquest—influenced all aspects of this image of progress.
Du Bois seized the fair as an opportunity to place a bold narrative of Black American progress on the world stage. He collaborated in the Exhibit of American Negroes with support from his Atlanta University students. The exhibit included 63 hand-drawn diagrams that used shape, line, and color to showcase Black success—despite pervasive racism in the United States and the global community. The diagrams offer an alternative vision for interpreting progress. They capture and reflect an appeal to measure progress in terms of human equality.
In the spirit of Du Bois, Deconstructing Power challenges us to look deeper at design and to deploy it toward greater humanity and justice. It prompts us to ask: do our ideas of beauty and betterment inadvertently perpetuate bias?