AN EARLY MEMBER of the Chicago collective AfriCOBRA has died. Artist Nelson Stevens (1938-2022), passed away on July 22. He was 84. His death was first reported by Diverse Issues in Higher Education. The news was confirmed to Culture Type by his gallery, Galerie Myrtis in Baltimore, Md.

In a statement, the gallery said: “Stevens was a prominent painter and printmaker known for the fluidity and vibrancy of his compositions. Throughout his six-decade career, he contributed to shaping a radical black aesthetic that asserted black empowerment, self-determination, and unity among African Diasporic people. He was a proud member of AfriCOBRA (African Commune for Bad Relevant Artists).”

 


Artist Nelson Stevens describes his introduction to art and the foundation of his practice (2015). | Video by Harvey B. Gantt Center

 

An artist, educator, and activist, Stevens spent most of his career teaching at the University of Massachusetts Amherst in the W.E.B Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies. He was a professor of art from 1972 to 2003.

Before landing at UMass Amherst, Stevens taught in Ohio and Illinois. In Cleveland, he was a junior high school art teacher and also an instructor at the Cleveland Museum of Art. After earning an MFA, Stevens met AfricCOBRA co-founder Jeff Donaldson (1932-2004) in 1969 at a College Art Association conference in Boston. Donaldson encouraged the artist to move to Chicago. Stevens landed his first college-level position at Northern Illinois University, where he was on faculty from 1969 to 1971.

He joined AfriCOBRA in 1969, a year after the collective was founded in Chicago by Donaldson, Wadsworth Jarrell, Jae Jarrell, Barbara Jones-Hogu (1938-2017), and Gerald Williams. 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 that combined graphic elements with figuration.

The like-minded artists came together for a common purpose and pursued their goals with a unified approach to their visual expressions. Their work was defined by bright “cool-ade” colors, rhythmic text, and positive portrayals of Black people, elements that dominated the work of Stevens.

In a 2015 interview with the Harvey B. Gantt Center in Charlotte, N.C., the artist described his art. “At my best, I am the hope and the dream of the enslaved, dedicated to following my calling to create visions of a liberated self.” Stevens said. “It’s based on race. It’s based on excellence and it’s based on joining a group of people who are going in the same direction you’re going in to help you to get there.”

Nelson Stevens said his art was based on race, excellence and “joining a group of people who are going in the same direction you’re going in to help you to get there.”

 


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

 

“AFRICOBRA I: Ten in Search of a Nation,” the collective’s first museum exhibition was presented at the Studio Museum in Harlem in 1970. “AFRICOBRA II” was on view at the Studio Museum in 1971. In 1973, Howard University Gallery of Art presented “AFRICOBRA III.”

In more recent years, heightened interest in Black contemporary art has brought attention to its historical foundations, including the contributions of collective. Stevens and other key AfriCOBRA artists were featured in “Soul of a Nation,” the landmark, international traveling exhibition that opened in 2017 at the Tate Modern in London.

In 2018, AfriCOBRA celebrated the 50th anniversary of the founding of the collective, marking the occasion with exhibitions, programs, and new publications. The exhibitions included “AFRICOBRA: Messages to the People” (Nov. 27, 2018-March 24, 2019) curated by Jeffreen M. Hayes at the Museum of Contemporary Art North Miami, which led to an international opportunity.

Haynes organized “AFRICOBRA: Nation Time” (May 11-Nov. 24, 2019), an official collateral event at the 58th Venice Biennale. On view at Ca’ Faccanon, the show was the first major exhibition of AfriCOBRA’s work in Europe.

 


NELSON STEVENS, “Yes, We Will,” 1972 (mixed media on cream wove paper, 1972. 953 x 759 mm / 37 1/2 x 29 7/8 inches.) was featured on the cover of the catalog for Swann Auction Galleries African American Art sale on April 22, 2021. The lot sold for $30,000 fees included ($24,000 hammer price), establishing a new record at auction for Stevens.

 

NELSON LOWELL STEVENS JR., was born in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York, in 1938. He said he was a lifelong artist because he was exposed to art early. In grade school, he started attending Saturday classes at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

He earned a BFA in painting from Ohio University in Athens, Ohio (1962) and an MFA from Kent State University in Kent, Ohio (1969). After more than 30 years, he retired from the University of Massachusetts Amherst in 2003 and moved to Owings Mills, Md.

His work is represented in the collections of major institutions, including the Brooklyn Museum, Art Institute of Chicago, Fisk University, Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, and Tate Modern.

Galerie Myrtis is a Black-owned gallery established by Myrtis Bedolla in 2006. She said Stevens was surrounded by his daughter, son-in-law, and son when he “made a peaceful transition.”

The gallery provided the following statement from Nadya Stevens: “My dad was a giant. I am so deeply proud of him and his accomplishments and I feel fortunate to have been his daughter,” she said. “I am finding comfort in the love that we shared. But right now, I am absolutely shattered into one hundred tiny pieces.”

A retrospective of Stevens is forthcoming this fall. “Nelson Stevens’ Color Rapping” opens Sept. 25. The exhibition is presented by the University of Maryland Global Campus (UMGC) Arts Program in Adelphi, Md. CT

 

FIND MORE about Nelson Stevens on the Galerie Myrtis website

FIND MORE In spring 2012, NKA: Journal of African Art published “African Manifesto? Ten in Search of a Nation” by Jeff Donaldson

 

BOOKSHELF
“AFRICOBRA: Messages to the People” documents the exhibition at the Contemporary Art, North Miami and the 58th Venice Biennale. Collective co-founder Wadsworth Jarrell authored “AFRICOBRA: Experimental Art toward a School of Thought.” The exhibition catalog “Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power” and “The Soul of a Nation Reader: Writings by and about Black American Artists, 1960-1980,” a collection of essays, were produced to accompany the landmark international traveling exhibition.

 

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