Art

Fifty Years of AfriCOBRA’s Radical, “Cool-Ade Colored” Art

AfriCOBRA, the Chicago-based art collective that helped develop the Black arts movement, celebrates its 50th anniversary in a new retrospective.

Jae Jarrell, “Bird of Paradise: Homage to Tie Dyed Suede” (1986-2018), appliqued and dyed cowhide splits, wood, paint, and brass, 84 x 24 inches (Image by the author)

Walking into AfriCOBRA: Now, on view at Kravets Wehby gallery in Chelsea, you become a parishioner. Immediately upon entering the space, you are greeted by a sculptural being, a peculiar deity hybridizing tropes of African divinity and Southern Baptist Christianity. The seven-foot-tall figure, crafted by AfriCOBRA member and fashion designer Jae Jarrell, ushers you inside the gallery like a church lady welcoming an arriving congregation. Made of cowhide splits, the long-necked being is topped with a whimsical version of a church hat, or a halo. She wears a hand-sewn, two-piece skirted suit with a colorful bird-of-paradise embellishment, its suede naturally dyed in greenish hues, influenced by West African fabric dying technique. Southern religious sensibilities and West African spiritualities harmonize in the sculpture, blending different aesthetics of these traditions into one.

Behind our doorkeeper are two additional sculptural figures hanging on the wall, a man and woman, both dressed to the nines, one holding the New Testament. You have entered the fantastical, non-denominational, imagined church of Chicago-based artist collective, AfriCOBRA.

AfriCOBRA, the African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists, explores the synthesis of global Black spirituality as one of its many fundamental tenets. A manifesto published by one of five founding members, Barbara Jones-Hogu, makes their intentions explicit, citing humanistic depictions, vivid color schemes, and educational pro-Black subject matters as vital to the collective’s praxis, among other things.

AfriCOBRA: Now at Kravets Wehby Gallery, installation view (August 2018) (image courtesy Kravets Wehby Gallery

The multimedia retrospective at Kravets Wehby celebrates AfriCOBRA’s 50th anniversary, featuring the work of 15 founding, current, and former members of the cooperative. The group was founded in Chicago in 1968, comprised 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,” their manifesto reports.

“We will develop an image which stresses a strong religion,” Jones-Hogu writes in the manifesto. “We must illustrate stronger ties between our people and for our people.”

AfriCOBRA’s artworks focus on the feelings elicited by Black revolutionary praxis and the visuals that accompany it in “bright, vivid, singing cool-ade colors of orange, strawberry, cherry, lemon, lime and grape. Pure vivid colors of the sun and nature,” as Jones-Hogu puts it.

Napoleon Jones-Henderson, “Do Lord Remember Me” (2003), Enamel on copper, fabric, beads, ivory, and bible, 38 x 22 x 2” (image courtesy Kravets Wehby Gallery)

The Black diaspora sings out for recognition on the gallery walls like gospel lyrics. The artworks are not trying to refine “Black art,” or make it more palatable; they celebrate its unique tropes. The work on view is bright and warm, with a handmade touch and an indisputable concentration on texture through sculpture, impasto painting, and layered mixed media. Tactility reigns throughout the gallery; with a thematic focus on unique or hybridized spiritualities, AfriCOBRA artists are trying to form entire worlds in these textures, in visual, dream-like topographies.

A few works stand out as unusual. Jeff Donaldson’s “Victory in Zimbabwe” seems out of place among all the textured, figurative works. The piece itself, a beautifully executed scene of Egyptian figures intricately constructed from colored bits of cardboard, is held behind a frame. Works covered in glass feel unfit—they hang guarded and uninviting amid the collection of tactile art objects, their textures protected from unfettered interaction.

Wadsworth Jarrell, “Together We Will Win” (1973), acrylic and foil on canvas, 60 x 84 inches (image courtesy Kravets Wehby Gallery)

Wadsworth Jarrell’s “Together We Will Win” (1973) depicts Black folks as heavenly, haloed beings, painted in AfriCOBRA’s signature “cool-ade colors.” Faces, guns, and families recalling the Black Power movement are knit together with words, in both English and Spanish, only recognizable upon closer inspection of the busy triptych. Phrases like, “All Black Brothers Get Together” and “Africa For Survival” surround seven painted figures who appear to inhabit a spiritual plane, a realm where only Black folks working toward a revolution are welcome.

Renee Stout, “The Black Wall” (2008), acrylic, mixed media, wood, glass, and metal on plywood panel, 34 x 42 ½ x 4 ½” (image courtesy Kravets Wehby Gallery)

Renee Stout’s “The Black Wall” conjures folk magic in the gallery. A shrine to hoodoo, an African American folk tradition with roots in West African divination, the work features blue and amber glass vials and vintage photographs affixed to a blackened plywood panel. It calls to mind the haunting assemblage works of artist Betye Saar and adds to a broader exchange among Black women artists exploring Afrodiasporic alchemies.

Across from Stout’s hanging altar is Nelson Stevens’s “Hoo-Doo Bone-Boogie” (1989), which seems to honor the divine feminine embedded in the West African-influenced magical practice. Painted in bright hues, the maximalist figuration pictures a young girl, gazing up at a pelvic bone that, upon first glance, resembles a uterus.

Throughout the gallery, the artwork of AfriCOBRA members speaks to larger threads running through Black art histories and theologies of the United States, the Caribbean, and Africa. Kevin Cole’s “Sittin Pretty” (2017), a painted, wooden sculpture, feels like a directional post. Its stakes point every which way, toward every corner where Black folks reside on the globe, perfectly summarizing the collective’s shared intention of international unity and revolution.

Kevin Cole, “Sittin Pretty” (2017), mixed on wood, 43 x 24 x 9 inches (image by the author)

AfriCOBRA: Now continues at Kravets Wehby Gallery (521 W 21st St, Chelsea, Manhattan) through August 17. 

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