– Autumn/Winter 2011

‘Dig the Diversity in Unity’: AfriCOBRA’s Black Family

Rebecca Zorach

Barbara Jones-Hogu, Unite, 1970, screenprint, 80.6 × 57.2cm, Collection of the South Side Community Art Center, Chicago. Courtesy the artist

Barbara Jones-Hogu, Unite, 1970, screenprint, 80.6 × 57.2cm, Collection of the South Side Community Art Center, Chicago. Courtesy the artist

Among the legacies of the political art of the late 1960s and early 70s in the United States was an expanded role for something that came to be called ‘community art’. Community art, in the sense of youth art workshops and neighbourhood art organisations, was not a new phenomenon. But its visibility increased with the production of large-scale public murals in US inner cities. These often unauthorised interventions into the visual landscape were inspired by the Mexican muralist movement and more immediately by Chicago’s Wall of Respect, a collective portrait of black heroes created in 1967 at 43rd Street and Langley Avenue on the city’s South Side. The Wall of Respect was designed and painted collaboratively by the Visual Arts Workshop of OBAC (Organisation of Black American Culture), a group of South Side African-American practitioners of music, visual arts, literature and drama. The mural represented black heroes and heroines in a variety of fields; it was itself an attempt at representing not a uniform and undifferentiated ‘community’, but an articulated collectivity. It reflected an ambition on the part of Chicago’s African-American artists that art might both refashion black identity and create models for coalition-building. The Wall of Respect spawned other murals throughout the United States, as well as a further experiment in collective artistic work, the group known as AfriCOBRA — the African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists. AfriCOBRA flourished in Chicago in the late 1960s and early 70s, amicably separating when members of the group moved to Washington, DC after 1970. New artists joined when part of the group migrated to the East Coast after 1970. Members continue working in Chicago, Baltimore, Cleveland and elsewhere, drawing

  1. Eva S. Cockcroft and James D. Cockcroft, ‘Cityarts Workshop — People’s Art in New York City’, Left Curve, no.4, Summer 1975, p.14. 

  2. Miwon Kwon, One Place after Another, Cambridge, MA and London: The MIT Press, 2002, p.150.    

  3. After a fire in early 1971, the building on which the Wall of Respect was painted was


  4. Jeff Donaldson, ‘Africobra 1 (African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists): “10 in Search of a Nation”’,

    Black World, October 1970, p.80. 

  5. Sheryl Fitzgerald, ‘Chicago’s Black Artists: A New Breed’, Chicago Daily Defender, 17 August 1968, p.1.    

  6. Barbara Jones-Hogu, ‘The History, Philosophy, and Aesthetics of AfriCOBRA’, originally published

    in Afri-Cobra HI (exh. cat.), Amherst: University of Massachusetts at Amherst, 1973; revised in 2008, http://www.areachicago.org/p/issues/6808/history-philosophy-and-aesthetics-africobra/
    (last accessed on 2 July 2011). 

  7. J. Donaldson, ‘Africobra 1’, op. cit., p.86.    

  8. S. Fitzgerald, ‘Chicago’s Black Artists’, op. cit.    

  9. Quoted in Margo Natalie Crawford, ‘Must Revolution Be a Family Affair? Revisiting The Black Woman’,

    in Dayo F. Gore et al. (ed.), Want to Start a Revolution?: Radical Women in the Black Freedom Struggle, New York: New York University Press, 2009, p.188. 

  10. For more on Wadsworth Jarrell, see Robert L. Douglas, Wadsworth Jarrell: The Artist as Revolutionary,

    Rohnert Park, CA: Pomegranate Art Books, 1996. 

  11. Interview with the author, 1 July 2011.    

  12. Jeff Donaldson interview, HistoryMakers Digital Archive, Story 31 (April 2001), available at http://www.idvl.org/thehistorymakers/iCoreClient.html#/&s=1&args=N1%3BP-1%3Bids [Jeff%20Donaldson,%20Story%2031:10208] (last accessed on 2 July 2011). 

  13. From ‘Africobra: Art for the People’, http://www.tvland.com/shows/africobra (last accessed on 8 March 2011). 

  14. Gwen Patton, ‘Black People and the Victorian Ethos’, in Toni Cade (ed.), The Black Woman: An Anthology, New York: Mentor Book, 1970, p.146. 
  15. T. Cade, ‘On the Issue of Roles’, in T. Cade (ed.), The Black Woman, op. cit., p.103.    

  16. Ibid., 110.    

  17. See M. Crawford, ‘Must Revolution?’, op. cit.    

  18. Uniquely among Jones-Hogu’s prints, Unite exists in impressions signed only by her and in impressions marked with a small AfriCOBRA stamp and their icon of a Gelede mask with sunglasses. When Jones-Hogu first made the print, she was finishing her printmaking thesis at the Illinois Institute of Technology. Her work had already been informed by AfriCOBRA’s aesthetic philosophy, but the work belonged, initially, to her individual practice as an artist. When the group decided to work in the print medium, she made more impressions with the AfriCOBRA stamp. Interview with the author, 1 July 2011. 
  19. Interview with the author, 11 October 2010.    

  20. J. Donaldson, ‘Africobra 1’, op. cit., pp.83, 85.    

  21. The exposures were done at Advantage Silkscreen and at the studio of Ruben Aguilar (not a member of the group). They were sold for $10, mainly at art fairs, exhibitions and conferences. Barbara Jones-Hogu interview with the author, 1 July 2011.