AFRICOBRA - A Descriptive Study of Nationalistic African American Artist Collective

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See also AfriCobra

The Origins of OBAC

  • OBAC (Organization of Black American Culture-a play on the Yoruba word Oba which means chieftain) was founded by Hoyt W. Fuller (editor of Negro Digest Black World), Conrad Kent Rivers (Chicago Poet), and Gerald McWhorter (sociology grad student at University of Chicago), in an attempt to strive for a community driven movement focused on African American culture.
  • OBAC became an organization and conceptual movement for black artists (broadly defined, save musicians) to "pursue his aims unhampered and uninhibited by the prejudices and dictates of the mainstream."
  • OBAC aimed to incorporate political movements into cultural expression. Through the creation of the Executive Council for the Chicago Committee on Arts, they started to encourage Chicagoan artists to help define various aspects and areas of African American arts. This seemed plausible since many Chicago artists were accustomed to working collaboratively.
  • Jeff Donaldson (future member of AfriCobra) got involved when Gerald McWhorter asked him to help OBAC develop their work in the visual arts. Donaldson had previously been interested in constructing a "negro" aesthetic with the help of local black people.
  • To begin working toward a new aesthetic, artists compared their work through a series of meetings in order to try to discover (discover will be a key word in Frye's dissertation) an aesthetic unity that would help govern the group. However, Donaldson only found a common philosophy amongst the artists.

The Wall of Respect

  • There had been interest in painting a mural on 43rd Street and Langley that would promote "black consciousness." This site seemed ideal since it was a likely target of the urban renewal project. The idea was presented to members of OBAC who agreed to engage in the project.
  • After the project was conceived, Donaldson and McWhorter compiled a list of black heroes. The list was then presented to fellow OBAC members, the community who lived near what would be The Wall of Respect, and gang members.
  • The author is eager to discuss the gang members because they seemed to be the leading force against the inclusion of [Martin Luther King] and also articulate what "community" means. King was a controversial character because the work he had done in Chicago was not regarded as helpful in the larger Civil Rights struggle.
  • A major part of constructing the wall was the agreement to exclude signatures, thus highlighting the mural and protecting the participants from harassment by the authorities.
  • The Wall would only be promoted through African American media.
  • The Wall would be take community criticism while it was being created, that way the final product would be something that the people desired, not necessarily the artists.
  • After the initial presentation of The Wall, it became a media sensation being featured in Ebony and would come under attack from the SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee).
  • Because The Wall received so much publicity, The FBI's Cointelpro soon began investigating OBAC, leading to paranoia amongst the members and strained community relations. This eventually led to the disbanding of OBAC in September 1967 and a battle over control of the politically lucrative wall.
  • The Wall was repainted by those who controlled it, leading to a disruption of its original composition and emphasis on the political aspect of the project which overtook aesthetic importance.

AFRICOBRA: The Emergence of COBRA

  • In retrospect, OBAC failed in securing a uniform aesthetic in the various aspects of the arts.
  • AFRICOBRA formed after OBAC, drawing its members from the group, but it is unclear if it can be considered an offshoot of the movement. During the Chicago Riots of 1968 Donaldson contacted members of OBAC to try to form a more intimate group.
  • Jeff Donaldson continued his quest for an African American aesthetic "that would incorporate 'a classic background, the lesson of discipline, of style, and of technical control pushed to the limits of technical mastery.'"
  • The group highlighted individual styles in order to discover a collective aesthetic. The larger Black Arts movement generally neglected the group, such as their exclusion from the Columbia College conference.
  • Because of their community-based work, the collective was generally self funded and sold prints of their works, be they two-dimensional or textile work.
  • The collective matured through interior and exterior criticism that tested its artistic decisions. The group thrived on a kind of sharing that worked toward an intellectual pursuit of synchronizing itself with the will of the local community and the Diaspora as a whole.
  • The group also refused major art venues because it was thought that African American attendance was low. Instead, they favored community spaces such as churches, restaurants, etc.

Frye's discussion of gang involvement is particularly interesting in his "descriptive study." This detail does not seem to be something heavily noted by the other historical studies. Perhaps it is a minor concern, but what does putting Frye and Kai in conversation reveal about the controversy that seems to still surround the movement. Are AFRICOBRA and OBAC just as important as political memories as they are artistic movements?

Another interesting aspect of Frye's study is the emphasis on the D.I.Y. nature (I can think of no better descriptor) of AFRICOBRA. The collective's dedication to the community makes me question the concept of the "final product" or original pieces. Can and should we consider the production and dissemination of AFRICOBRA prints as a feature that is just as important as its composition?

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