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Written by Anne Tschida, BT Arts Editor   
January 2019

It’s the 50th anniversary of the AfriCOBRA Collective

TArtFeature_1here is something at once familiar about the vibrant, hyper-colored images displayed at MOCA North Miami, reminiscent maybe of pop art posters from the 1970s. But that is too easy a reading of these amazing pieces of art, which on closer inspection are not so familiar at all.

Which is why “AfriCOBRA: Messages to the People” is a standout among the myriad art offerings available at museums and galleries. It also marks MOCA’s full reintegration into not only the museum world, but to the unique community it serves. And the exhibit itself is a one of a kind, adding an important historical and artistic page to the American experience.

Fifty years ago, in the turbulent Chicago of 1968, five black artists formed AfriCOBRA, short for the African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists, which was dovetailing with the Black Power movement. These artists, who’d been formally trained, wanted to present a positive image of the black community, using colors and expressive techniques grounded in that community, during an era where the broader world was often more exposed to negative imagery of riots and street struggle.

ArtFeature_2Joined by five more artists, the collective presented “Ten in Search of a Nation,” which was both a manifesto and then an exhibit organized by the Studio Museum of Harlem, and they began making a profound impact on contemporary art.

But it wasn’t art for art’s sake.

What immediately jumps out is the message, literally, because they use text in many of the works. There are numerous portraits of women, of families, portraits that emphasize everyday life. There are also portraits of famous rebels and movers-and-shakers, such as Angela Davis, Frederick Douglass, and Malcolm X; references to influential musicians and jazz; and nods to African roots. Some of the images are narrative and figurative, some more abstract and filled with flowing movement.

Also on view are sculptures, tapestries, and items of artists-made clothing -- don’t miss, for instance, the jacket with the names of Mingus, Monk, and Hendrix printed on it, by Jae Jarrell. Jarrell is a founding member of AfriCOBRA, with degrees from Howard University and the Art Institute of Chicago. She and another founder, Barbara Jones-Hogu, also set this collective apart from many other movements of the 1960s, which were so dominated by men.

ArtFeature_3

The messages of female empowerment, as well as black empowerment, are essential to this art, but not like a hammer to the head. Often employing what were termed “cool-ade” colors, the visual aesthetic is expressive and at times stylized, with African undercurrents, but also made to communicate and give voice to the unheard.

“This was pretty bold at the time,” says Chana Budgazad Sheldon, executive director of MOCA since last January, about the artwork. But it was always about getting a message out to the people. “It was important that the voices were clear…[in promoting] a positive imagery of the African-American community.”

Hence, she says, came the use of such techniques as screen prints, where multiples could be made of particular piece. So, for instance, one of the initial ten members, Sherman Beck, has a background in advertising and commercial art, as well as in fine arts; he also taught in the Chicago public schools for decades, mixing his art with hands-on public practice.

Co-founder Wadsworth Jarrell, Jae’s husband, was both a printmaker and a painter. He, along with other political activists, created the Wall of Respect in Chicago’s South Side in 1967, triggering public mural art (Wadsworth added the “Rhythm and Blues” section). In this exhibit, he contributes several eye-catching paintings that reflect some dominant themes of the AfriCOBRA collective: a family portrait of a mom, dad, and two kids; and a couple of electric tributes to jazz greats, including John Coltrane.

ArtFeature_4A show of this scale -- of formative art that has often been shoveled under the rug -- is groundbreaking for MOCA, but also for the country. Even the Art Institute of Chicago, the school that so many of these artists attended, has never really had a comprehensive show (to be fair, the heavyweight Chicago gallery Kavi Gupta, from which a number of these works are on loan, also just had a 50th anniversary exhibit of AfriCOBRA).

This exhibit is important historically, says Sheldon, and it is just as relevant today, with a new wave of black activism, such as Black Lives Matter.

Sheldon says she didn’t want this art to exist in a vacuum locally. Before entering the main galleries, a section has been created with images courtesy of HistoryMiami and the Black Archives -- pictures of 1960s African-American Miami, of the McDuffie race riots of the 80s, and reminders that black activism was a part of Miami. Then there are sticky notes where visitors can tell their own stories or ask questions, and paste them to a wall.

A number of the original members attended the opening, telling their stories, explaining AfriCOBRA’s founding during the Black Power period, and the background of the “Ten in Search of a Nation” manifesto, among other topics.

This resonates especially at MOCA, which after all sits in the middle of a diverse community, heavily populated by African Americans and people of the African diaspora.

“We are a town square for the neighborhood,” says Sheldon, and it’s critical that the neighborhood knows its art history and can be part of it.

ArtFeature_5While the political messaging is undeniable and should not be parceled out of the works here, the art itself is also powerful, the imagery beautiful to behold. Along with the recognizable portraits of influential black faces from history and more quotidian depictions of families, there are also geometric-patterned pieces, stylized texts, woven works, and totem-like sculptures and figures, almost all in the tell-tale “cool-ade” vibrant coloring.

While Chicago became the home-base for AfriCOBRA, members have added their own imprints. For example, Gerald Williams served in the Air Force and later traveled the world. Napoleon Jones-Henderson was a student at the Sorbonne. But, really, picking out a few takes away from the whole -- the black power messaging, and the new aesthetic they created. It is not hard to see their impact on contemporary art stars like Kehinde Wiley, who recently unveiled his official portrait of President Obama and whose work can be seen at the Rubell Family Collection. Several new works from the AfriCOBRA living members are also included in the show.

The MOCA exhibit is not just history, it is history in the making, where Miami can and should be included.

 

AfriCOBRA: Messages to the People” runs through April 7, MOCA, 770 NE 125th St., North Miami, 305-893-6211.

 

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