SVA’s Iconic Subway Posters Resurface at Design Indaba in South Africa
March 08, 2017 by Emma Drew
the woman is taking a photo
Students leaving the school of visual arts subway posters.

SVA’s globe-trotting exhibition of signature subway posters, “ Underground Images,” completed a stint in South Africa last week, landing in Cape Town for the 2017 Design Indaba Festival. Held this year from March 1 – 3, Design Indaba is an annual conference that showcases African and global design. “Underground Images” is culled from the College’s archives of SVA posters that, since the mid-1950s, have been designed by faculty members specifically for New York City subway platforms, advertising the school and recruiting students around the city. The traveling exhibition has taken that mission to a global scale.

“Design Indaba is a really impressive festival with an expansive and inclusive sense of what design can and should be,” said SVA Archivist Beth Kleber, who attended in order to host and give a lecture about “Underground Images.” The conference was MC’ed by 2015 Masters Series Award recipient Michael Beirut and included talks by leaders in the field, entrepreneurs and recent graduates, as well as performances from dance troupes and Freestyle Love Supreme, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hip-hop improv group.

Woman speaking at podeum at the School of Visual Arts.

Kleber’s talk on March 2 featured prominently in Indaba’s Nightscape programming, a series of after-hours events, music, and art and design installations, including a FilmFest and the "Most Beautiful Object in South Africa" exhibition, a philosophically-charged annual competition. Kleber works extensively with “Underground Images” and often travels with the show, lecturing on the origins of the campaign, the diverse group of renowned designers and illustrators represented—such as Milton Glaser, Louise Fili and Eve Sonneman—and the relationship between the posters, the school and New York City. Aditi Khurana, international regional coordinator for the College based in New Delhi, introduced the Indaba crowd to SVA, highlighting programs in design and computer art, before bringing on Kleber. The following morning, Kleber and Khurana visited with several groups of high school students touring the exhibition; posters by Yuko Shimizu, Stefan Sagmeister and David Sandlin were especially big hits with them, according to Kleber. Kleber and Aditi were also interviewed for the Indaba website.

a group of people standing around talking

This installation of “Underground Images” was in an open-air container—the lower level of a building—meaning that people could climb around and on top of the exhibition space. SVA Galleries Director Francis Di Tommaso , co-organizer of the show, and SVA Executive Vice President Anthony P. Rhodes , curator and creative director for the posters since 2007, recently came up with a “mini” version of the exhibition for small spaces such as the one at Indaba; last’s week iteration featured 23 iconic posters, as opposed to the usual 60 shown. But given the size of the conference and prime positioning of the exhibition on festival grounds, “Underground Images” was seen by a large number of people. “UI was situated in a container on the piazza outside of the conference, so it was seen by everyone going in and out of the venues and hanging out at the cafes and food trucks during breaks,” said Kleber. “The place was packed with young students and designers.”

“Indaba is one of the better-organized conferences [of its kind],” said MFA Illustration as Visual Essay faculty member Mirko Ilić, co-organizer of the exhibition and a lecturer at the festival in years past. “They are really promoting and supporting young artists from that part of the world; it is something they are very conscious of from small craft to really good designers.” Taking “Underground Images” to around the world to places like Indaba allows for real moments of cultural exchange, Ilić added. “We can show what you can otherwise only see in a New York City subway; we get to engage with and show their community something specific about ours.”

Since 2013, and now with its recent African debut, “Underground Images” has touched down in 20 countries across five continents; the next stop will be at AIGA Philadelphia (the first local chapter of the American Institute of Graphic Arts) in May with the pared-down selection, as the start of a more extensive U.S. tour. For more information about “Underground Images,” click here.