Founded in 1968, the five founding artists sought to gain an understanding of modern, transnational black aesthetics, so they could develop an artistic style that could be immediately identified as “Black Art.” The group had its genesis in the dissolution of a prior collective called the Organization of Black American Culture (OBAC), which was itself formed as a tool for using art to address social and cultural challenges affecting the African American community. OBAC gained national prominence in 1967 when it organized a group of nine artists and nine photographers to collaborate on the creation of The Wall of Respect, a monumental mural painted on the side of a business in the Bronzeville neighborhood of Chicago. According to its creators, the mural “depicted ‘Black Heroes’ as positive role models for identity, community formation, and revolutionary action.”
Following the completion of the Wall of Respect, some of the artists involved with the project began having casual get-togethers to discuss aesthetics and contemporary black culture. Those early meetings included Jeff Donaldson, Wadsworth Jarrell, Jae Jarrell, Barbara Jones-Hogu and Gerald Williams. Also sometimes present was Robert Paige, in whose home some of the gatherings took place. Over time, five other artists—Nelson Stevens, Napoleon Jones-Henderson, Carolyn Lawrence, Frank Smith, and James Phillips—joined the group.
The aesthetic position that grew out of these meetings is defined by the use of text, positive figurative images of black people, abstract patterns evoking African artistic traditions, and bright, luminescent “Kool-Aid colors.”
To help disseminate their ideas, the group published a manifesto in 1969, titled “Ten in Search of a Nation,” which outlined three goals they hoped their work would achieve:
1. definition—images that deal with the past 2. identification—images that relate to the present 3. direction—images that look into the future
Each AFRICOBRA artist then translated these ideas into physical form, and the group exhibited the work in a series of exhibitions that traveled the United States. The work spanned multiple mediums, including drawing, painting, sculpture, and fashion; the exhibitions attracted nationwide attention. By the time AFRICOBRA I reached the Studio Museum in Harlem in the early 1970s, the group’s aesthetic language had caught on like wildfire. During these early exhibitions, AFRICOBRA members noted that many viewers were unable to afford the art. In response, they made posters of their most popular paintings, reiterating their belief that art has to relate to everyday people if it is going to be effective as an impetus for social transformation.
Although AFRICOBRA ceased exhibiting together in the 1970s, most members continued in their art careers. Some have since passed away, but many are still active in their studios today. It is at this vital moment in history that we present AFRICOBRA 50 with the hope that it will spark continued interest in this extraordinary group of artists, and expand the larger, international conversation about the Black Arts Movement. The work is critical to our understanding of the contemporary aesthetic of the African diaspora and the examination of how transnational black aesthetics relate to culture, politics, and identity.