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Kwanzaa: Celebrating Umoja (Unity)

This October, the Postal Service released its fourth Kwanzaa stamp. The new issue continues the Holiday Celebrations series, which began in 1996 to honor holidays celebrated across our increasingly diverse country.

Although first observed in 1966, Kwanzaa is based on African cultural celebrations that predate both Christmas and Hanukkah — weeklong first-fruit festivities held by the Zulu. The non-religious holiday is celebrated each year by millions of people from December 26 to January 1, and is intended to be a celebration of seven principles: unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity, and faith.

Kwanzaa stampKwanzaa (1997)

The first Kwanzaa stamp was released in 1997. It features an illustration by Synthia Saint James of a family gathering and several items used to celebrate the holiday.

Seven years later, art director Derry Noyes was tasked with creating a new design. The late Sylvia Harris, an influential designer and member of the Citizens’ Stamp Advisory Committee, introduced Noyes to Daniel Minter’s work, which is steeped in the context of African-American culture. In particular, Noyes took note of his illustrations for the children’s book Seven Spools of Thread: A Kwanzaa Story.

2004 Linoblock2004 Linoblock

Seven Spools of ThreadSeven Spools of Thread

“Daniel brings a personal connection to the subject,” Noyes says. “He was a natural fit to illustrate the stamp.”

To create the design, Minter carved into a linoleum-surfaced block, or linoblock. The inked linoblock produced a black-and-white image called a linocut, which Minter scanned and colorized digitally. The final 2004 stamp evokes African traditions with seven silhouetted women in colorful garments — each representing one of Kwanzaa’s seven principles.

In 2009, a third Kwanzaa stamp was released and featured a cubist approach by Lloyd McNeill.

When it came time to design a fourth stamp for 2011, Noyes remembered some of Minter’s unused but impressive ideas from 2004.

2004 Kwanzaa StampKwanzaa (2004)

2009 Kwanzaa stamp Kwanzaa (2009)

“It is rare to go back to the same artist for the same subject,” she says. “But this time it seemed appropriate. Daniel’s illustrations, the black silhouettes against bright colors, work beautifully at stamp size.”

Minter was honored to create a second illustration, and pursued a concept of a family celebrating the holiday at home.

“I think of my work as narrative,” he says. “I like that I was able to continue the story from the first stamp. It’s a back and forth between community, as shown in the first stamp, and home, as shown in the second. It’s personal and communal.”

When creating the new design, Minter kept in mind what made the 2004 stamp so popular. “People loved the flowing robes and the movement and the colors in the first design,” Minter said, “so I wanted to retain those elements.”

The 2011 image also draws on the previous theme of unity, or Umoja. The adults rest their hands on the children’s shoulders, and the children’s arms are around each other.

In addition, the colorful quilt symbolizes the diverse community brought together by the holiday. “Kwanzaa is very inclusive,” Minter emphasizes. “We celebrate the people who are important to us — which covers a wide range of backgrounds.”

As in 2004, Minter created the stamp illustration by carving into a linoleum block. And once again, the final design beautifully commemorates the excitement of the holiday — and also the lasting importance of family and community. (See a slideshow of sketches below.)

“It’s tough to revisit the same subject without seeming repetitive,” Noyes says. “I think Daniel successfully captured the essence of Kwanzaa in a fresh new way — which is not an easy task.”

  • Early exploration shows alternate arrangement of family
  • Early sketch
  • Rough stamp concept
  • Early color comp of stamp design
  • Linoblock
  • Linocut print
  • Final 2011 stamp

Learn more about artist Daniel Minter in our Meet the Team section.