Happy New Year! For the last day of our Best of 2013 series, we bring you Randall Miller‘s review of AFRICOBRA at the Logan Center for the Arts in Chicago. This review was originally published on July 23, 2013, and as a consideration of art, activism, race, class, and collectivism, it bears a second look as we move forward into the new year. What changes—in art, in politics, in social justice—can we look forward to in the coming 365 days?
The assembly of works by AFRICOBRA (African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists), a collective of African American Chicago-based artists active during the 1960s and 1970s, now on display at the Logan Center for the Arts could fairly be described as a time capsule; it is more important for the moment it captures than for its contents. In addition to this exhibition, titled AFRICOBRA: Philosophy, the collective currently has two other exhibitions on the southside of Chicago: AFRICOBRA: Prologue—The 1960s and the Black Arts Movement, at the South Side Community Art Center, and AFRICOBRA: Art and Impact, at the DuSable Museum of African American History. Historically and aesthetically, the work in Philosophy conveys a palpable yearning on the part of the artists to carve out a viable place for African American identity within the visual arts and society at large. The show is all about the urgency of a political moment that still resonates forty years later.
Much of the work on display features iconic compositions of figures, standing front and center in an almost neo-Byzantine style. The simple messages surrounding the figures are frank and explicit, creating a collection of works that border on propaganda. This is by design, according to the pillars of AFRICOBRA’s aesthetic philosophy described by founding member Barbara Jones-Hogu’s 1973 manifesto, “The History, Philosophy and Aesthetics of AFRICOBRA.” Jones-Hogu states that compositions must feature “the figure frontal and direct to stress strength, straight forwardness, profoundness, and proudness” and that “subject matter must be completely understood by the viewer, therefore lettering [ought to] be used to extend and clarify the visual statement.”  Steeped in the politics of self-determination, black nationalism, and Black Power espoused by the burgeoning Black Arts movement, AFRICOBRA artists Jeff Donaldson, Jones-Hogu, Carolyn Lawrence, Jae Jarell, Wadsworth Jarell, and Gerald Williams created colorful figurative works loaded with messages calling for greater political consciousness.
Williams’s painting Wake Up (1969) features a central figure holding out a pamphlet, as if offering the text to the viewer. It describes the “King Alfred Plan,” a conspiracy broadside circulated throughout Williams’s neighborhood during the early 1970s that claimed that the government would force black militants into concentration camps in the event of a national emergency. Williams’s work documents people’s fear that the government would take extra-constitutional measures against its citizenry in the wake of a catastrophe. Although an unfounded concern, its existence seems especially justified given today’s data mining by the National Security Agency and drone strikes on American citizens. The phrases “Can You dig,” “Wake up,” and “Check this out” are painted around the figure, calling noisy attention to the pamphlet while also emphasizing the burning mistrust of government prevalent within Williams’s community.
The artists of AFRICOBRA made art that was very much tied to the moment and place in which they were creating. Nixon-era slang phrases and shades the artists call “Cool-Ade colors,” referring to the vividly saturated hues of the popular flavored drink, appear as AFRICOBRA orthodoxy. A screenprint by Wadsworth Jarrell titled Revolutionary (1972) is an AFRICOBRA update of Edvard Munch’s iconic The Scream (1895). The figure is depicted mid-howl in radiant bands of orange, pink, yellow, and blue lettering. The colors are at once brilliant and dissonant, as though the air itself were shattering into spectral fragments and phrases that read “Black is Beautiful.”
Language and color are distinct signifiers of American popular culture, yet the group contextualized such tropes, as well as those concerning the figure and the incorporation of text into the picture plane, as visual elements essential to black ethnicity. According to Jones-Hogu, the artists operated through a belief that “we had specific visual qualities intrinsic to our ethnic group” and set out to create works that spoke to and for “all Black people regardless of their land base.”
After decades of evolving identity politics, the essentialist rhetoric in Jones-Hogu’s paper now reads as naively optimistic. How does a small band of artists living in one American city even begin to speak for a pan-global African diaspora? Impossible as the task may have been, it was an important early step toward greater cultural visibility for black artists in the post–Civil Rights Movement era.
The collective sought to integrate and expound upon all facets of African American experience. Donaldson’s work often deals with the trials and complexities of racial justice in America. His painting J.D. McClain’s Day in Court (1970) shows two figures, one in prison stripes holding a gun pointed at another dressed in black with a skull for a head. The image reflects a newspaper clipping incorporated into the composition that features the real-life J.D. McClain sighting his gun at the judge presiding over his trial for murder, a standoff that left McClain, the judge, and several others dead on the courtroom floor. In Donaldson’s parable, the judge and the justice system he represents—not McClain—is the angel of death, reaching out toward the gunman’s genitals, a gesture that symbolically threatens future generations of young black men.
The artists also collectively addressed the theme of family in a series of individual pieces, some of which have conflicting messages regarding gender and responsibility. Lawrence’s Uphold Your Men, Unify Your Families (1970) is a graffiti-scrawled call to arms for women to support family cohesion by way of sustaining men, while Jones-Hogu’s Black Men We Need You (1970) both chides and encourages men by depicting an idealized father holding a child. Clearly, being black is the dominant identity signifier here, where gender is viewed through a more conventional lens. Like so many actions deemed radical when carried out by marginalized populations, the performance of tradition is made as a statement of defiance in itself.
Despite the assertions of the artists themselves, AFRICOBRA did not create a universal black visual language. But in their failings, the collective reveals something essential about the history of Western art. The pieces on display were made to have an immediate impact by black artists whose white contemporaries were largely toiling in the apolitical waters of Minimalism, Pop art, and Conceptualism. Confronted with works that so forcefully emphasize racial identity, those more revered canons come into focus as art that must be recognized—in addition to what merits they have—as work made by white artists for white audiences dealing with white concerns. Too often work of this nature is accepted as identity neutral while art made by black artists is viewed through a lens of race. After so many years, these artists still have something to say.
 Originally published in Afri-Cobra HI (Amherst: University of Massachusetts at Amherst, 1973). Revised by the author, Barbara Jones-Hogu, Chicago 2008.