The Commune of Bad Relevant Artists (AfriCOBRA) And The Wall of Respect
Black art has been the driving force for much of American cultural history. Whether jazz, rap, the poetry of the Harlem Renaissance, street art, hiphop, or spoken word: most uniquely American art forms owe their existence to pioneering black artists. This is no different when it comes to the realm of visual art. One Chicago art collective formed in the late 1960s is one of these decisive developments in American visual art which helped determine the shape and trajectory of future American art movements.
AfriCOBRA was first formed in 1968 on the Southside of Chicago, by five artists striving to pin down what they referred to as the “black aesthetic”. This black aesthetic would be more than the formal dimensions of style, instead tracing a sense of purpose and self-determination for black people through communal art. It was an ambitious project, and many would say an impossible one. However, these artists believed that they could locate the black aesthetic and express it through their work, and their journey is illustrated in their evolving style.
COBRA stands for the Commune of Bad Relevant Artists, a name that they embodied through their totally individual and politically motivated stance. They were striving towards black liberation, and very much in lockstep with some of the radical black thinkers of the time, like Malcolm X, Stokely Carmicheal, and Angela Davis.
African Art History and Scholarship
The addition of the prefix Afri- to the group’s name came a couple of years into their work together, and signaled a move towards African diasporic identity. They embraced Afrocentrism, with many members of the group travelling to Africa to study the different art movements and phases of art history. This turn was huge for their style, but also for the broader pedagogy and canon of art history.
In the 1970s, many African countries were gaining independence from colonial rule and were able to tell their own history for the first time in centuries. They had been oppressed under colonial rule and had very little freedom or self-determination. In postcolonial Africa, rediscovering precolonial roots was critical for formulating a new national identity. Much of this manifested through visual culture and art history which had been lost or suppressed during colonial rule. African art history had never been a major part of the Western art historical canon, and was often left out completely from scholarship and art historical institutions.
These AfriCOBRA artists who were studying in various African countries during this precise time period are largely responsible for communicating and establishing African art history in American universities and museums for the first time upon their return. Many AfriCOBRA members were founders of African Studies programs at American universities, which were some of the first to be established. Many are still foremost American scholars in African art.
Style and Members
The founding artists of AfriCOBRA were all working artists on the Southside of Chicago who had collaborative relationships and shared similar values. Jeff Donaldson, Wadsworth Jarrell, Jae Jarrell, Barabara Jones-Hogu, and Gerald Williams, were the founding five of the movement, rotating meetings between their studios and homes as they worked towards a cohesive style. They believed in the total embrace of community and in releasing the Western notion of self and the individual. If this could be done visually, they thought that they might communicate a full sense of identity and work towards the end goal of black liberation.
Their work was mainly focused in painting and printmaking, although other mediums pop up infrequently. AfriCOBRA’s style is characterized by bright colors, improvisation, pattern, political symbols and slogans, and the black figure or subject. They didn’t try to cater to critics or white consumers, speaking exclusively to black viewers of their work. They also didn’t care for profit from their art, often giving pieces away at shows so that their power to educate could live on.
Wall of Respect
Although the Wall of Respect was painted just before the formation of AfriCOBRA (1967), each of the founding members worked on it, and the project inspired many future works of public art and murals by the movement.
The Wall of Respect was a landmark work of Chicago art, executed on the side of a building at 43rd Street and Langley Avenue, on the Southside of the city. It included portraits of black cultural icons and political figures like Nat Turner, Malcolm X, and Gwendolyn Brooks. It’s collage-like, montage style was unique, and visually popped from the street surrounding it. It is heralded as one of the first communal American murals, and ushered in the first real wave of American street art. It’s a perfect example of the galvanizing effect that public art and murals can have on political identity, community cohesion, and self-respect.
Although the building that the mural was painted on burned down in 1971, the Wall of Respect has been immortalized in pictures and other documentation. It retains its place in Chicago art history as the jumping-off point for the public art, mural, and graffiti movements that were soon to follow.
For more art history and education resources like this keep up to date with our blog. If you’re interested in Chicago’s mural scene today, check out our list of the Top 7 Chicago Murals And Where To Find Them.
And if you’re an art teacher or other educator interested in lesson-planning resources and curriculum-building, learn more about our Arts Education Curriculum and Resources Guide.
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