I first came across the work of AfriCOBRA artists writing about them in 2018. I was BLOWN AWAY! The color, the power, the energy, the message, the pride. Everything about the visual aesthetic and promotion of Black power the artists had engaged with resonated with me. I was greatly excited to see the artwork of two AfriCOBRA artists, Barbara Jones-Hogu and Wadsworth Jarrell, in addition to the incomparable Amy Sherald, recently acquired by the Cleveland Museum of Art to add to its permanent collection.
Barbara Jones-Hogu and Wadsworth Jarrell were founding members of AfriCOBRA (African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists), a Chicago-based collective founded in 1969 to forge a distinctly Black mode of contemporary art. The group aligned themselves with the Black Power movement of the period and drew inspiration from African art and culture with the goal of promoting racial pride and greater social equity.
The artists belonging to AfriCOBRA favored printmaking, which they saw as a fundamentally democratic means to share their message.
Barbara Jones-Hogu Unite is among the group’s most recognizable images. The screenprint features a crowd of figures with fists raised in the Black Power salute with their hair styled in Afros to signify Black pride. Jones-Hogu was inspired by two Black athletes who raised their fists during the 1969 Olympics, and she recognized the potential of the powerful gesture to unify. Unite became one of AfriCOBRA’s most iconic images and ultimately Jones-Hogu’s most famous work of art.
The CMA has acquired Unite as well as Untitled (Land Where My Father Died), an earlier screenprint by Jones-Hogu that referenced protests taking place on Chicago’s historically Black south side at the time of the Civil Rights Movement.
Wadsworth Jarrell’s screenprint Revolutionary is considered among the most important images associated with AfriCOBRA’s printmaking output and one of the artist’s most iconic compositions. Revolutionary reinterprets a 1971 painting (now at the Brooklyn Museum) depicting activist Angela Davis, based on a widely circulated photograph of her delivering a speech in 1970. Davis is represented in the artist’s signature vibrant palette surrounded by words that she used in her speech, such as “revolution,” “black is beautiful,” and “resist.”
The monumentality of the print, in which Davis’s figure dominates the composition, demonstrated Jarrell’s desire to “capture the majestic charm, seriousness, and leadership of an astute drum major for freedom.”
The AfriCOBRA artists produced many of the most positive depictions of African American people and culture to date.
Amy Sherald’s fame is getting to the point where no introduction of her is needed. She created the official portrait of First Lady Michelle Obama and the powerful image of Breonna Taylor which appeared on the cover of “Vanity Fair” magazine. She is known for her distinctive style of portraiture, which she uses to explore the African American experience.
Her portraits depict Black figures, often wearing bright or distinctive clothing, but with their skin tone rendered in grisaille. The absence of color invites the viewer to consider identity and color as signifiers, and the direct, assertive, and neutral gazes of her sitters encourage them to be seen as individuals.
Sherald’s first print, Handsome, reinterprets a 2019 painting of the same title that depicts Jamar Roberts, a dancer for the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, formed in 1958 to combine modern dance with Black culture. Handsome will be featured in an upcoming exhibition at the CMA scheduled for spring 2022, Women Now, that focuses on contemporary women printmakers.