AfriCOBRA: the collective that helped shape the black arts movement

Exhibition celebrates the work of the group, founded in the 60s, and long rejected by the mainstream art community

With bright Kool-Aid colors (“Everyone was drinking Kool-Aid,” said the original member Barbara Jones-Hogu), political slogans and portraits of Duke Ellington and Malcolm X, the AfriCOBRA art movement was first founded in 1968 on the south side of Chicago by five artists who wanted to define a “black aesthetic”.

This month, the group is celebrating its 50th anniversary with a retrospective entitled AfriCOBRA: Now at the Kravets Wehby gallery in the Chelsea district of New York City.

“As civil rights activists and an integral part of the black power movement, this art group are still going strong,” said the gallerist Marc Wehby. “I wanted to show people: you’re not looking at a relic or a fossil, you’re looking at vibrant, influential artists who are still making work today.”

All 15 members will show their artworks and some will be featured again in the forthcoming Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power exhibition that opens at the Brooklyn Museum on 14 September. It features the works of 60 African American artists from 1963 to 1983.

The first show highlights the origins of the collective, which began in the home studio of Wadsworth and Jae Jarrell, two artists who wanted to build an African American art community among their friends.

Their 1969 manifesto, Ten in Search of a Nation, historically reshaped the mindset of black art communities. The founding member Jeff Donaldson wrote that the goal was “to preach positivity to the people” while combining geometric abstraction and realistic imagery.

Their artwork wasn’t just intended to illustrate their manifesto – it sought to breathe new life into the world. “We were aware of the negative experiences in our present and past, but we wanted to accentuate the positive mode of thought and action,” Jones-Hogu wrote in 2008. “It was specific and functional by expressing statements about our existence as black people.”

Barbara Jones-Hogu - Blackmen We Need You, 1970
Black Men We Need You, by Barbara Jones-Hogu, 1970. Photograph: Courtesy of Kravets Wehby Gallery

Rhythm is a core element of the art collective’s work, but so is celebration of style, color and life. “We are not addressing racial antagonism, which speaks to power,” said the AfriCOBRA artist Michael Harris. “We are speaking to people within the community, so rather than squeezing into the canon, we’re saying let’s expand the canon to include what we do and who we are.”

A few of the group’s members were part of Chicago’s Organization of Black American Culture, which helped create the famous 1967 community mural the Wall of Respect, a revolutionary political artwork of black liberation that paid tribute to 50 black heroes, including Martin Luther King Jr, Aretha Franklin and WEB Du Bois.

Even though these artists came together to help each other, many were ignored by the art world. “People were uncertain about buying an artist who was black and that had a political agenda,” said Wehby. “You’d never see their work at auction or at the Museum of Modern Art, only at the institutions that focused on African American artists.”

Jones-Hogu, who made empowering black imagery with graphic lettering, has a piece in the show that reads: “Black men, preserve our race. Leave white bitches alone.”

The group were rejected from the mainstream art community. “People were afraid,” said Wehby. “Images of black people with fists in the air was not favored – it was only in the past few years that people are realizing this is part of American art history, civil rights history and the black arts movement.”

The exhibition features a work by Nelson Stevens, a Brooklyn-born artist who joined the group in 1969 and is known for creating psychedelic portraits with a bright, Crayola-hued palette. It also features the works of James Phillips, who became a member of the group in 1973, showing his colorful geometric paintings, which are influenced by African patterns, the black arts movement and the Weusi artist collective in Harlem, which he was a part of.

Homage to Murry DePillars by James Phillips, 2010.
Homage to Murry DePillars by James Phillips, 2010. Photograph: Courtesy of Kravets/Wehby Gallery

The exhibition also features a work by one of the group’s youngest members, Kevin Cole, who makes musical references in his lyrical wall sculptures made from metal, wood, cloth and canvas. “When you look at AfriCOBRA, they were like the Black Panthers of the black arts movement,” Cole told the Guardian. “The movement is important because it paved the way for African American artists and it gave them a voice to speak about respect, family, social and political issues.”

The AfriCOBRA movement influenced artists like Kerry James Marshall, reportedly the highest paid living African American artist, who recently broke sales records at Sotheby’s, and Kehinde Wiley, who painted the presidential portrait of Barack Obama.

“The art world for black artists was small,” said Wehby. “It was only recently that people took notice that these artists are incredibly influential.”

But while the group has accomplished a lot since its founding in 1968, it still has work to do. “Mainly, we brought recognition to artist of color and provided mentorship to other artists,” said Cole. “We need more mentorship to artists of color.”

  • AfriCOBRA: Now is showing at the Kravets Wehby gallery in New York from 16 June until 17 August


Nadja Sayej

The GuardianTramp

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