The History, Philosophy and Aesthetics of AFRICOBRA

[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #7 in December 2008]

From the Archives

Originally published in Afri-Cobra HI (Amherst: University of Massachusetts at Amherst, 1973). Revised by the author, Chicago 2008.

Barbara Jones-Hogu

In 1968, a group of artists came together at the request of Jeff Donaldson in the studio of Wadsworth Jarrell to discuss the premise that Black visual art has innate and intrinsic creative components which are characteristic of our ethnic group. The artists who were present at the meeting consisted of painters, printmakers, textile designers, dress designers, photographers and sculptors who felt that their visual expression was definitely affected by the fact that they were Black and that their Blackness contributed a specific quality to their visual expression. Many of the artists at the first meeting were members of a visual art group which was then defunct, the Visual Workshop of OBAC (Organization of Black American Culture)—who created the Wall of Respect in Chicago in 1967. This mural became a visual symbol of Black nationalism and liberation.

Once the artists concluded that we had specific visual qualities intrinsic to our ethnic group, a future meeting was set for each person to bring in their work for analysis by the group. At that meeting the following visual elements were selected: bright colors, the human figure, lost and found line, lettering and images which identified the social, economical and political conditions of our ethnic group. When we had found our common denominators our next step was to ponder whether a group of Black artists could transcend the “I” or “me” for the “us” and “we” in order to create a basic philosophy which would be the foundation of a visual Black art movement. We wanted to create a greater role as Black artists who were not for self but for our kind. Could we sacrifice the wants of self and ego in order to create the needed positive visual images of our people? Yes, we can!

A nucleus of artists felt that a collective effort was possible under a common philosophy and a common system of aesthetic principles. The basic nucleus was composed of Jeff Donaldson, painter-teacher; Wadsworth Jarrell, painter-photographer, Jae Jarrell, clothing designer, Barbara J. Jones (Hogu) painter-printmaker-teacher, and Gerald Williams, painter-student. We had all noted that our work had a message: it was not fantasy or art for art’s sake, it was specific and functional by expressing statements about our existence as Black People. Therefore, we began our philosophy with functionalism. Functional from the standpoint that it must communicate to its viewer a statement of truth, of action, of education, of conditions and a state of being to our people. We wanted to speak to them and for them, by having our common thoughts, feelings, trials and tribulations express our total existence as a people. We were aware of the negative experiences in our present and past, but we wanted to accentuate the positive mode of thought and action. Therefore our visual statements were to be Black, positive and direct with identification, purpose and direction. The directness of our statement was to be conveyed in several ways:

  • A. The visual statement must be humanistic with the figure frontal and direct to stress strength, straight forwardness, profoundness, and proudness.
  • B. The subject matter must be completely understood by the viewer, therefore lettering would be used to extend and clarify the visual statement. The lettering was to be incorporated into the composition as a part of the visual statement and not as a headline.
  • C. The visual statement must identify our problems and offer a solution, a pattern of behavior or attitude.
  • D. The visual statement must educate, it must speak of our past, present, or future.

Black, positive, direct statements created in bright, vivid, singing cool-ade colors of orange, strawberry, cherry, lemon, lime and grape. Pure vivid colors of the sun and nature. Colors that shine on Black people, colors which stand out against the greenery of rural areas. Cool-ade colors, Black positive statements stressing a direction in the image with lettering, lost and found line and shape were the beginning elements which created COBRA, the Coalition of Black Revolutionary Artists.

As COBRA began activating their philosophy we felt that everyone should work on a particular theme, the Black Family. The group met every two weeks to analyze and criticize the progress of each member as they completed their composition. These critiques became extremely important since it gave the artist a chance to work independently and jointly while having a group of his peers point out his strengths and weaknesses. As each artist developed his expression in a COBRA philosophy and aesthetics we moved on to the second theme, “I am Better Than Those Mother Fuckers,” and we are. When the second theme was finished we dropped the idea of a definite theme and decided to start identifying problems, and solutions to problems, which we as Black people experience. Therefore in the third work and thereafter each artist worked on a theme which he felt was pertinent to our existence as a people.

At this point Napoleon Henderson, the weaver, joined the group and we moved from five to six which later changed to seven as Nelson Stevens, painter-printmaker came into the group. Yet we continued to grow with Carolyn Lawrence, painter; Omar Lama, a draftsman in pen and ink; and Sherman Beck, a painter and illustrator. During the same period of time we moved from COBRA to African COBRA to AFRICOBRA, an African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists. We moved from a national perspective to an international perspective. All Black people regardless of their land base have the same problems, the control of land and economics by Europeans or Euro-Americans.

The change from COBRA to AFRICOBRA also crystallized our philosophy and aesthetics, such as:

The Philosophical Concepts

  1. IMAGES, a commitment to humanism, inspired by African people and their experience, IMAGES which perform some function which African people can relate to directly and experience. The art is the people, people reflect their art, and the art is for the people, not for the critics.
  2. IDENTIFICATION, to define and clarify our commitment as a people to the struggles of African peoples who are waging war for survival and liberation.
  3. PROGRAMMATIC, art which deals with concepts that offer positive and feasible solutions to our individual, local, national, and international problems.
  4. MODES OF EXPRESSION, that lend themselves to economical mass production techniques such as “Poster Art” so that everyone that wants one can have one.
  5. EXPRESSIVE AWESOMENESS, that which does not appeal to serenity but is concerned with the eternally sublime, rather than ephemeral beauty. Art which moves the emotions and appeals to the senses.

The Aesthetic Principles

(These principles were not only drawn from the work of the artists in the group but were also drawn from our inheritable art forms as an African people.)

  1. FREE SYMMETRY, the use of syncopated, rhythmic repetition which constantly changes in color, texture, shapes, form, pattern, movement, feature, etc.
  2. MIMESIS AT MID-POINT, design which marks the spot where the real and the unreal, the objective and the non-objective, the plus and the minus meet. A point exactly between absolute abstractions and absolute naturalism.
  3. VISIBILITY, clarity of form and line based on the interesting irregularity one senses in a freely drawn circle or organic object, the feeling for movement, growth, changes and human touch.
  4. LUMINOSITY, “Shine,” literal and figurative, as seen in the dress and personal grooming of shoes, hair (process or Afro), laminated furniture, face, knees or skin.
  5. COLOR, Cool-ade color, bright colors with sensibility and harmony.

As we expanded our philosophy we developed as a group who created messages that dealt with the past, to give definition to our existence, in the present, to identify the images and activities of our present situation, and the future that would show a direction toward purpose and solution. Our endeavors and thoughts culminated in 1970 in TEN IN SEARCH OF A NATION, an exhibit which was held at the Studio Museum in Harlem. The work we exhibited was on view to educate and was not for sale. We did not want to promote individual gain of the images but we did want to stress a unified effort of giving our messages to the people. We had plans to create poster prints of the work so that everyone could have some AFRICOBRA messages. Our endeavor was well received. It was the first time that most of the viewers had seen a group of artists jointly working together toward a concerted philosophy with images which stated to Black people “Unite,” “Unite or Perish,” “We Will Build Here or Nobody Will,” because “I Am Somebody,” “I Am Better.”

Each artist dealt with their images in different perspectives. Nelson Stevens dealt with the spiritual aspect of nation building in Jihad, Uhuru, and Ujamma; he wants “to get as close as possible to the jihad… to images of those brothers and sisters who have never existed before,” while Jeff Donaldson dealt with the modern Amos and Andy who are not for Toming but are seriously dealing with our problems with an advanced weapon. His Oshun, Oba and Yansa, the Wives of Shango (God of thunder and lightning who balances all debts), are three sisters who are ready for combat with bullet, belts and guns; while the “Shango Shortys” are dealing with their past in the tensions of today in a high- strung society of crystal clear glass.

Carolyn Lawrence wants to “Take the past and the present and make the new image.” She records her concepts in Pops, a tribute to an old man, while in Manhood she pointed a direction of responsibility for all men. Jae Jarrell, the dress designer, laid out strong messages on her garments with strong patterns, textures and colors of Black Family, Unity, and Manhood.

Wadsworth Jarrell stated, “If you can get to Be-Bop, you can get to me. That is where the truth is.” The rhythms of his Be-Bop can be seen in the repetitious letters and colors of Cool-ade Lester. Jarrell’s Homage to a Giant pays tribute to many pertinent leaders, such as Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jesse Jackson, Fred Hampton, Huey P. Newton. His images state that we must be about Tightening Up the Game, and This Time Baby we are not going to be turned around from our objective of total liberation.
Each artist brought his peculiar talent to the commune and exhibit. Sherman Beck, a magic maker, extended himself through the magic of his medium. Although he had no titles on his work he dealt with another realm of the spiritual essence of man which could be seen and felt in his paintings. Napoleon Henderson, the weaver, looks toward himself and Africa as his future. The title of his work does not speak of the significant symbolism, bright harmonizing colors and textures in his words “Doodles” “Cool-ade Icicles” and “Bakota.”

Yesterday, today and possibly tomorrow Gerald Williams will respond to the potential for Black Nationhood and the need to develop that potential when he created I Am Somebody, Nationhood, and Wake Up to the King Alfred plan of concentration camps; while Omar Lama works toward positive images—images that will inspire Black people to a higher level of consciousness in Black Jesus, and United or Perish.

Last but not least is Barbara J. Jones, who states Black People a total people, a total force, Unite, Unite, as we learn of our Heritage as an African in a racist country in the Land Where My Father Died which need to Stop Genocide while Black men must Rise and Take Control.

We moved from Ten in Search of A Nation homeward with important feedback from our viewers which gave encouragement, inspiration and direction for the future… The future works of AFRICOBRA became stronger, more powerful and more accessible as we started creating silk screen poster prints which was another phase of our basic philosophy. The poster prints made our images available to a larger audience at a reasonable price. For the prints, which were a total group effort, we selected one work from each artist, especially those that had been exhibited in the Ten in Search Of A Nation exhibit. Carolyn Lawrence’s Manhood, the first print, enthralled everyone in the group as we finished the last color and saw the crystallization of many trials, errors and color separations. The completion of the first print produced a quick production of the next three which were Unite, Wake Up, and Uhuru. The prints which followed were African Solar, and Victory in the Valley of Esu. In the process of working on the prints, we lost Sherman Beck and Omar Lama, but we gained Howard Mallory, ceramicist-jeweler-textile designer, who did a great deal of work on producing all the prints.

In between production of the prints, we did find time to create broader visual statements about the changing conditions of our time and our people. Our new statements related the strength and determination of Angela Davis and Martin Luther King, the truth and wisdom of Malcolm X, the continual fall of Black education and the need of education to be based on the history and accomplishments of Black People. Our children have put up a tough struggle to Keep Their Spirits Free. Our images still stressed Nation Time, but emphasized: Don’t Forget the Struggle, we all need spiritual unity as featured in Spirit Sister, Wholy People, and From These Roots we gain strength. If we Get Some Land Black People, we need land to survive, for land provides the essentials which cultivate and nourish life, and We Must Go Home with Something. These images were the foundation for our AFRICOBRA II show at the Studio Museum in Harlem in the fall of 1971.

Nothing is continuously stable, and things must change, perhaps from young to old, east to west or vice versa or marching seconds of infinite time never to return. In our development we began to change; we first changed in position, time and space. The first to extend our commune was Jeff Donaldson who moved to Washington, D.C. to become the head of the Howard University Art Department early in the spring semester of 1971. Next to leave, Wadsworth and Jae Jarrell with one child at hand and one on the way, they moved eastward to Connecticut, Massachusetts, and later to Washington, D.C. The extension of our space relationship broke down our immediate communications and communal development, but it also built personal progress without the intervention of momentary feedback of criticism in our trials and tribulations which created a more responsive or irresponsive action. As we attempted communications across country we continued to work and develop but at a slower pace. Before long another AFRICOBRA member, Nelson Stevens, had made his way eastward to Amherst, Massachusetts, and what was six became five again. We began with five members in Chicago. The work of AFRICOBRA will continue to grow because we have a foundation by which we have built a strong value system of our work and a philosophy which guides us toward a common aim of artistic endeavor. The works which are exhibited in AFRICOBRA expressed the expansion of our creative effort in new media, new techniques, new styles and a new member, Frank Smith, painter.

Where will we go from here? As time moves so shall we, to a broader and more expanded commitment to our people visually, mentally, and physically. Our new visual statement shall explore the total gamut of our existence:

The Individual and the Family

  • A. The growth of the individual from the cradle to the grave. We will express the physical, mental and emotional changes of the male and/or female as they develop from a baby to a child to teenager—adult and old age; and in so doing, we can state their trials, their errors, accomplishments and success, their character, wisdom, foolishness, etc.
  • B. We will make visual statements of how we see the positive or negative relationship between husband and wife, mother and child, and father and children. What type of roles are we playing and are our roles relevant to our whole existence as a people. We will extend our visual imagery to speak of our relationship and activities of our extended family—the cousins, uncles, aunts, grandparents, godparents. How they created strong influences on our life, past or present? The family relations with other families or other groups of the same or different ethnic groups. We will identify ourselves visually at this time-space and record our daily activities, our values and the styles of our day. We will record our dances, our athletics, our hobbies, our night life, our parties, our meetings, our leaders, our labors, our children and their education.

Our Visual Image Will Be Greatly Concerned with Education

  • A. There are different contents of education, including the spiritual education of the family. This is not to replace spiritual education in the Christian church, but to state a need for a spiritual religion based on the needs of our people and a supreme being which reflects ourselves and our needs.
  • B. The humanizing aspects of education are respect, truth, and brotherhood: The role of man: the role of woman: the role of child and family to the total group. We must be concerned about establishing positive values and relationships in these aspects of education.
  • C. Our visual image will express the academic education of learning one’s history, circumstances and accomplishments.
  • D. The industrial education of producing and being productive for self and kind in the building of every component needed to run a nation.

Our Visual Image Can State Our Social Needs and Social Services

  • A. Health facilities and services. Visually, what is the state of health facilities and services. We will express the need to develop our own health facilities in order to safeguard the health of our people.
  • B. We will express the protection of safeguarding the welfare of our old, young and those in need. We must be responsible for their welfare.
  • C. We will visually analyze our protective forces in the police or the use of security guards. Do they actually protect and serve our communities? If not, how can this be altered? The protection of the community and all of its components should be our responsibility and should not be allocated to an opposing group.
  • D. We will visually express a need to establish and develop our community institutions such as cultural, social, educational and religious or spiritual centers and provoke positive actions by visually stating how these organizations should develop the philosophy and ideology of blackness and its welfare and continuous existence.

The Economic Needs

  • A. We will visually state types of jobs available to our people and the types of skills and professions needed to run a nation are not just those that are teachers, lawyers, and doctors; but those who are also needed are people skilled in the technology of food, clothing, and housing industries. Those who make operations run such as janitors, secretaries, programmers, repairmen, etc.
  • B. We will be concerned about the types of businesses and industries which must be created to be self-sufficient people.
  • C. We will develop new solutions to different types of needs and services which employ community personnel, yet develop and perpetuate our people as a cohesive community.

Visual Statements Concerning the Present, Past and Future Political Needs and Developments

  • A. What type of governmental or guidance unit should be developed and put into practice and the types of rules and regulations which should govern us as a group, which would provoke the need for government and self-governmental plans over not today but the next twenty or thirty or one hundred years. We are kept from developing future programs because we are kept in an unbalanced state of either acting or reacting to our present circumstances. These methods and solutions to constant flux can be visually stated.
  • B. Political and group cohesiveness is needed to build a strong Black nation and to develop our total culture. Visually we can state the need for group action toward the positive needs in a cooperative direction.

Religious Needs

  • We will develop an image which stresses a strong religion which has us as the base of its origin with the Supreme Being and the mediator reflecting our physical being. We must illustrate stronger ties between our people and for our people. We must develop a more concrete moral code.
  • In fact, AFRICOBRA can move toward stating and restating repeatedly the needs for organization, purpose and goals of our people for a stronger cohesive body and the need for racial nationalism. AFRICOBRA will not only state our problems and solutions but also state our emotions, our joys, our love, our attitude, our character, our total emotional and intellectual responses and feelings. Art can be a liberating force—a positive approach concerning the plight and the direction of our people. Visual imagery should bring us together and uplift us as a people into a common—a common unit, moving toward a common destination and a common destiny. WE IN AFRICOBRA SHALL HELP BRING THIS ABOUT.

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