Mickalene Thomas
Portrait of an Unlikely Space

Polymode designed the exhibition catatalogue and graphics for Portrait of an Unlikely Space, a curated show by artist Mickalene Thomas and curator Keely Orgeman, comparing and contrasting early American portraits of Black women, men, and children—aside contemporary Black works. Her installation incorporates period-specific textile patterns and decorative elements to create a homelike environment reminiscent of the pre-Emancipation era. The publication and exhibition were designed together in tandem, as the images express later in the book.

The publication cover’s texture is velvet to mimic the protective interior of a daguerreotype—bringing that which is precious forward. The gold foil stamp and ornament used throughout the publication shine to the richness of these works, as do the endpapers, giving the experience of opening a miniature portrait.

The New England Primer, a publication that taught school children to read in the early 18th century, was the basis for the book’s size. As people of color were enslaved and not formally educated, we added two inches to the margin to give space to those marginalized. Images and captions push into the dialogue, taking up space, showing the self-reliance and strength of the enslaved. The portraits themselves are backed with rich color to mimic a photo album.The publication utilizes a fifth color, Mickalene’s “espresso black.” The only white used is the ‘unlikely space’ on the title page. All other tones are a draw of that fifth plate. The work is typeset in William Text by Maria Doreuli.