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Why the AACM and AfriCOBRA still matter

MCA curator Naomi Beckwith discusses a new exhibit called "The Freedom Principle" that connects the legacy of the Black Arts Movement to current cultural and political battles.



Chicago's influential Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. Many of the organization's surviving founders have spread out across the U.S., and its influence spans the globe, but our city's importance to its formation is indisputable. Throughout the year, musicians from every chapter of the AACM's history have been playing celebratory concerts around town, and the 2015 Chicago Jazz Festival will close with a performance of the Experimental Band, led by pianist and AACM cofounder Muhal Richard Abrams and featuring key early members such as Roscoe Mitchell, Henry Threadgill, Wadada Leo Smith, Amina Claudine Meyers, and George Lewis. At the DuSable Museum of African American History, the exhibit "Free at First: The Audacious Journey of the Association for the Advancement for Creative Musicians" runs through September 6. And the biggest AACM-related event of the year might be "The Freedom Principle," which opens at the Museum of Contemporary Art on Saturday and closes November 22.

The exhibition, which takes its name from an influential 1984 book on free jazz by Chicago critic John Litweiler, doesn't stop at examining the history of the AACM through a kaleidoscopic variety of artifacts and ephemera—including photographs, listening stations, album covers, flyers, business cards, and paintings by AACM musicians such as Abrams, Mitchell, and relatively recent member Matana Roberts. It also addresses the broader Black Arts Movement in Chicago during the 60s and early 70s, especially the tragically overlooked black visual-art collective OBAC (the Organization of Black American Culture) and its outgrowth Afri­COBRA, whose members often collaborated with their counterparts in the AACM. (The name means "African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists.")

"The Freedom Principle" also looks at the AACM's legacy through the work of prominent contemporary visual artists, among them Glenn Ligon, Cauleen Smith, Anri Sala, Nick Cave, and Renee Green. Exhibit curators Naomi Beckwith and Dieter Roelstraete have written thoughtful essays for the show's catalog, The Freedom Principle: Experiments in Art and Music, 1965 to Now, which also includes contributions from Lewis (whose 2008 book A Power Stronger Than Itself is the definitive history of the AACM), music historian and gallerist John Corbett, and scholar Rebecca Zorach. I sat down with Beckwith for a wide-­ranging discussion about the exhibit, the way artistic collectives have evolved in their methods and purposes since the 60s, and the process of documenting Chicago's rich legacy of black art.

The 1972 painting Revolutionary by Wadsworth Jarrell. He and his wife, sculptor Jae Jarrell, were among AfriCOBRA's founders, and together they ran WJ Studio and Gallery, which hosted concerts by AACM members. - COURTESY THE ARTIST
  • Courtesy the artist
  • The 1972 painting Revolutionary by Wadsworth Jarrell. He and his wife, sculptor Jae Jarrell, were among AfriCOBRA's founders, and together they ran WJ Studio and Gallery, which hosted concerts by AACM members.

Peter Margasak: I'm curious about your experience growing up here but not really getting involved with the AACM until this exhibition.

Naomi Beckwith: There was always this kind of music around, mostly at these public festivals—there were some concerts, many on the south side. There were even some albums I knew; we knew Kahil El'Zabar's music. But we had not heard of this organization called the AACM, even though we knew about the Art Ensemble.

Generationally, it was pre-­Interwebs, and not everybody could do this kind of nerdy research into the minutiae of what you thought was engaging. I also think it was, as [art scholar] Romi [Crawford] phrased it in the catalog, "familially embedded knowledge." Something can be so close to you, you don't recognize it as a structure, you don't recognize it as an institution. And I think that was the case with this idea of the collective that was the AACM—that people moved in and out of it, and they also moved in and out of other venues of their life, to the point that no one wore this mantle primarily as the AACM member. You were just a musician that had this affiliation with this collective.

To me it seemed like it was more about self-­determination and less about institutional identity.

Precisely. I think as somebody who grew up with this ethos that the AACM tried to engender—that life moved into art and vice versa—that all of a sudden it wasn't the idea of the institution that was the most important, it was what you were producing. I don't think the AACM was created to work against institutions. I think they were trying to find another form that would allow them to coalesce when necessary, but not (as you mention) be this over­arching, identifying thing. I think the form that it took—this idea of a collective, this kind of dues-paying, very malleable, functional entity—was really important, because it worked against this idea that you were one thing at all times. As much as improvisation was important to the music, I think improvisation was important to the way that they came together as musicians.

Naomi Beckwith, Marilyn and Larry Fields Curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago - MCA CHICAGO
  • MCA Chicago
  • Naomi Beckwith, Marilyn and Larry Fields Curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago

One thing that I haven't seen much about is the quotidian reason for starting the organization—that they were shut out of opportunities. A lot of it was more practical, to create a structure so they could present their own music.

We didn't start with that narrative, mostly because it's been told by George Lewis. The information is out there. The story that we wanted to tell more so was about a time where people could improvise with structures as much as they could improvise with the forms that they worked with, whether it be visual arts or sonic art.

There are parallels in the visual art world, and one of the anchors of this exhibition is AfriCOBRA. And Afri­COBRA grows out of another collective, OBAC. The point being that this form of collective practice already had a lot of legs for many artists and practitioners, but for black artists in particular there were both philosophical and practical reasons why these forms took hold for a lot of folks. Philosophically so many people were dedicated to this idea of building that familial structure—and that the familial structure would look very different from the union, it would look very different from the museum. And for Afri­COBRA in particular, this structure would allow for them to work out issues.

So for the AACM, I think, here they are as accomplished musicians, working on getting gigs, trying to work out new forms of music. And as musicians they weren't interested in being soloists; they were used to playing in groups, so they needed to come together. The story for visual artists usually is that someone's kind of acting on their own genius, alone in the studio, and AfriCOBRA was interested in eradicating that model, mostly because I think they were also trying to imagine a new model of blackness too—and that new model of blackness couldn't have been what you learned in American history. You're brought over as a slave, an indentured servant, and your history is gone, and you have no connection to anyone else around the world. And AfriCOBRA had already gone through this consciousness of, "Well, there has to be or should be some kind of relationship to black people globally." So again, you couldn't be that lone genius—all of a sudden you had this "natural" connection to another black person, and with that natural connection you can then work out what black art looks like.

What was the connection like between Afri­COBRA and the AACM? Was it a passing thing, or something that felt integrated?

It was fairly integrated, mostly because they were all friends. The AACM would hold rehearsal sessions and concerts in certain members of AfriCOBRA's studios. There's one artist in particular named Emilio Cruz [in the exhibition] who's not from Chicago—he was a visual artist, taught at SAIC, played drums, worked a lot with Don Moye. There's a lot of photos of Henry Threadgill and Douglas Ewart working on performance projects that Emilio put together.

I think this moment too, in history, or at least in this specific place on the south side of Chicago, was a moment where people were cross-fertilizing ideas. So Muhal [Richard Abrams] was painting, Roscoe Mitchell was painting, and they're encouraged to take up these activities by visual artists, some of whom were in AfriCOBRA. And everyone felt this kind of freedom to experiment.

This is one of these things we talk about as a tenet of the show: experimentation. So that freedom to experiment wasn't just within the genre or the discipline that you know—music or art—it was also about crossing disciplines and crossing media. If you talk to many artists active in the 60s and 70s, they say, "I was trained as a musician first and then went to art school later." And I thought that was a historic thing to recognize, in putting together the contemporary part of the show, that that's still the case for a lot of artists [in the exhibition]. Sanford Biggers trained as a musician before he moved into visual arts; Terry Adkins, similar thing. Charles Gaines from California—jazz drummer before he moved into visual arts. I don't think we should underestimate music as the cultural entry point for a lot of African-­American cultural practitioners, many of whom may end up in the visual arts.

AfriCOBRA cofounder Gerald Williams painted Nation Time in 1969. - JOHNSON PUBLISHING COMPANY (CHICAGO)
  • Johnson Publishing Company (Chicago)
  • AfriCOBRA cofounder Gerald Williams painted Nation Time in 1969.

It had to be a challenge to organize a show built around a music collective for an art museum. It wasn't like nobody knew there were these connections, but in the beginning, how difficult was it to jump in? Did you think there was enough there?

I never really questioned it that way. The overarching question was how do we not try to make this an authoritative music show. We were also trying to imagine a show about a cultural practice in the 60s and 70s that was very multidisciplinary, and think about those exchanges that were really happening between the visual and musical arts, and how a lot of the work that's made in the contemporary moment is informed by that.

There's one other thing that's part of the show—this is also the moment of the Wall of Respect, which precedes AfriCOBRA. The Wall of Respect is this self-initiated community public art project, and early on the MCA realized there was a lot of energy around that, and one of things the museum did under the aegis of Jan van der Marck, the director at that time, was to set up an arts program on the west side of Chicago [in 1968]. He too wanted to understand what kind of arts institution would take on this language of being in a community and for the people, rather than just being a kind of centralized, established, authoritarian art institution.

Even if the members of the AACM held on to historical ephemera, no one really told the definitive story until George [Lewis] did it. There's no official history, and a lot of those guys are thinking about what comes next—with Roscoe [Mitchell], for example, there's no sentimentality. They don't go back and play their classic albums. They don't revel in the past. Is that something you find in Chicago?

The challenge for a lot of these guys was that from the jump they were future ­oriented. "We are going to improvise new forms, or we're going to use improvisation to create new forms." It was always "Move away from the language of traditional jazz, or jazz altogether." It was always "Give them something they haven't seen or heard before." Same with AfriCOBRA: What is the visual component of a new black consciousness? What does that look like? I think many of them still carry that idea that it's not about looking at the past and it never was.

That's not to say they weren't well educated in it—they had a foundation, this beautiful competency with their instruments, or paintbrush, or printing press. It's more that you have to be "ancient to the future" constantly. There's also for a lot of folks this sense of, "Look, I'm alive, I'm still producing, I don't want to just be known for this moment in the past that's supposed to be my halcyon day."

In terms of the contemporary visual art you used, I assume there's a whole array of different artists with different connections to or awareness of the AACM. Some probably knew very little about it, and then some are very close. Was there a kind of analogue to the familially embedded knowledge thing?

Off the top of my head, I can't think of anyone who said, "I don't know anything about this." Which is fascinating. One of the reasons we were easily able to put together a contemporary component of the show is that so much of this older work was already present in the newer work. And the over­arching question was, "Why is this stuff still relevant? Why are contemporary artists making very direct references to AACM or Afri­COBRA or black nationalism in general?" And part of the question was, "What is it about this legacy that feels so familiar now?"

And there are multiple answers. Some of them are not so happy—we've talked about the Black Lives Matter movement, and that may be one of them. I still think many of us are trying to think through questions that the Black Arts Movement raised. What does it mean to be a citizen? You'll see a lot of work in this exhibition riffing on this idea of citizenship and inclusivity. I think the very form of a collective brings that question to the forefront: "What does it mean to belong, in a microcosmic and a macrocosmic level?" I don't think many folks were unfamiliar with the material, but interestingly enough, I don't think it's a show about the AACM and AfriCOBRA at this past moment and then the universe on the contemporary side. It's really a show about the south side in the 60s and 70s and what kind of creative energy began to foam up there up there, and what did that creative energy do, and what were the pillars of that creative energy, and why in this contemporary moment do we still see an attraction to this material. I'm interested in these questions of utopic thinking; I'm interested in questions of multidisciplinary practice; I'm interested in questions of black cultural life in the past and how it plays out in the present.

The Art Ensemble of Chicago, probably the best-known group to arise from the AACM, performs at the MCA in 1979. From left to right: Joseph Jarman, Malachi Favors, Lester Bowie, Don Moye, and Roscoe Mitchell. - MCA CHICAGO
  • MCA Chicago
  • The Art Ensemble of Chicago, probably the best-known group to arise from the AACM, performs at the MCA in 1979. From left to right: Joseph Jarman, Malachi Favors, Lester Bowie, Don Moye, and Roscoe Mitchell.

One thing that comes up in a couple of the catalog essays is how the collectives spoke for a particular group with a strong political voice, and that doesn't seem to exist in contemporary collectives, which are much more specialized. Technology has made it so we can live in our own microworld and be oblivious to everything else.

It was a very different structural world, and it's really easy to wax sentimental about it. I wasn't there, and that's part of the sentiment. I know the other side of the story of that cohesion was really about pressure, and real things like segregation and exclusion—if one can't participate in certain institutions, you go do your own things. That wasn't just the black community; it happened for many other minority cultures.

People talk often about what was lost at the end of segregation—de jure or in some cases de facto segregation—and a lot of people talk about the downturn of the economic life of black neighborhoods. Now that people could go shop finally and freely downtown at Marshall Field's, you no longer had these anchors of economic life existing on the south side. So I think we just have to talk about real structural differences, and what that means. I don't think we've really worked out what it means to have this devolved public sphere, or what it means to have this new micro-­identity. One thing people were told a lot in the 60s was that your skin color would determine your future. I think a lot of us are pleased that that narrative fell apart. So now the question is what determines one's identity, and I don't think we've really answered that.

Do you think that's a big question the show asks, by looking at the span between the 60s and 70s and today?

I think people acknowledge that as an artist you have a cultural memory that extends past your family life and even your education. You're constantly absorbing the history of others and all these art histories that came before. There are multiple ways that artists have approached it. There's the tongue-in-cheek way, the David Hammons approach with the UNIA [Universal Negro Improvement Association] flag, which isn't at all the UNIA flag and that's the joke. There's someone like Nari Ward, who makes this giant installation, We the People, but it's made out of shoestrings. It's made out of things that are beholden to gravity and are dripping and drooping, but it's still legible, but only at certain points; it's about perspective, like who gets included in the "people." Every artist has a different approach. They allow us to think more readily about the history of art, the history of a people—i.e., a broad cultural history, the possibilities of democracy. But also the ways that art carries a memory and carries itself forward.

"The Freedom Principle" includes the 2011 installation We the People by Jamaica-born, New York-based artist Nari Ward. - GREGORY LARICO
  • Gregory LaRico
  • "The Freedom Principle" includes the 2011 installation We the People by Jamaica-born, New York-based artist Nari Ward.

With Ornette dying—he was a huge influence on the AACM, more so his thinking than his actual music. You know the rules so you can break all of them, and it becomes valid because of your rigor and your originality.

Right. "This isn't me being an incompetent. This is me knowing everything and selecting very carefully." I think we've told that story very well about music, but we haven't told that story so much about art, especially the visual art that came out of black cultural nationalism. That was why it was important for us to make sure those two things were put together in the exhibition.

The same goes for AfriCOBRA. "Oh, that was just an agitprop psychedelic 60s thing," but in fact one of the founders was getting his PhD at Northwestern. Many of them had gone to school at the Art Institute. They knew the rules, but they worked for years to say, "Given everything we know about our Western art tradition, what is the new visual-art tradition for our global black family?" It was built on a set of competencies, rather than "We've been dropping acid!" Or whatever people smoked if you were a black nationalist.

I think a lot of folks who were familiar with the forms didn't think of it as a particular movement. You might know the objects, you might know the artists, but you don't know the context. This is me as a revisionist historian—I'm thinking about what it means to assign value and contextualize things, and I think the art world has a hard time thinking through culture-specific communities vis-a-vis art. You might have this crazy kind of art production, and as soon as you say, "Oh, it was a black artist," everybody jumps back into the social sphere—then it must be about blackness, or protest. One of the AfriCOBRA artists was like, "This wasn't about protest. Protest is about complaining. We were looking for solutions." But there's this fallback language that you get to almost immediately—people forget to look at it the way you're trained to do, like a musicologist or an art historian.

I have to confess that I too have to have that moment and step back and say, "OK. What is the history of text and image? What is the history of fractalized work? What is the history of fauvism?" How do I start rethinking these traditions in a broader history of Chicago art? Chicago had this emphasis on figuration that you could see happening in multiple movements at the same time. Who's talking to whom, who's looking at what—and when you start breaking down the silos, you start seeing things in that broader history that we've all been educated in but are maybe too fearful to bring together in a more cohesive way.  v

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