Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 30, 2021
Wadsworth A. Jarrell AFRICOBRA: Experimental Art toward a School of Thought Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2020. 320 pp.; 89 color ills. Paper $29.95 (9781478000563)

AFRICOBRA: Experimental Art toward a School of Thought is a necessary source for the study of the Black Arts Movement. Wadsworth A. Jarrell, a founding member of AFRICOBRA, successfully weaves together personal recollections, accounts from fellow artists, and a myriad of secondary sources to represent a multifaceted view of Black Experimentalism across collective artistic practice in Chicago. Although the author provides no concrete definition for Black Experimentalism, he demonstrates this practice as a commitment to community, improvisation, and transforming Black cultural forms and artistic boundaries. Jarrell constructs a rich narrative across this memoir that augments and in some cases counters the standing primary written accounts from Jeff Donaldson and Barbara Jones-Hogu. African American studies scholar Imani Perry defines the literary tradition of Black memoirs as accounts of self-definition, “becoming and remembering” that often employ strategies of recollection or argument-driven perspectives (Think in Public, ed. Sharon Marcus and Caitlin Zaloom, Columbia University Press, 2019). With the intention of providing a corrective primary-source account, Jarrell details his memory of the events and organizations that led to the founding of the Coalition of Black Revolutionary Artists (COBRA) and its evolution into African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists (AFRICOBRA) in 1968. Jarrell asserts,

In writing this book, I have a distinct advantage over art historians, whose information is secondary, relying on what has been written by other art historians—which may or may not be accurate—and with them, imposing their personal views on what the artists’ intentions were by interpreting the meaning of shapes and form in the artists’ works. (1)

The author critiques 1970s and 1980s primary and secondary source material on Black Arts Movement art practices, challenging contemporary scholars to be more judicious in navigating standing interpretations, which idealize art collective dynamics.

Jarrell calls his memoir “the first comprehensive report to describe the initial structure, conversations, art, exhibitions and philosophical constructs of AFRICOBRA . . . written by a founding member and archivist for the collective, a painter and photographer, who contributed significant groundbreaking iconography defining an African American aesthetic as well as recording AFRICOBRA’s history in photographs” (1). His analysis facilitates deeper examinations of migration experiences of African American artists as well as the function, successes, and tensions of Black art collectives like Organization of Black American Culture (OBAC) and AFRICOBRA. Additionally, this publication allows the reader to delve into Jarrell’s work as an experimental artist, almost always working across photography, painting, and Black cultural forms.

Jarrell astutely contextualizes the sociopolitical and economic facets of Chicago that contributed to the growth of collective art action during the late 1960s and 1970s. The first chapter outlines his young adult years in the decades after Chicago’s Black Renaissance of the 1940s and 1950s. Although Jarrell is intentional about not discussing his childhood in Georgia at length, his account allows scholars to understand him in the context of the Great Migration experience of transporting and transforming cultural idioms. This chapter also describes Jarrell’s experience at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago from 1954 to 1958, providing insight into his introduction to Chicago’s museums and African American art community. The author uses narrative alongside images to establish the visual rhythm of the publication, revealing his early abstracted figurative paintings of social environments and the centrality of photography in his familial life.

The following chapter, entitled “Genesis,” recounts Jarrell’s perspective on a casual exchange of ideas with Donaldson at a suburban Chicago outdoor art fair in August of 1963, which would lead to their leadership in mobilizing Black artists. Recalling interactions with white art fair attendees, Jarrell establishes a broader socioeconomic context for the critical dialogue and exchange of radical Black aesthetic possibilities. Chapter 3 is dedicated to the Wall of Respect, a revolutionary mural initiated in 1967 by OBAC. Jarrell discusses his participation in the project, positioning the experience as an early foray into Black collective art action. Critiquing communication within OBAC, Jarrell disagrees with standing accounts that the group worked collaboratively with the local community to select Black heroes for the Wall of Respect. Jarrell even suggests OBAC was “mistaken” in excluding certain Black leaders from the public mural because of their “private lives” (61). Jarrell frames working with OBAC as a formative experience of successes and failures that informed the synergy for COBRA and AFRICOBRA.

Across the next three chapters, entitled “The Inception,” “A Visual Art Proposal,” and “The First COBRA Exhibition,” Jarrell details the development of the collective, recalling early meetings, designs, and ideological debates, as well as intense studio critiques. Next, “Recruitment” reveals how the collective added new members by invitation, including Carolyn Lawrence, Napoleon Jones-Henderson, and Nelson Stevens. Jarrell characterizes AFRICOBRA as a familial community that shifted in membership composition and later in geographic base with a distinct communal understanding of Black identity aestheticized for Black empowerment. The final chapters examine the first three self-titled exhibitions of AFRICOBRA, from 1970 to 1973, and the tension that emerged in the collective. Consistent with Jarrell’s recollections, he sketches a dynamic account across the curatorial actors, local context of the exhibition sites, and reception.

Jarrell demonstrates the evolution of AFRICOBRA philosophy in his discussion of Stevens’s introduction of the concept of “shine,” publicly defined by Donaldson as the formal and conceptual luminosity of Black culture. Countering Donaldson’s highly publicized and oft-cited poetic notion of shine, Jarrell notes, “My opinion of the meaning of shine versus Jeff’s interpretation, unfortunately, was minimized by my silence and the silence of other members when the principle was introduced” (134). Although AFRICOBRA was a generative space formulating new aesthetic strategies and cultural vocabularies, Jarrell suggests the variation in interpretations of core AFRICOBRA concepts is subordinated in art historical accounts that privilege written sources. For example, his incorporation of metal foil in paintings like Heritage (1973) has been analyzed in Donaldson’s formalist conception of shine as a design element emerging from the corporeal and experiential aspects of Black life. But in Jarrell’s explanation, shine is the energy of “moving rapidly to accomplish [an important] feat” (134). Jarrell concludes his historical account of AFRICOBRA by differentiating the original collective from the contemporary group, AFRICOBRA Now. A postscript entry by curator Edmund Barry Gaither provides curatorial reflections on the intervention of AFRICOBRA aesthetics and the early 1970s self-titled exhibitions.

This book is an important case study in analyzing the productive facets of collective art practice alongside the individualistic impulses that undermine such efforts. The latter chapters bring to life the synergy across art mediums that AFRICOBRA accomplished in producing a range of prints as well as textiles and ceramics. Although her words appear less frequently in the text, Jae Jarrell’s six wearable art objects reproduced in the book exemplify the experimentalism that propelled the collective. In his role as archivist, the author includes reproductions of AFRICOBRA artwork that extends the breadth and accessibility of the collective’s aesthetic intervention and visual arsenal of revolutionary forms. He charts the cultural work of AFRICOBRA’s 1970s art in Johnson Publishing outlets as well as local television broadcasts. Jarrell also discloses specific meetings and critiques marred by volatile interactions that shifted group power dynamics. According to the author, as early as the 1970s, Donaldson demonstrated “he did not accept criticism well, because he became animated and went into a rage” (157). Jarrell describes how the collective navigated the dominant personality of Donaldson and the geographic relocation from Chicago to Washington, DC, where AFRICOBRA would evolve to transform the academy and art education at Howard University. Jarrell progresses from experimentation to cultural definition to organizational reconfiguration in this text, emphasizing the organic aspects of artists’ collectives.

While Jarrell focuses on the evolution of AFRICOBRA, his narrative demonstrates how photography was integral to his aesthetic view. Jarrell builds on a personal history with photography, describing the process of designing his iconic painting Three Queens (1971) as a composite image from two of his photographs, captured in Boston and Chicago. Where the author is intentional in his silences about the first twenty years of his life in the Jim Crow South, he incorporates photographs taken by his brother Judson Jarrell and unidentified photographers to reference the familial networks that facilitated his relocation and acclimation to the North. In his discussion of the Wall of Respect, Jarrell includes his photograph of gang graffiti alongside images of the same motif by AFRICOBRA member Gerald Williams and Black Arts Movement photographer Roy Lewis. Jarrell constructs a visual history of collective art mobilization in which photography is foundational to archiving the social context and aesthetic rupture of AFRICOBRA aesthetics.

Although Jarrell notes that his accounts combine unpublished interviews, the author’s lack of attribution for conversational passages reproduced in the text pose particular source obstacles for researchers. But across poetics, analytical prose, art, and archive, Jarrell argues for revisionist readings that challenge standing interpretations of AFRICOBRA as well as the contemporary collective, AFRICOBRA Now.

Melanee C. Harvey
Assistant Professor, Department of Art, Howard University