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AfriCOBRA when it was poised to strike

The first of three exhibitions in a series looks at the prehistory of the famous south-side arts movement.

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"Into the sixties a word was born . . . BLACK." The poet Haki R. Madhubuti composed this line for a poem he wrote decades ago, but when he read it aloud at the South Side Community Art Center recently, the words still reverberated. Madhubuti was the keynote speaker at the opening of "AfriCOBRA: Prologue—The 1960s and the Black Arts Movement," the first of three exhibitions on AfriCOBRA's history, aesthetic philosophy, and cultural impact that together make up "AfriCOBRA in Chicago," a series jointly organized by the SSCAC, the Logan Center for the Arts, and the DuSable Museum of African American History.

The word "black" did indeed take on new political and aesthetic meanings in the 1960s, when the raised fist became a symbol of pride and African-American writers, performers, and artists began launching their own journals, publishing companies, and exhibition spaces. Madhubuti himself founded Third World Press, one of the first black-owned publishing houses in the U.S. and now the country's largest, in 1967.

AfriCOBRA (the African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists) was born in the 60s too—in 1968, on the south side of Chicago, when artists Jeff Donaldson, Jae Jarrell, Wadsworth Jarrell, Barbara Jones-Hogu, and Gerald Williams began talking about whether there was an intrinsically black visual aesthetic in the works each was creating independently. A number of salient attributes came to the fore: vibrant colors, prominent human figures, and simple yet powerful messages of uplift incorporated directly into the composition.

The SSAC's "Prologue" outlines the prehistory of AfriCOBRA through paintings, photographs, and screen prints, all selected from the Center's permanent collection by University of Chicago undergraduates. Few if any of these works were made under the AfriCOBRA banner—those come later in the series, when the Logan Center unveils its show on the aesthetic philosophies of AfriCOBRA on June 28, followed by the DuSable Museum's "AfriCOBRA: Art and Impact," opening July 26. Instead, the works in "Prologue," while not always aesthetically remarkable on their own, collectively ground "AfriCOBRA in Chicago" within a larger context of black cultural production that includes the founding of the SSCAC itself, in 1941.

Strong black figures recur throughout the exhibition: in Robert Black's black-and-white photograph of an impassioned Martin Luther King Jr., for instance, and in John Sibley's impressionistic portrait of Malcolm X, titled Third World Man in recognition of Malcolm's support for liberation movements across the globe. Among the show's most arresting works is Alonzo Parham's abstract painting of Olympic athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos, their fists raised in the Black Power salute during the medal ceremony at the 1968 Mexico City games. Smith and Carlos stand alongside a third figure, the Australian Peter Norman. Parham portrays the three men in silhouette, without their Olympic uniforms. It's a stunningly concise evocation of power as a moral and spiritual force that goes beyond physical prowess.

Also key to the historical trajectory presented here is the Wall of Respect, the huge 1967 mural that artists involved in the Organization of Black American Culture painted on the side of a grocery store at 43rd and Langley. Several small color photographs document the Wall as it once stood: a collage of heroic black figures—among them, Muhammad Ali, actress Claudia McNeil, Stokely Carmichael, and the Marvelettes—that was lost when the building was torn down in the wake of a 1971 fire.

Elsewhere, Barbara Jones-Hogu's dazzlingly chromatic screen prints from 1968 and 1970 have lost none of their emphatic lucidity. They bear phrases like "Be Your Brother's Keeper" and "Resist Law and Order in a Sick Society." Other works telegraph complex messages through images alone, most notably Archibald J. Motley's painting Sunday in the Park, its title likely a play on Georges Seurat's 1884 pointillist classic A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.

Motley, a well-known Harlem Renaissance painter who actually lived on the south side of Chicago, was known for capturing the rich diversity of skin color among all human beings, including people of African descent. His park scene is a turquoise- and amethyst-hued idyll where people with pale skin, dark skin, and a variety of shades in between can be found, though they don't really intermingle. Made in 1941, Motley's painting precedes AfriCOBRA by almost three decades, and is more ambiguous in its mood and rendering than the works that would follow. In its own way, however, it's the most provocative piece in the show.

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