Basharat Bashir

Lesser-known Art Movements

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African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists, or the AfriCOBRAmovement was borne from the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements. afriCobra is a collective of African-American artists founded by Jeff Donaldson, Wadsworth Jarrell, Jae Jarrell, Barbara Jones-Hogu, Nelson Stevens, and Gerald Williams in Chicago in 1968.

The Organization of Black American Culture (OBAC), founded in 1967, was a first affiliation for the founding members of AfriCOBRA. This organisation, which was established in Chicago to support African Americans in the city’s educational and artistic endeavours, was in charge of creating the well-known Wall of Respect. Portraits of people who were revered as heroes and heroines in African American history were displayed on the wall. Though in 1971, a huge fire resulted in the destruction of the Wall of Respect but, it still provided a model for later artistic depictions of the African American experience.

Two OBAC artists, Jeff Donaldson and Wadsworth Jarrell, who had contributed to the Wall of Respect, started looking into the possibility of starting a Black art movement based on a shared aesthetic tenet. Following a series of meetings  Jeff Donaldson, Wadsworth Jarrell, Jae Jarrell, Barabara Jones-Hogu, and Gerald Williams formed the collective known as COBRA, the Commune of Bad Relevant Artists. The group did not change to AfriCOBRA until a few years later.

AfriCOBRA was founded on the South Side of Chicago with an aim to define and represent a “black aesthetic.The group’s sole goal was to emphasise self-determination and universal Black liberation. Cobra used current events and the political climate as subjects for their art in order to raise awareness.” Previously associated with  the Black Arts Movement that began in mid-1960s in America, the members of the group were enthusiastic to celebrate and embody culturally specific expressions of the contemporary Black community in the realms of literature, theatre, dance, and the visual arts.

Following the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention, the group created a series of paintings depicting the Black Family. The paintings served as a call to action against racial violence in America, as seen on national television on August 28, 1968, when protesters at the convention were beaten and brutalised by police. Every Cobra member contributed an image to the theme.

The group’s name was changed to AfriCOBRA in 1969. (the African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists). The group embraced rising Afrocentric ideology by focusing more on the Diaspora of people of African descent. Following the name change, new artists such as Napoleon Henderson, Nelson Stevens, and Carolyn Lawrence were added.

‘Ten in Search of a Nation, an exhibition at the Studio Museum of Harlem in 1970, featured the group. This exhibition helped to introduce AfriCOBRA to a wider audience outside of Chicago. The work was not for sale because its sole purpose was educational. The group insisted that they did not want to promote individual gain from the images. In the fall of 1971, the group returned to the Studio Museum in Harlem for the AfriCOBRA II exhibition. Throughout the 1970s, the group participated in exhibitions at historically African American colleges.

Many AfriCOBRA artists returned to Africa in the 1970s to study African art, believing that it was essential to their work as AfriCOBRA artists. They returned to Africa at a time when many African nations were gaining independence from colonial rule. Furthermore, many of these countries were gaining traction at American universities, with many of them establishing African Studies programmes. These travellers became known as “returnee” artists, and many went on to earn degrees in African art. Many of them are still important African and African American art scholars today.

AfriCOBRA was invited to the Second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture in Lagos, Nigeria, in 1977. Over 15,000 artists from all over the world attended the festival. All people of African descent were invited to the event, which took place from January 15 to February 12, 1977. They were divided into geographical zones. Jeff Donaldson was appointed to lead the North American artists delegation, and Jae Jarrell was appointed to chair the FESTAC Committee of Creative Modern Black and African Dress.

AfriCOBRA wished to communicate the Black aesthetic as a new sense of purpose; the Black aesthetic was more than just art; it was a powerful image. The image represented Black pride, Black self-determination, and Diaspora support for all Black people. The group’s main goal was to raise awareness of political struggles and celebrate African identity through the representation of Black Visual Culture. The artists of AfriCOBRA had no reason to appeal to critics who had left them out of the timeline of art and concurrent movements. These artists’ works were intended to empower the black community. They worked hard to create images that expressed the depth of black culture and Pan-Africanism, embracing a family tree with branches that extended beyond the United States, reaching the Caribbean and African ancestral homes. The artists used printmaking (many of the members were painter-printmakers) to reach out to all black people by producing multiples that people could live with and that reinforced their values. The charged imagery in the posters reinforced AfriCOBRA’s ideal of investing in black consumption of blackness, as opposed to what the movement advocated.AfriCOBRA’s work included free jazz elements, bright “kool-aid” colours, and images representing spiritual identity. Their images were to serve a purpose to which Black people could directly relate, emphasising education and awareness of Black people’s plight.

Teresa A. Carbone (the Curator of American Art at the Brooklyn Museum) stated in an interview commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, “It’s difficult to draw a one-to-one correspondence between a work and an immediate social effect, but graphics from the Chicago artist collective AfriCOBRA, [African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists], really did help reshape the mindset of black communities.”

AfriCOBRA strives to make African-American art a collaborative effort. The visual aesthetic of these works is heavily influenced by social, political, and economic conditions affecting Black Americans.

One of the most notable works was the commemoration of black revolutionaries on the Wall of Respect, which was painted by members of the Organization of Black American Culture (OBAC). Jeff Donaldson, Wadsworth Jarrell, Gerald Williams, and Barbara Jones-Hogu were original members who later formed AfriCOBRA, as were Sylvia Abernathy, Myrna Weaver, and others. This wall also became a “visual symbol of Black nationalism and liberation,” according to Barbara Jones-Hogu.

AfriCOBRA was more than just a group of artists; it was a passionate call for liberty based on philosophical and aesthetic principles. AfriCOBRA represented these principles in the African-American community’s struggle for liberation and equality through the medium of art.

“[Our art] must communicate to its viewer a statement of truth, of action, of education, of conditions and a state of being to our people,” Barbara Jones-Hogusaid of the AfriCOBRA movement’s artistic expression. We wanted to speak to them and for them by expressing our total existence as a people through our shared thoughts, feelings, trials, and tribulations.

Later, in the Afri-COBRA III Exhibition catalogue, 1973, Jones-Hogu wrote “The History, Philosophy, and Aesthetics of Afri-COBRA,” which included several lists of directives, philosophical concepts, and aesthetic principles, all of which are Jones-interpretation Hogu’s of the statues that the group followed. The visual statements are described as humanistic in order to emphasise “strength, directness, profundity, and pride,” as well as to provide a direct statement about issues of the time. Images, “identification,” “programmatic,” “modes of expression,” and “expressive awesomeness” are the philosophical concepts described with bolded words. Aesthetic principles are described similarly with “free symmetry,” “mimesis at mid-point,” “visibility,” “luminosity,” and “colour,” specifically “Cool-ade colour,” which is strongly associated with AfriCOBRA’s art and era.

Artist and Artwork

Nour Zantah

Nour Zantah was born in 1989 in Homs, Syria. She received her Bachelor’s Degree in Fine Arts from the University of Damascus in 2011 and her Master’s Degree in International Contemporary Art & Design Practice from Limkokwing University of Creative Technology in Malaysia in 2014. Nour received her Ph.D. in Fine Arts, with a focus on painting, from The University of Northampton in the United Kingdom in 2020. She has exhibited her work all over the world, including Syria, Algeria, Jordan, and the United Kingdom. Following the start of the Syrian revolution, Nour instinctively began to focus her work on the subject of violence and war, with a special interest in the aesthetic and expressive qualities that can be achieved while depicting violence, as well as the complex interactions and inspirations visible in how artists respond to modern media.

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