For many people, The New Yorker is home. The weekly magazine has set the tone for the best art and stories in America since it began in 1871. Generations of students in college and art history classrooms work to emulate cartoons from the archives.
Artist Amiri Baraka is one of those people. In 1976, Baraka, a three-time MacArthur fellow, reached out to the publication to ask how he could send a cartoon. The editors told him that he would have to send an artist’s statement in addition to a cartoon. “I got so nervous that night, and I did not know how to write a statement,” he told his publisher soon after.
Baraka was asked to fill in for two artists. Eventually, he was asked to draw cartoons for every week. He doesn’t regret his experiment. “This is basically the kind of art that the magazine, in its consciousness, is interested in,” he said. “The magazine was interested in non-mainstream art.”
Baraka says the magazine inspired his cartoons to reflect the cultural significance of black culture, politics and music. As a result, his cartoons have their own history. They make frequent appearances in schools and libraries. In 2009, Baraka got a full-page spot in the magazine’s print edition. The piece talked about issues plaguing the black community, such as high unemployment rates and increased incarceration. “The omission of black issues and that missing discourse is what forced me to find humor in the black experience,” he wrote in the piece.
But some readers have only seen Baraka’s cartoons online. Most readers have never taken the time to read his essays, books or comic strips. That will change with the April release of “Island of Wolves,” a companion to Baraka’s 2016 book of the same name.
“In this interview, I break down the critiques my cartoons often receive,” he writes in the introduction to the book. He wanted the reader to see the complexity behind his cartoons. “I want you to understand I am a living, breathing person whose life experiences make up this body of work, and the cartoonist I was in that moment, Amiri Baraka, is what emerges from that body.”
“Island of Wolves” will be released by Simon & Schuster on April 26, the same day as The New Yorker. This will mark his first time in print. But that isn’t the only change he’s experienced in recent years.
“Artists should learn to embrace the medium, and if the medium means to your life, then it should be embraced,” he told The Washington Post in an interview. “It’s really become about the form and about technique and not even about the material.”