FIVE LIKE-MINDED ARTISTS came together half a century ago with a common purpose. Jeff Donaldson (1932-2004), Wadsworth Jarrell, Jae Jarrell, Barbara Jones-Hogu (1938-2017), and Gerald Williams met in Wadsworth’s studio on the South Side of Chicago and committed to harnessing the power of their collective artistic voice. The artists formed AFRICOBRA in 1968 and established a distinct visual aesthetic rooted in the culture of Chicago’s black neighborhoods.

AFRICOBRA promoted unity and aimed to uplift the spirit, minds, and political will of the black community. In the wake of the Civil Rights Movement and at the height of the Black Power and Black Arts movements, the collective began communicating in a language of bold images defined by bright “cool-ade” colors, rhythmic text, and positive portrayals of black people.

Donaldson wrote AFRICOBRA’s original manifesto in 1970 and, a few years later, Jones-Hogu expanded the draft outlining in more detail the group’s philosophical concepts and aesthetic principles. She was the group’s printmaking authority, a pivotal role given their desire to make affordable work accessible to the masses.

Five decades later, their sustained influence and contributions as a group and as individual artists, educators, and community leaders continues to resonate. Works by AFRICOBRA members are featured in the traveling exhibition “Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power” and as the description of their latest exhibition notes, members of AFRICOBRA are “at the forefront of contemporary conversations about the history, legacy, and future of black art in America and the world.”

In 2018, AFRICOBRA marked its 50th anniversary and a number of galleries from Chicago to New York and Baltimore paid tribute to the group, commemorating their groundbreaking initiative with exhibitions, discussions, and receptions.

This time last year, when the art world descended on the Miami for Art Basel Miami Beach, one of the big draws among the countless parallel art fairs, exhibitions, and programs was “AFRICOBRA: Messages to the People” (Nov. 27, 2018-March 24, 2019) at the Museum of Contemporary Art, North Miami.

 


GERALD WILLIAMS, “Angela Davis,” 1971 (acrylic on canvas, 48 x 48 inches / 122 x 122 cm). | Courtesy of Gerald Williams and Kavi Gupta

 

The show was modeled on “Ten in Search of a Nation,” a 1970 presentation of the collective’s work at the Studio Museum in Harlem that was titled after their manifesto. The 10 artists featured were the founders and five early members—Nelson Stevens, Omar Lama, Carolyn Mims Lawrence, Sherman Beck, and Napoleon Jones-Henderson.

Jeffreen M. Hayes curated the Miami show and shortly after it closed, she announced a related AFRICOBRA exhibition was selected as an official collateral event at the Venice Biennale. Once again, when the art world made an international pilgrimage—this time to Italy for the 58th Venice Biennale, where Martin Puryear is representing the United States with a solo show in the American pavilion—one of the key satellite attractions was an exhibition dedicated to AFRICOBRA.

The executive director of Three Walls in Chicago, Hayes is an active independent curator who also organized “Augusta Savage: Renaissance Woman.” .

In Venice, “AFRICOBRA: Nation Time” (May 11-Nov. 24, 2019) at Ca’ Faccanon is the first major exhibition of AFRICOBRA’s work in Europe. “Nation Time” presents work by the founders as well as Stevens and Jones-Henderson who joined the collective in 1969.

On view through this weekend, the Venice show differs from the Miami presentation. Hayes describes “Nation Time” as the next chapter. The exhibition starts at the very beginning, opening with framed black-and-white documentary photographs of the founders gathering and meeting in Wadsworth’s studio. Hayes says the artists would meet weekly and critique each other’s work and talk about aesthetic philosophy as well as what was going on during the period politically and socially.

 


Installation view of “AFRICOBRA: Nation Time,” Ca’ Faccanon, Venice, Italy. Shown at left, Photographs of AFRICOBRA members meeting at the studio of Wadsworth Jarrell. | Photo by Ugo Carmeni Studio, Venezia, Italy

 


Installation view of “AFRICOBRA: Nation Time,” Ca’ Faccanon, Venice, Italy. | Photo by Ugo Carmeni Studio, Venezia, Italy

 

More than 40 works are on view. A variety of mediums are represented, from paintings and prints to mixed-media works and sculpture. Showcasing the history of the collective, the selection spans the life of the group, dating from the year before AFRICOBRA was founded (a 1967 work on paper by Wadsworth) to the present (the most recent works being sculptures by Jae made in 2017 and 2018).

Hayes organized the exhibition thematically. Sections include Black Womanhood, Nation Time, Expressive Political Action, Call-and-Response, and Looking Forward/Looking Back. For further context, she incorporated quotes by the artists and verse by poets such as Gwendolyn Brooks (1917-2000), June Jordan (1936-2002), and Sonia Sanchez into the wall text.

“With this show, [I was] trying to build the larger context in which AFRICOBRA was making work and connecting it to the black arts part of the movement, but also the protest images, and the marches, but also wanting to have visual representation of black life and culture in photographs. So there’s a little more ephemera. There’s photographs,” Hayes told Culture Type.

“There’s a really sweet section in the entry, or the introduction to the show, of studio photographs of some of the members of AFRICOBRA. They are photographs of them at Wadsworth Jarrell’s studio and they were meeting. These are photographs from 50 years ago giving people a sense [that] the studio was the place for the artists.”

Over the years, the founders pursued unique paths and practices, dispersed to different cities (and countries), and additional artists affiliated with the collective. Born in Chicago, Jones-Hogu taught at Malcolm X College in the city for three decades and in her early 70s went back to graduate school to study filmmaking. Two months after her death, “Barbara Jones-Hogu: Resist, Relate, Unite 1968-1975” her first-ever solo museum exhibition opened at DePaul Art Museum in Chicago.

Donaldson emphasized the transnational diaspora and incorporated African iconography in his work. He joined Howard University’s College of Fine Arts in 1970. He was hired as chair of the art department and director of the art gallery (1970-76). (Donaldson headed the committee organizing U.S. participation in FESTAC ’77 in Lagos, Nigeria.) Then for a period, he was a professor at Howard, concentrating on teaching. He later took on roles as associate dean and eventually dean of the fine arts college, serving until 1998 when he retired. His first museum retrospective, “Jeff Donaldson: Dig” was organized posthumously by the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse, N.Y., last year.

 


NELSON STEVENS, “Uhuru,” 1970 (acrylic on poster board, 37 1/2 x 27 1/2 inches / 95 x 70 cm). | Collection of Tina and Larry Jones, Photo courtesy of Kavi Gupta

 

Paintings by Wadsworth combine figuration and abstraction. Jazz music has been an inspiration and his sculptures reference African traditions. Wadsworth taught at Howard in the 1970s (overlapping with Donaldson’s tenure) and then for a decade was a professor at the University of Georgia.

Jae primarily works with textiles expressing herself through clothing. Her works range from fashionably designed and politically and socially engaged ensembles cum art objects, sculpture and mixed-media works. She owned a Chicago boutique called Jae of Hyde Park.

After living in Chicago, Washington, D.C., and New York, Wadsworth and Jae, who are husband and wife, moved to her hometown of Cleveland in 2009. “Heritage: Wadsworth and Jae Jarrell” was recently on view at the Cleveland Museum of Art.

After participating in FESTAC ’77, Williams joined the Peace Corps and spent two years in Kenya. Following that experience, he accepted an opportunity to serve as Arts & Crafts Center director for the U.S. Air Force. Working for two decades in that role, he was based in South Korea, Japan, Sumter, S.C., Italy, and Portugal. He retired and lived in Sumter for a decade before returning to Chicago in 2015. Williams joined Kavi Gupta gallery in 2017 and organized “AFRICOBRA 50” at the gallery last year. In celebration of the collective’s 50th anniversary, the exhibition showcased works by the founding artists.

AFRICOBRA members continue to make work today and the unified style they established half a century ago is largely ever present and immediately recognizable.

“It’s very unique. I haven’t found it elsewhere in art history. It doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. But what is really amazing about this group is it’s one of the longest running art collectives. They are very unified as a collective even as they approach the philosophy a little bit different because they are also individual artists,” says Hayes.

“They come together like minded and there’s a respect amongst them with their practices that I also find really fascinating and amazing 50 years later. The fact that these artists who created a visual aesthetic that still remains today and has an impact on visual culture as well as art history is something we need to recognize a little bit more.” CT

 

ALL INSTALLATION IMAGES: AFRICOBRA: Nation Time, installation view. Official Collateral Event of the 58th La Biennale di Venezia, Biennale Arte 2019. Presented by bardoLA, Los Angeles, California, originated and supported by MOCA North Miami, Florida and curated by Jeffreen M. Hayes, Ph.D., Sponsored by Kavi Gupta Gallery, Chicago, Illinois. | Photos by Ugo Carmeni Studio, Venezia, Italy

 

BOOKSHELF
A forthcoming catalog is planned to accompany the Venice exhibition “AFRICOBRA: Nation Time.” Also forthcoming, Wadsworth Jarrell is the author of “AFRICOBRA: Experimental Art toward a School of Thought,” which is scheduled to be published in May 2020. Works by AFRICOBRA artist are featured in “Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power.” “The Black Arts Movement and the Black Panther Party in American Visual Culture” and “Art for People’s Sake: Artists and Community in Black Chicago, 1965-1975” explore the climate and context from which AFRICOBRA emerged.

 


Installation view of “AFRICOBRA: Nation Time,” Ca’ Faccanon, Venice, Italy. Shown, From left, WADSWORTH JARRELL, “Study for the Wall of Respect,” 1967 (44 x 30 inches, gouache on paper). Courtesy the Artist and Kavi Gupta; GERALD WILLIAMS, “Say It Loud,” 1969 (acrylic on canvas, 34 x 26 x 2 inches). | Photo by Ugo Carmeni Studio, Venezia, Italy

 


WADSWORTH JARRELL, “Prophecy,” 1974 (acrylic on canvas, 48 x 85 1/2 inches / 122 x 217 cm). | Courtesy of Wadsworth Jarrell and Kavi Gupta

 


Installation view of “AFRICOBRA: Nation Time,” Ca’ Faccanon, Venice, Italy. Shown, From left, JAE JARRELL, “Victorian Beads and Glass Work Enscreened,” 2017 (mixed media, 64 x 14 x 14 inches), Courtesy of the artist and Kavi Gupta; WADSWORTH JARRELL, “Prophecy,” 1974 (acrylic on canvas, 48 x 85 ½ inches), Courtesy the artist and Kavi Gupta; At right, GERALD WILLIAMS, “Waiting for the woods to…,” 1977 (acrylic on board, 20 x 16 inches), Courtesy of the Artist and Kavi Gupta. | Photo by Ugo Carmeni Studio, Venezia, Italy

 


Installation view of “AFRICOBRA: Nation Time,” Ca’ Faccanon, Venice, Italy. Shown, JAE JARRELL, “Frock You,” 1994 (wool, wood, mixed-media, 73 3/16 x 48 ⅜ x 6 inches. The Rennie Collection (far left); BARBARA JONES-HOGU, “High Priestess,” 1970 (screenprint, 37 x 26 inches). Courtesy of Lusenhop Fine Art (second from right); NELSON STEVENS, “All Praises Due,” (acrylic on canvas, 36 x 36 inches). Private collection (far right). | Photo by Ugo Carmeni Studio, Venezia, Italy

 


BARBARA JONES-HOGU, “Rise and Take Control,” 1970 (screenprint, 23 x 35 inches / 58 x 89 cm). | Courtesy of Lusenhop Fine Art, Cleveland

 


Installation view of “AFRICOBRA: Nation Time,” Ca’ Faccanon, Venice, Italy. | Photo by Ugo Carmeni Studio, Venezia, Italy

 


Installation view of “AFRICOBRA: Nation Time,” Ca’ Faccanon, Venice, Italy. Shown, From left, GERALD WILLIAMS (3), “Wake Up,” 1971 (screenprint, 42 x 28 inches); “Orator,” 1969 (acrylic on canvas, 31 x 44 inches); “I Am Somebody,” 1969 (acrylic on canvas, 36 x 36 inches), Courtesy the artist and Kavi Gupta (3). | Photo by Ugo Carmeni Studio, Venezia, Italy

 


NAPOLEON JONES-HENDERSON, “Decade of the Woman,” 1989 (tapestry and applique, 53 x 50 inches / 135 x 127 cm). | Photo courtesy of Daniel Bock

 


Installation view of “AFRICOBRA: Nation Time,” Ca’ Faccanon, Venice, Italy. Shown, At left, WADSWORTH JARRELL, “Homage to a Giant,” 1970 (acrylic on board, 48 x 90 x 3 inches), Courtesy of the artist and Kavi Gupta. | Photo by Ugo Carmeni Studio, Venezia, Italy

 


Installation view of “AFRICOBRA: Nation Time,” Ca’ Faccanon, Venice, Italy. | Photo by Ugo Carmeni Studio, Venezia, Italy

 


JAE JARRELL, “Going to NYC,” 1994 (mixed media, 53 x 74 inches / 135 x 188 cm). | Courtesy of Jae Jarrell and Kavi Gupta

 


Installation view of “AFRICOBRA: Nation Time,” Ca’ Faccanon, Venice, Italy. | Photo by Ugo Carmeni Studio, Venezia, Italy

 

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