Black art has been the driving force for much of American cultural history. Whether jazz, rap, the poetry of the Harlem Renaissance, street art, hiphop, or spoken word: most uniquely American art forms owe their existence to pioneering black artists. This is no different when it comes to the realm of visual art. One Chicago art collective formed in the late 1960s is one of these decisive developments in American visual art which helped determine the shape and trajectory of future American art movements.
AfriCOBRA was first formed in 1968 on the Southside of Chicago, by five artists striving to pin down what they referred to as the “black aesthetic”. This black aesthetic would be more than the formal dimensions of style, instead tracing a sense of purpose and self-determination for black people through communal art. It was an ambitious project, and many would say an impossible one. However, these artists believed that they could locate the black aesthetic and express it through their work, and their journey is illustrated in their evolving style.
COBRA stands for the Commune of Bad Relevant Artists, a name that they embodied through their totally individual and politically motivated stance. They were striving towards black liberation, and very much in lockstep with some of the radical black thinkers of the time, like Malcolm X, Stokely Carmicheal, and Angela Davis.
African Art History and Scholarship
The addition of the prefix Afri- to the group’s name came a couple of years into their work together, and signaled a move towards African diasporic identity. They embraced Afrocentrism, with many members of the group travelling to Africa to study the different art movements and phases of art history. This turn was huge for their style, but also for the broader pedagogy and canon of art history.
In the 1970s, many African countries were gaining independence from colonial rule and were able to tell their own history for the first time in centuries. They had been oppressed under colonial rule and had very little freedom or self-determination. In postcolonial Africa, rediscovering precolonial roots was critical for formulating a new national identity. Much of this manifested through visual culture and art history which had been lost or suppressed during colonial rule. African art history had never been a major part of the Western art historical canon, and was often left out completely from scholarship and art historical institutions.
These AfriCOBRA artists who were studying in various African countries during this precise time period are largely responsible for communicating and establishing African art history in American universities and museums for the first time upon their return. Many AfriCOBRA members were founders of African Studies programs at American universities, which were some of the first to be established. Many are still foremost American scholars in African art.
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