AfriCOBRA Retrospective

“Revolutionary” (1971) Jae Jarrell

“Uhuru” (1971) Nelson Stevens

“Uphold Your Men” (1971) Carolyn Lawrence

“Victory in the Valley of Eshu” (71) J Donaldson

“Black Family” (1968) Jae Jarrell

“Unite” (1969-71) Barbara Jones-Hogu

The birth of the 1960’s Black Arts Movement ignited an important cultural event among its participants. Many African American musicians, poets, writers, and visual artists began to turn their craft to address themes of Black pride, self-determination, and Black culture. Emerging from this movement was a unique Chicago-based artists’ collective, calling themselves first COBRA (Coalition of Black Revolutionary Artists) in 1968 and then in 1969, AfriCOBRA (African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists). In Evanston, Illinois from February 17 to March 17, the Dittmar Memorial Gallery in the Norris University Center at Northwestern University displayed a retrospective of selected works from this group. The exhibited artists included Jeff Donaldson, Wadsworth Jarrell, Barbara Jones-Hogu, Jae Jarrell, Gerald Williams, Carolyn Lawrence, Nelson Stevens, Napoleon Jones-Henderson, Howard Mallory, Frank Smith, James Phillips, and Murry Depillars.

This collection of paintings, silk screen prints on paper, sculpture, textile, and clothing designs burst with color, text, and figurative imagery. Similar to some Harlem Renaissance artists, this collective looked to Africa for inspiration. However, a key difference, according to founding member Wadsworth Jarrell, was "Afri-COBRA…worked collectively as a group, using our individual voices to create a body of work culminating in a school of thought—a non-Western approach to creating art." These artist/educators who received their professional training at some of the nation’s prestigious institutions committed themselves to group meetings and critiques producing work that was African inspired, message oriented, socially responsible, and technically excellent.

For example, Jarrell’s acrylic painting on canvas from the Azzi/Lusenhop collection entitled "Revolutionary" was a portrait of Angela Davis. Created in 1971, his use of the activist’s words to suggest chiaroscuro pushed the boundaries of portraiture. Her Afro, mirroring a halo, thundered AfriCOBRA’s philosophical approach to color—the bold, cherry red, blue-purple, and lime Kool-Aid colors worn by Black folk. Moreover, Jarrell’s appropriation of a cartridge belt from a clothing design by Jae Jarrell, his wife and also a founding member, challenged the definition of revolutionary art.

The colors in Nelson Stevens’s 1971 screen print entitled "Uhuru" challenged my preconceptions of portraiture. Stevens, who joined AfriCOBRA in 1969, is credited with contributing the principle of "shine" to the collective’s school of thought. "Shine" refers to the Afros and newly-shined shoes worn by Black folk. "Uhuru" shined with kinetic shape and color, forming the heroic, visionary gaze of a proud, Afro-adorned male, his eyes set toward the future of Africans throughout the Diaspora. Black Arts Movement theorist Larry Neal’s reference to these artists as "visual griots" and "image makers" is exemplified in "Uhuru," which shouts with 21st century hope and solutions.

Continuing the tour brought me to Carolyn Lawrence’s "Uphold Your Men," a 1971 screen print, and Gerald Williams’s "Wake Up." Both works echo the AfriCOBRA approach of using text within the composition to address the challenges Black people faced during a time of assassinations and a proliferation of racial, stereotypical imagery. Additionally, Jeff Donaldson’s 1971 "Victory in the Valley of Eshu" and Jae Jarrell’s 1968 velvet dress with velvet collage entitled "Black Family" portrayed similar themes.

Barbara Jones-Hogu’s 1969-1971 "Unite" embodies the aspirations of creative disturbance from that era. The work depicts figures standing together, wearing Afros with fists raised. Hogu’s use of the text "Unite" within the composition is a message from the sky. Her use of precious metal colors, according to Jones-Hogu, "speaks of the value and worth of African Americans." She even portrays a woman wearing an Egyptian Ankh earring representing life. Ultimately, resistance and unity become synonymous, challenging all negative stereotypes. The historical significance of "Unite" is its reference to Tommie Smith, a gold medal winner, and John Carlos, a bronze medal winner, who, during the 1968 Olympic ceremony, raised their fists in support of the Black Power movement.

After leaving this exhibition, my mind continued to play its unforgettable imagery and messages. Although the membership of AfriCOBRA has changed over time, this 30-year-old group continues to create work relevant for the 21st century.


Richard Allen May III is currently writing a book on the visual art of the Black Arts Movement. His research interests include Black feminist theory, visual rhetoric, and semiotics.