Barbara Bestor on Du Bois’s Data Portraits

The Los Angeles–based architect shares how this collection of infographics and visionary drawings kept her mind busy during quarantine

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Courtesy Princeton Architectural Press

Without having to travel so much during pandemic times, I have kept my mind busy by acquiring more books. Edited by Whitney Battle-Baptiste and Britt Rusert, W. E. B. Du Bois’s Data Portraits: Visualizing Black America is an illustrated compendium of the sociological research and installation the historian and civil rights activist created as part of his Exposition des Nègres d’Amérique at the 1900 Paris Exposition. The book brings together a remarkable and unique set of modern infographics showing employment, population, household values, slave trade routes, and more with the goal of demonstrating the progress made by Black Americans during centuries of global oppression.

For me, this was a mind-blowing creative act of communication, demonstrating a new language of graphic information. The visionary data drawings predate Modernist abstract art and lean into the data graphs of Florence Nightingale and Charles Minard. They also clearly and powerfully predate both the Bauhaus and visualized information projects of statistician Edward Tufte. Shown in the book, Du Bois’s Wunderkammer library within the Paris Exposition is stunning and transformative. It deserves a much larger position in graphic and art history.


Barbara Bestor
Courtesy Barbara Bestor

Barbara Bestor is the executive director of Woodbury University’s Julius Shulman Institute and founder of Los Angeles–based architectural design firm Bestor Architecture. Current projects include IKAR: Jewish Center for Social Innovation, and exhibition design for the upcoming show Scandinavian Design and the United States, 1890–1980 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

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