Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 2, 2022
Rebecca Zorach Art for People's Sake: Artists and Community in Black Chicago, 1965–1975 Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2019. 416 pp.; 124 color ills.; 1 b/w ills. Paper $29.95 (9781478001409)

In the final passages of Art for People’s Sake, Rebecca Zorach offers a remarkable reading of a photograph of a young man using shaving cream to write “Black Power” at the intersection of Homan and Madison on Chicago’s West Side. The photograph, taken by journalist Kenneth Lovette, was published in the Chicago Sun-Times to document the rioting that followed Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination on April 4, 1968. For Zorach, however, it also documents an event in the history of African American art. “With brilliant creativity,” Zorach writes, the young man “captions the entire experience of the riots, making an assertion about what they put on view: Black Power” (298). With shaving cream as his medium, and the street as his canvas, the writer is not a bystander but an artist who turns Lovette’s camera into an instrument for Black politics.

The photograph crystalizes the argument of the book. Facing economic decline and government neglect in Black neighborhoods, and largely excluded from careers in white-run art institutions and markets, African American artists of the Black Power era dedicated themselves to representing and serving Black people. Yet the relationship between artist and community, as Zorach argues, was always “in formation”; while Black artists in Chicago “sought solidarity across lines of class and education and profession” with their fellow Black Chicagoans, “they were not always successful in their efforts to integrate their artistic work with the concerns of the community” (9). The scene at Homan and Madison is one successful moment when art and community fused in a defiant gesture. As Zorach shows, the “media consciousness” exhibited by the young artist emerged from the dynamic cultural life of Chicago’s South and West Sides during the late 1960s when a host of artists, curators, and arts administrators turned those neighborhoods into hubs of aesthetic experimentation and the city into a center for the Black Arts Movement (298). Focusing on trained and self-taught visual artists, street gangs and museum administrators, storefront gallery curators and public muralists, Zorach not only establishes the historical significance of Black Chicago’s art worlds but foregrounds community art as a critical site for examining relationships among art, society, and politics. The result is a vivid social history of artists and art making as well as a provocative intervention in the canon of American art and the history of Black Chicago.

Six chapters unfold thematically and chronologically. The first charts the social geography of Black Chicago’s art world in the mid-1960s, a geography that revolved around the Wall of Respect, a mural of Black heroes painted by the Visual Arts Workshop of the newly founded Organization of Black American Culture (OBAC) in 1967. For Zorach the Wall, as both an aesthetic statement and a claim on public space, is an “ongoing event” that resonates throughout the book. The second chapter examines the ideological terrain of Black community art. Focusing on OBAC, the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), street gangs, and state agencies, Zorach shows how artists worked out the ideological tensions among cultural nationalism, Black Power politics, and Great Society social welfare programs in artworks and curatorial projects. The third chapter is the heart of the book. Here Zorach focuses on the Art & Soul gallery, an “Experimental Friendship” between the Conservative Vice Lord street gang and the Museum of Contemporary Art, a friendship mediated not only by race but also by competing institutional interests among the gang, the museum, and funding agencies. In the fourth chapter, Zorach examines the meaning of the “Black Family” as trope, social form, and gendered division of labor through the art of AfriCOBRA (the African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists), a collective of painters, printers, and textile artists that emerged out of OBAC. The fifth chapter returns to the street and the Chicago Mural Movement, which turned away from the “positive images” of the Black Arts Movement in order to represent the “negative reality” of urban crisis while brightening neighborhoods with vivid compositions of urban life. In the final chapter, “Starring the Black Community,” Zorach examines how community artists at once took advantage of film and television while also grappling with the advent of Blaxploitation cinema and the mass marketing of Black urban style by the American advertising industry.

Zorach’s narrative is driven by her detailed biographical portraits of artists. Drawing from a rich field of oral histories as well as personal and institutional archives, Zorach locates artists within Black Chicago’s dynamic social structure, from the highly skilled and credentialed artists in AfriCOBRA—particularly painter Jeff Donaldson and printmaker Barbara Jones-Hogu—to working-class artists such as painter Ronald “Reggie” Madison, who supported his practice by working nightshifts at U.S. Steel’s Southworks plant (168). While never losing sight of the white racism that either excluded Black artists from museums or pigeonholed them as avatars of racial authenticity, Zorach demonstrates the importance of class hierarchies, gender politics, and ideological debate among Black artists in shaping how they located their practices within a “Black community.”

What emerges is a technicolor picture of Chicago during the Black Power era—a picture that contrasts sharply with the landscape of ruin and social alienation painted by generations of social scientists. While attentive to the effects of deindustrialization, mass unemployment, and violent crime, Zorach shows the South and West Sides alive with creative energy and Black Chicagoans deeply engaged with the city’s art institutions and international art movements. The South Side especially had a vibrant scene of galleries, concerts, murals, and fashion, a vibrancy fully reflected in AfriCOBRA’s signature “coolade colors.”

The book also marks a critical shift in the cultural history of Black Chicago. Following Adam Green and Davarian Baldwin, cultural historians have largely focused on the mass consumer economy as a locus for Black community life in Chicago, which by the 1960s was home to several powerful Black-owned corporations, the Johnson Publishing Company chief among them. Although she does not frame it this way, Zorach’s narrative marks a new phase when both the economic base of Black Chicago and civic faith in American liberalism began to wane. By examining how art practices became “entangled” with activists, neighborhood residents, nonprofit organizations, and state agencies, Zorach in many ways traces the emergence of the institutional field that continues to structure art making in Black Chicago today.

Zorach’s shift is at times too sharp. While frequently drawing from the pages of Black World and Ebony, Zorach excludes both Black businesses and major American corporations as actors in her history of Black community art. To be sure, Zorach acknowledges that Black World was “the intellectual core of the Black Arts Movement nationwide” (23) and that McDonald’s sponsored the Black Expressions ’69 exhibition at the South Side Community Art Center (54). Yet it is significant that Zorach does not mention that fabric artist Robert Paige—an associate of AfriCOBRA and an interlocuter frequently cited in the book—designed African-inspired home decor for Sears; and that she praises the 1969 Black Cultural Directory as a “work of art in itself” (53) without mentioning that it was co-produced and designed by Vince Cullers Advertisers, among the first Black-owned advertising firms in the nation, whose campaigns for Newport cigarettes addressed the same Black communities as the Black Arts Movement and often with the same rhetoric of Black pride.

The oversight matters because it narrows the conceptual scope and political stakes for Zorach’s argument. Although Zorach’s wariness of “importing theoretical frameworks” and her desire to let the “rich artworks and sophisticated thinkers of the time speak for themselves” are salutary moves (29), the analysis often remains confined to the dichotomy of racial solidarity versus mainstream assimilation that shaped contemporary Black Power thinking. Yet the connections between the Black Arts Movement and the mass consumer economy raise questions pertinent to understanding the geographic scope and material basis for community art. How did Black artists reconcile their commitments to local neighborhoods with more cosmopolitan or diasporic conceptions of Black art? Or—to take up the challenge posed by historians of Black capitalism such as Brenna Wynn Greer, N. D. B. Connolly, and Marcia Chatelain—how did Black artists define (and defend) the value of their work, particularly when political economies of Black neighborhoods began to see local commerce and industry disappear while becoming paradoxically more integrated into the system of global corporate capitalism?

By the same token, Zorach poses welcome challenges to historians of American art and of Black urban life. Along with scholars including James Smethurst, Romi Crawford, Kymberly Pinder, and Tobias Wofford, Zorach places Black art in Chicago—from AfriCOBRA to the Chicago Mural Movement—at the center of conversations about social-practice art, performance art, and political art. So too does she compel urban historians to consider community art seriously as an eventful social process that energized Black life during a moment of political turmoil and economic crisis. Even when eschewing consumer markets and elite museums for street corners or storefront galleries, Black artists confronted white-dominated institutions, transformed the built environment and urban infrastructures, and gave palpable form to the politics of race and nation, gender and class. Artists and activists, no less than scholars and curators, will be inspired by a book so alive to the possibilities and powers of Black art.

Chris Dingwall
Oakland University