On February 3, Crystal Bridges opens the US premier of Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power. The exhibition features works by 60 artists, from 1963 to 1983. Some of the artists felt it incumbent upon them to use their artwork to directly address civil rights and civil justice issues related to African American experience through representation of Black people and Black lives. Others preferred to produce abstract works that captured the essence of their ideas or emotions. Some artists used their work as a mode of protest. Others considered their art a means to uplift and celebrate African American community and promote solidarity and pride in Blackness. There was an ongoing debate about what Black art was, what is should or could be, and how. This exhibition explores the many different modes of approaching those questions through a wide range of mediums and styles.
African American art collectives were one way that Black artists could build community, discuss their ideas, and support one another in exhibition opportunities. One of the most important of these collectives was AfriCOBRA: the African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists, founded in 1968.
In 1967, a group of artists in Chicago, members of the Visual Arts Workshop of the Organization of Black American Culture (OBAC), came together to create a collaborative mural on a building at 43rd Street and Langley Avenue. Composed of portraits of African American heroes through history, the mural came to be known as The Wall of Respect. The work stood as a source of community pride and also as the vanguard of a public art movement among African American artists. 1968, some of the artists from OBAC came together to form AfriCOBRA.
They set out to discover and codify a Black aesthetic and a philosophy for the purpose and meaning of Black art. They decided to create democratic artwork, accessible to anyone and filled with uplifting and positive images of African American life that would counter the negative stereotypes perpetuated by popular culture—images that were “pro-Black without being anti anything else.” The group presented their work in 1970 in an exhibition at the Studio Museum in Harlem titled Ten in Search of a Nation. Their “manifesto” was published in Black World in October, 1970. In the preamble, artist Jeff R. Donaldson states:
Our people are our standard for excellence. We strive for images inspired by African people—experience and images that African people can relate to directly without formal art training and/or experience. Art for people and not for critics whose peopleness is questionable. We try to create images that appeal to the senses—not to the intellect….It is our hope that intelligent definition of the past and perceptive identification in the present will project nation-full direction in the future….
This is “poster art”—images which deal with concepts that offer positive and feasible solutions to our individual, local, national, international, and cosmic problems. The images are designed with the idea of mass production. An image that is valuable because it is an original or is unique is not art—it is economics, and we are not economists. We want everybody to have some.
The aesthetic principles, as described by original AFRICOBRA member Barbara Jones-Hogu were:
Also described by Donaldson as
“Color color Color color that shines, color that is free of rules and regulations. Color that shines. Color that is expressively awesome. Color that defines, identifies and directs. Superreal color for Superreal images. The superreality that is our every day all day thang. Color as bright and as real as the color dealing on the streets of Watts and the Southside and 4th street and in Roxbury and in Harlem, in Abidjian, in Port-au-Prince, Bahia and Ibadan, in Dakar and Johannesburg and everywhere we are. Coolade colors for coolade images for superreal people.”
Although the original members of AfriCOBRA gradually moved away and took up their careers in other cities, the organization itself remains active today. It is one of the longest-running art collectives in American history.
Works by members of Spiral and of AfriCOBRA will be included in Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power, on view at Crystal Bridges February 3 through April 23, 2018. Click here for information and tickets.