[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #7 in December 2008]
In 1973, Edward Springs, the former director of the Studio Museum of Harlem, wrote, “AFRICOBRA—African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists—from their perspective as Afro-Americans are attempting to identify style and rhythm qualities that are expressive of Black people and people everywhere. It is the age for moving beyond mere rage—it’s nation time. And Black artists are searching. Black artists are immigrating into self, family, and nationhood, and celebrating the process.”
Barbara Jones-Hogu was one of the founding members of AFRICOBRA. AFRICOBRA—an artist collective, consisting of painters, photographers, printmakers, textile designers, and sculptors—was conceived by artist and scholar Jeff Donaldson in 1968 here in Chicago. This was also a year in which many important artistic developments were made by Black artists and institutions. This is the period of the Black Arts Movement, inaugurated by the publication of Black Fire, an anthology of works by authors such as James T. Stewart, Sun Ra, Larry Neal, and many others. The Ebony Museum of Negro History and Arts, founded by Margaret and Charles Burroughs, was renamed the DuSable Museum of African American History as it’s still known in Chicago. The first national conference of Black museums was held in Detroit, and ConFABA—Conference on the Functional Aspects of Black Art—was organized at Northwestern University.
In 1968 she was still an art student. Born in 1938 in Chicago, Jones-Hogu received a B.A. from Howard University, a B.F.A. from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and an M.S. from the Illinois Institute of Technology. Her work has been in numerous exhibitions in museums and galleries, not only in Chicago but across the country—including the Studio Museum of Harlem in New York, the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art at Cornell University, the African American Museum of Philadelphia, and the Lusenhop Fine Art Gallery in Chicago, among many others. Her work has also been included in many books, including John Pitman Weber and James and Eva Cockcroft’s Toward a People’s Art: The Contemporary Mural Movement; Lisa Farrington’s Creating Their Own Image: The History of African American Women Artists; and James Edward Smethurst’s The Black Arts Movement: Literary Nationalism in the 1960s and 1970s. Not only has she worked as an artist, but has also worked as a teacher in public schools in Chicago and an associate professor at Malcolm X College, helping to educate and inspire the next generation.
Edna Togba (ET) I wanted to begin by asking you about what the significance of the year 1968—what significance does it have for you, and its effect on the work that you produced during that time period?
Barbara Jones-Hogu (BJH) Well, in 1968 I was a student at IIT and I was in printmaking…. And I had just started doing, basically, silk screening at that particular period of time. The work previous to this was all based on very negative concepts of what was happening in the USA, and after I joined AFRICOBRA, which was in the latter part of 1968, it took on a more positive viewpoint, so—
ET Your work?
BJH Yes. Before it was mainly done in red, white, and blue, and black. And dealt with stars, the Ku Klux Klan, skeletons, and different things on that order—to indicate a form of racism, fanaticism and genocide. And after I joined AFRICOBRA it became more positive in terms of blackness and trying to teach, influence, inspire—you know, those who looked at the images.
ET Can you describe your interest in art in your educational developments up until that year when you joined?
BJH Well, basically I was—I started out as a painter…. I went to Howard University and I majored in art education there. I came to the Art Institute and majored in painting, drawing, and printmaking. I would have gone on and worked on an M.F.A. at the Art Institute, but they wanted you to be full time, and I wanted to work. So I left there and I went to IIT and Misch Kohn gave me a chance to teach during the day and then come in—I had a key to the printmaking room and I could come and work whenever I wished. And once you got in you could stay all night if you wished and work. So that’s the reason I went there, and previous to that year they had someone that was teaching painting there—but he retired right before, so that’s why I kind of ended up in printmaking and design instead. But I was mainly interested in painting.
ET Can you tell us about how AFRICOBRA formed? Who was involved, what were their roles?
BJH Well, I always say Jeff Donaldson. He is the impetus of the whole movement of AFRICOBRA. At the time he was up at Northwestern, he was a … Ph.D. student there. And I’m sure that he in his studies thought about starting some type of art movement because we were moving out of OBAC, which was the foundation for the mural on 43rd Street [The Wall of Respect]. He invited each person to join the group; he asked if we would be interested in starting another group of artists. And so … he called artists together and we met at Wadsworth Jarrell’s studio—that used to be on 61st just off Stony Island—and talked about the possibilities. …. Everybody brought some of their artwork to the next meeting and we analyzed each person’s artwork and out of each person’s artwork something was selected to become a part of what we were going to work toward. And out of my work was basically lettering because I had used lettering before coming into AFRICOBRA, and so lettering would be part of it. I would say the bright colors came with AFRICOBRA. …in fact we met right over there [gesturing toward Harper Court] in the coach house. Our first meeting—
ET Oh really?
BJH —it was called the coach house at that time and Bill Walker was part of it and we met right over there and there was a large group of artists that came for that first meeting for the Visual Art Workshop. The coach house—not there, but, you know, where the coach house used to be. There’s a restaurant there now….We met there as a group….
ET [After COBRA (Coalition of Black Revolutionary Artists)] when did the AFRI come in?
BJH It came in later. And there was a transition—we thought about adding, first Afro-cobra, then it was African Cobra, and then it became Afri-cobra. So when it became AFRICOBRA it became an African Commune Of Bad Relevant Artists—even though the letters are the same, the words were changed, okay? Oh, you want me to go through the others—I mean, in terms of how it developed from there?
ET Whatever you think. You can.
BJH After [the initial themes of The Black Family and We Are Better Than Those Motherfuckers] we started just identifying problems and coming up with solutions in our imagery to the problems, and we stopped dealing in a theme for everybody to work on. As long as the theme had a tendency to deal with our experience as an African people in America then it would be used. And it expanded also in terms of whatever happened to us as a people worldwide, internationally—because you’re seeing some of the artists’ work, and they deal with some of the conflicts and issues that were happening in Africa and other places in their images. So, once we started working together [more cohesively] we would bring our work in, we would discuss it, we’d look at it, analyze it, critique it—you know, offer suggestions in terms of production and what to be done in terms of changing it if the person was interested, and whether we were on target…working with the concepts that we first began. Then the philosophical concepts started. And there were several—first dealing with the images, the commitment to humanism, inspired by African people and their experiences—images which perform some function which African people can relate to directly and experience art for the people—the people reflect the art and the art is for the people—not for the critic…. That was one aim that we wanted to make art that could be bought by anyone—that’s why we got into the idea of doing art posters for a period of time—a short period of time, I would say. Identification—to define and clarify our commitment as a people to the struggles of African people who are waging war for survival and liberation. And that would be anywhere in the United States or on the planet.
ET You were speaking about the workings of AFRICOBRA and the first meeting coming together and choosing—each artist would bring their work and you would choose [an element]. For me one of the most striking elements of AFRICOBRA was that it was a collective—and I wanted to know if you could talk a little more about the daily workings of it?
BJH We did not work together, we basically worked separately and we brought our work together. But I thought it was very significant that we worked on a philosophy that we tried to bring together and speak about what we were doing, and that we tried to work toward an aesthetic in our work rather than just creating images. … That’s not just significant for our group but for any group. You know, I would even like to see artists get together and work on that—because I see a lot of artwork and it seems like it lacks direction…. I mean, I thought that was very significant—to me it was very positive, you know, to encounter imagery with an aesthetic and philosophy with all of those that I was working with.
ET You mentioned earlier that one of the aims of AFRICOBRA was to create, I guess you could call it democratic art—poster art, silk screenings that were purchased for not a very large sum—
BJH They were only ten dollars—I see that you have one original back there [in the gallery], because it has the Bakota head on it—okay, and it says $10 on there, so—God, they were only ten dollars!
ET But how did that aspect of it play itself out in the exhibition or the exposure to the public? How were these prints disseminated, how were they shown?
BJH Well they were—some of them were sold at fairs, some of them were shipped and sold at the Studio Museum. I personally did not sell any—
ET Oh really?
BJH —per se. But there were others in the group that actually worked on selling the prints. I worked on producing the prints. They were produced in the studio that I had, in what was Wadsworth Jarrell’s studio on 61st Street, and it was a very nice studio. In fact, the sculpture that’s in Jackson Park was built in the studio that we had, and we worked there in twos and threes producing, printing the silk screens in that studio. But Napoleon Henderson and some of the others were the ones who actually took the posters out and sold them.
ET It was yourself, and Jeff, and—
BJH Jeff Donaldson, Wadsworth Jarrell—because we met in his studio—Gerald Williams, Jae Jarrell, and myself. And then the others were added—Napoleon Henderson, Nelson Stevens—who are still members, the two of them are still members—Carolyn Lawrence, Omar Lama, and Sherman Beck. Sherman Beck has had two exhibits recently at the U of I—one this year and one last year or year before last.
ET You spoke about the importance of text and images—and could you just go more into detail about the relationship between the two?
BJH The text had to deal with meaning and messages so that there would not be any misunderstanding in terms of what the imagery was about—that was the basics of utilizing the text.
ET Because I think about your lettering versus, perhaps, Nelson Stevens’s lettering—
BJH Nelson Stevens usually—I would call his lettering almost “headline”—because he would have “UHURU” or something at the top, or something like that. But I think Wadsworth Jarrell utilized letterings that pulsated through his composition. Each person dealt with it differently, so in mine…these are basically cut film stencils that I used for doing silk screen, and so they’re all cut stencil lettering.
ET Can you tell us more about the process of creating, for example, this “To Be Free” silk screen?
BJH Some of the ones I did, I would paint them first—make a painting of them and then broke them down into colors and then make stencils from the painting in the process of doing that. Some of them were just—after I would do the first printing of them then I would decide on other things that could be added. Usually there was always some form of design, so there’s actually like a circle moving through—circle moving through all of the figures that are there in the image. And basically in silk screening you have to consider in terms of your color—so, how many colors you’re going to have and where you’re going to utilize them. I used a lot of gold and violet for skin tones. So, outside of that it would be repeating the green. It’s not really a lime green—it’s more like a grass green, and the strawberry orange—the Kool-aid colors!
ET Did you create the colors yourself, or was there, um—did you mix them yourself or was there a—
BJH Advance Silk Screen Company—I bought most of my inks from them, I know that they’re no longer [in business]. My inks…were all oil based. I stopped printing because of the fact that—I had a studio on 78th and my son would get ill when he would go to my studio because of the fumes. And so I had to stop actually printing with oil-based inks, and I didn’t really want to print with water-based, so I kind of just stopped printing… Because water-based colors were not as intense at the time. The colors were more translucent or transparent, and these are basically opaque colors. And I really didn’t get into using acrylic inks—you know, they dry fast in the screen, and the screen becomes clogged quickly, so oil based inks were what I favored. Outside of that, in terms of doing this—this was done in a very short period of time, from the conception of it to the actual printing of it was only a few days or a day and a half or two, or whatever.
ET I had a question about—some of your work addresses themes of Black womanhood, and I wanted to know if that was a conscious stance on your part or just one of many different themes that you were addressing.
BJH Well, I have—I think most of the ones that I did for AFRICOBRA have women in them. Many of the ones that I did before then mostly had men in them. So I don’t know, I don’t think that that was a conscious decision that I made. It was based on whatever I was trying to address in terms of the imagery. … It depended on what the idea that I wanted to portray and the concept that I wanted to portray in the work. So…I didn’t specifically think about women, doing just women. It was based on whatever I was identifying as the problem, you know, maybe that we as women have to address.
ET My final question is—so we’re now in 2008, 40 years basically after your first involvement in AFRICOBRA—and what sort of changes do you see in regards to this generation of Black artists versus the ones that you were a part of, and what is—
BJH There are more of them! And they’re working in many different ways. I’m just happy to see that their—their ideas and what they’re coming up with. I enjoy a lot of the naturalism that I see in some of the artist’s works—the paintings and the prints. And I don’t get into the city always to see all of the opening exhibits of what’s, happening, you know, what has occurred with the artists of today, but I enjoy seeing their work.
ET And what does 2008 look like for you as an artist?
BJH Oh, 2008. Well, I’m a professional student, I have to say that. And I’m working on an M.F.A. in independent filmmaking—
ET Oh wow.
BJH And I’m doing that at Governor State University . I’m interested in documenting artists and their work, specifically, I guess, for the Midwest. Presently I’m documenting the work of artists in the South Suburbs, and at Governor State University right now, so, you know, they’re my—I’m learning on them . I’m learning to shoot and edit … I have a lot of editing to do. I’ve shot a lot, but I have to edit—so I have a lot of editing to do. So I shall see. But I’ve shot…Arlene Crawford and I’ve done something of her I haven’t edited yet. Barbara Thomas—she’s a printmaker, she lives in Hyde Park presently. She was a student at Governor State—and she does work on women, women’s issues in her work, mostly. She does silkscreens and woodcuts. But I haven’t edited what I’ve shot of her and her work yet. But I’m working on it. I’m working toward it.
ET Well, congratulations.
BJH I’m going to see what occurs. I’m working on it. So since I’ve been working in media—and I started working in media after I retired. I was taking some courses at Governor State University and I was interested in learning videography and editing—I took documentary filmmaking twice, and then the instructor asked me why didn’t I do a masters, and I said “I already have a masters, I don’t need one”—and he says, “Well, you should think about it.” And so I did, and then they said “Oh don’t you want to be a part of it,” and I said “Yes, I’ll sign the petition!” And so that’s how I came to work on an M.A., and then an M.F.A.—and I hope to complete it by 2010.
This conversation was a public forum held at DOVA Temporary Gallery in August 2008. A complete version of the transcript, including audience discussion, will be made available as part of Issue #7 on http://www.areachicago.org.