It was 1968 when Chicago artists Jeff Donaldson, Jae Jarrell, Wadsworth Jarrell, Barbara Jones-Hogu, and Gerald Williams founded the African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists, or AFRICOBRA. With a focus on shared values, group efforts and social consciousness, they sought to carve out a uniquely black artistic space.
Now a collective of three Chicago institutions seeks to contextualize this group of artists, elucidating the roots of their movement in Chicago, the importance of their work and the legacy of their achievements through a three-part exhibition titled AFRICOBRA in Chicago.
The UChicago student-curated Prologue exhibition at the South Side Community Art Center establishes the Black Arts Movement as the fertile ground from which AFRICOBRA sprang; the Philosophy exhibition at the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts, curated by Rebecca Zorach and opening Friday, June 28, will explore AFRICOBRA’s approach to politics, activism, family, gender and media; and the DuSable Museum of African American History’s Art and Impact exhibition, curated by Arlene Turner-Crawford will explore the expansion of AFRICOBRA, beyond the original members, and its influence on Chicago artists outside of the original collective during the 1970s and beyond.
“AFRICOBRA in Chicago is a wonderful opportunity for everyone to connect with Chicago’s past and present—its culture, community, politics, and people," said Bill Michel, executive director of the Logan Center. "We're also excited to support the vital work of a UChicago faculty member and our students and to collaborate with incredible South Side arts organizations to celebrate these artists and their impact."
For Zorach, Professor of Art History, Romance Languages and the College, to understand and celebrate AFRICOBRA is to engage with “important art history that’s been neglected by scholars.” This historical omission, said Zorach, is due to “a neglect of Chicago as a center of artistic production, a disinterest in political art, and to the systematic exclusion of black artists from galleries and the academy alike, until quite recently. The AFRICOBRA artists sought to build their own cultural infrastructure and made a very conscious decision to exhibit only in black-owned and black-run exhibition spaces.”
It would be wrong to suggest that these current exhibitions seek to “rediscover” AFRICOBRA, as Zorach is quick to point out that the group continues with a new set of members, while the five founding members took their own artistic paths (some with AFRICOBRA, some not) in the decades since they founded their collective. The idea, rather, is to introduce the early years of AFRICOBRA in particular and the Black Arts Movement in general to a new and ever-wider audience. The idea is to begin “rebalancing the way that the story of 20th-century art is told.”
“This exhibit helps to tell that story,” explains Matthew Collins, who currently is studying Public Policy and Sociology at UChicago and, along with his classmates in Zorach’s class, co-curated the Prologue show. “What [AFRICOBRA] did was make art a community thing and not just an exclusive individual process.” Because of that dedication to open access and public display, “the South Side Community Art center was particularly important to them,” and is therefore a fitting space in which to explore their foundations and inspirations.
“Prior to AFRICOBRA“ says Pemon Rami, director of education and public programs for the DuSable Museum, a black family might have decorated their home with “a picture of Jesus—specifically a white Jesus—and they might have a picture of some kind of landscape.” But during the AFRICOBRA period, “people began to put up posters and images that related more to identifying who they are from an Afro-centric cultural perspective. So you go from households that were diluted to households that were embedded with images of self—images that dealt with self-pride, images that dealt with uplifting the community.”
These works of art were at once progressive, subversive and transformative, both in subject matter and in their modes of production. Murals such as the Organization of Black American Culture’s (OBAC) Wall of Respect and William Walker’s Wall of Truth stood proudly in public spaces rather than galleries—and as for the posters, Rami recalls, “someone asked me, where did we go to buy the art. Well, it was in parks. It was at festivals. It was in barbershops. It was in stores.
“It was more of a community effort,” Rami continues, referring to the exhibition of AFRICOBRA art, as well as “the printmaking process, and also the amount of public events had a great deal to do with [the movement’s] impact,” as did the simultaneously and intimately related explosion of theater companies, music venues, and bookstores in Chicago.
Taken in combination, this three-part exhibition puts forth a revised and rebalanced history of art in Chicago, with AFRICOBRA as a fulcrum. Community, creativity, progress and pride neither began nor ended with the five artists who founded the AFRICOBRA collective—but their work embodied and exemplified those aspirations, empowering myriad black artists who have flourished since, in Chicago and elsewhere.