New Acquisitions: AfriCOBRA
AfriCOBRA (African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists), an African-American artist collective, was founded in 1968, the same year as The Studio Museum in Harlem. In November 2018, the Museum acquired five works by Barbara Jones-Hogu and one work by Wadsworth Jarrell, two founding members of the collective.
1968 was a year of turmoil and change: Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy were assassinated; riots and protests dominated the Democratic National Convention in Chicago; and the Vietnam War continued to rage; claiming the lives of thousands of innocent civilians and soldiers alike. Within this milieu, Jeff Donaldson, along with Wadsworth and Jae Jarrell, Barbara Jones-Hogu, and Gerald Williams founded AfriCOBRA in Chicago. The five founding members created an aesthetic philosophy to guide their collective work—a shared visual language for positive revolutionary ideas. They sought to create images that focus on black communities and reflect their shared attitudes and experiences.
Initially, the group met to discuss their common principles, and then set to work individually on group projects, such as creating images of the black family or works based on their adopted slogan: “I am better than those motherfuckers, and they know it.” Ultimately the group evolved to encourage independent work, and turned the emphasis away from aggression against whites and toward positive images of and for the black community. This new body of work was made with mass production in mind, with poster art and screenprinting methods to create editions of their work. The multiples were sold at very low prices—sometimes as little as $10—to ensure that anyone could have access to these works and easily understand them. By utilizing printmaking techniques and advertising methods, the group appealed to and was understood by both the fine art community and a broader audience.
Although AfriCOBRA was founded in Chicago, the group was pivotal to the early exhibition history of the Studio Museum. Edward S. Spriggs, the Museum’s second director, was an early advocate of the group, and helped coordinate their first exhibition in 1970. This opportunity exposed the collective to a national audience, and educated an entirely new group of people on their aesthetic and intent. However, until recently, the Museum’s representation of work by these artists was minimal.
In May 2018, the Acquisition Committee—a select group of individuals who consider new additions to the Museum’s permanent collection—met to consider an assortment of works made by Jones-Hogu and one work by Wadsworth Jarrell. In all, five works by Jones-Hogu and the one work by Jarrell were acquired in November 2018, when the full Board of Trustees formally voted in favor of the acquisition. They are Wadsworth Jarrell, Revolutionary (1972), and Barbara Jones-Hogu, Unite (1969), One People Unite (1969), Rise and Take Control (1970), I Am Better Than These Motherfuckers (Version 1) (1968), and Untitled (1968).
Jones-Hogu’s Unite (pictured above) is a particularly powerful work. Arguably her most well-known piece, Unite depicts a series of black figures with their fists raised. An earring in the shape of an ankh, a cross-like Egyptian symbol, can also be easily spotted. Above them, the word “unite” repeats and overlaps, with the overall shape of the words making reference to a megaphone. The use of printed words and clear imagery, common tropes of the group, also make the work easier to interpret. The subjects are clear and figurative, their strength and power evident.
These works are an incredible addition to the Museum’s permanent collection, and augment our representation of an early and essential group of artists.