AFRICOBRA Universal Aesthetics

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  • "The energy received from these paintings fulfills the original, purest aim of art---'to make live.'"
  • The period marked by the rise of AfriCobra saw a decline in momentum of the American Civil Rights Movement after the death of Martin Luther King Jr.. Also, the younger generation favored the politics of Malcolm X, which advocated self defense and independence instead of integration. By 1968 a cultural revolution was on the horizon.
  • Sparked by the revolutionary idealism of the 1960s, an "ethnic consciousness" began to emerge amongst black people that looked toward Africa for a new sense of identity.
  • This change in consciousness also changed the way that people thought about art. Making art was now considered to be a "revolutionary act," where revolutionary ideals could flourish.
  • This new excitement about art led to a group of artists convening in order to build a new "African based aesthetic that artistically represented the revolutionary spirit of the time." However, this excitement about a new kind of art was not necessarily unprecedented. Alain Locke, the Harlem Renaissance philosopher, advocated a similar aesthetic that looked toward Africa for inspiration, but it was rarely adhered to and did not promote collaborative work.
  • Chicago was the place where two major artistic groups organized around a new concept of black arts. They were AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians) and AFRICOBRA (African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists).
  • AFRICOBRA grew out of the influential OBAC (Organization of Black Artists of Chicago), where the members first started collaborating on the Wall of Respect, noted by Kai as important because of its accessibility and focus on collaboration.
  • AFRICOBRA became a separate group after the Wall of Respect led to the FBI's Cointelpro infiltration of OBAC and its eventual dissolution. AFRICOBRA was a much more intimate group than OBAC had been. They focused on three main principals to form a cogent self-styled African inspired aesthetic. They were:
  • Atavistic aesthetic. An aesthetic that looked toward African artistic traditions that "transcended any limitations of time and space, though it defines, directs, and fashions historical evolution. The atavistic aesthetic is described by Kai as reemerging in times of "social crisis."
  • Technical excellence. It is the artist's responsibility to communicate a learned style to the audience. This is a point of focus because many other Black Arts Movement artists have deemphasized their training in order to convey a political message. "You can't convey a message to your audience if it is not said well.
  • Social responsibility. It is the natural role of the artist to unveil the natural functionality of art. Through the transmission of "energy, movement, truth, direction, and action," art can bring social realities to life.
  • AFRICOBRA also strived for certain aesthetic goals in their art. These were/are:
  • "Awesome imagery." Imagery that moves the viewer and fuses social and spiritual awareness.
  • "Free symmetry." A precise randomness that is likened to jazz. Rhythm in art lends spirituality and emotion; it can be described as "polyrhythmic."
  • "Shine." The art must have an "inner glow" as conveyed by its composition. It should emit a spirituality that is "unassuming, celestial, and serene," and allow the reader to connect with the work on a higher level. This shine is derived from and can be seen in "popular icons of African American culture."
  • "High intensity of colors." or "Kool aid colors." Like African textiles, high intensity colors are inherently African; they elaborate a consciousness and unconsciousness with its non-Western aesthetic.
  • AFRICOBRA's work is not individualist; it is collectivity that gives richness to their work. (However, the members do have their own pieces and styles within these aesthetic principles)
  • Incorporating the traditions of African arts is essential, since AFRICOBRA positions itself as an inheritor of the African artistic tradition. Recurring imagery such as the snake can be considered "TransAfrican." This TransAfrican nature is linked to an inherited ancestral aesthetic. Another important symbol is the black dot, which signifies blackness and origin.
  • Kai uses the example of Donaldson's "Message from Tehuti." While the principles of Tehuti are listed, perhaps most importantly this highlights the black artist's desire and ability to claim and plug into an ancient African aesthetic; thus solidifying the figure of the TransAfrican artist.
  • Another important feature of this piece is that Donaldson's choice of an Egyptian subject is its relationship to the community. "Kemetic (Egyptian) revivalism," was an important feature of African American consciousness when this piece was created.
  • AFRICOBRA work should have a metaphysical subtext, opening up a new reality.
  • With this new aesthetic concept, the artists are able to replicate the feeling of Jazz. Kai points to Frank Smith's work and how the feelings of music can be channeled by the aesthetic.
  • AFRICOBRA concerns itself with not only the social problems of the Americas, but the world, and in particular Africa due to the communicable nature of the aesthetic across the black world.
  • The use of camouflaged imagery or overlaying and color usage allow feelings of black unity to be expressed better than something like a slogan. The images of AFRICOBRA emanate something profound.
  • Kai discusses at length the importance of the image of the black woman at length. The image of the African woman represents "national culture, regeneration, redemption, and holding the future of the race in her hands." The emphasis on the figure of the black woman is deeply entrenched within the African tradition. She invokes black women artists (Nikki Giovanni, Maragret Walker) and the image of Angela Davis as sources of inspiration.

Why does Nubia Kai place such a strong emphasis on the image of the female in AFRICOBRA's work and not the female artist herself? While her intention is to highlight the collaborative spirit of the collective, it seems odd that she only chooses male artists as outstanding examples of the AFRICOBRA aesthetic, where as Daniel Frye highlights the importance of women in AFRICOBRA? Might there be something behind this?

I would like to think about the importance of incorporating the concept of rhythm into the AFIRCOBRA aesthetic. While Kai explains why it is essential to this new aesthetic, I wonder if we can discuss its actual presence in the art. How much of the AFRICOBRA aesthetic is communicated through works like Nubia Kai's piece, and how much is communicated through the artworks themselves?

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  1. Feb 05, 2008

    mtaft says:

    This issue of rhythm is a really interesting one. A lot of the language used he...

    This issue of rhythm is a really interesting one.

    A lot of the language used here reminded be of the vocabulary for art that developed around the time when abstraction was born. "Texture, color, form, pattern, mode, movement"(7) were pretty much all conceptual terms being considered by Kandinsky in the 1910s. I think some of this prior discussion of music and rhythm in the visual arts might help to shed some light on what Kai is talking about. Kandinsky's interest in acoustic composition (see Impression III (Concert)) as well as that of his contemporaries (see Kupka's Amorpha, Fugue in Two Colors and Schoenberg's Der Rote Blick) is more about developing a visual vocabulary free of worldly signification, similar to, but not mimicking, that of music. It's less about representing or depicting music than it is trying to develop a parallel track for the visual arts. Kandinsky's Impression III (Concert) (see above) is a particularly fine example. Here the subject is, quite conveniently a classical concert. But the aim is not to represent the concert but rather to capture the visual experience of this auditory event. And, in fact, if you look at the studies for this piece (images are linked off of the site I've linked here), the early sketches are far more representational than the final painting, which makes an early move towards an abstracted canvas. Objects and figures are still relatively recognizable but the relationship and contact between form(s) and color(s) is privileged. The purpose seems to be the creation of a language entirely apart from natural representation, a language that doesn't accord to existent principles or relationships. This seems a relevant concept in the AFRICOBRA project--to present an alternative visual language, similar to the one that jazz has established in music.
    But there is certainly a significant difference between Kandinsky's rhetoric and the AFRICOBA project. And I think Chris points to this in his response to the Fry dissertation chapter. There's this emphasis on dissemination and multiple objects in AFRICOBRA. This is vastly different than Kandinsky's purpose, which is deeply rooted in the notion of the artist as a spiritual leader, possessing a more advanced vision than most. Though both he and AFRICOBRA intend to "utilize the arts to enhance the quality of life for people,"(Thorson, "AFRICOBRA-then and now," 27) the latter is in constant conversation. So much so that, though there are declared members to the movement, the line between these individuals and their audience begins a blur a bit (In New Thoughts on the Black Arts Movement, Jeff Donaldson remembers, "I was painting Nina SImone when this old lady who lived across the street asked me to come over. She said, 'I got to look at that ugly mothafucka you just painted everyday.' So I changed it."(26)). The idea of the artist becomes linked to a collective, including and incorporating the public in a system of mutual communication. The individual thinker/painter/signature/etc. is deemphasized and, with it, the notion of an original artwork.
    What then happens to the idea of a point of origin?

    1. Feb 05, 2008

      mtaft says:

      (I realize a lot of my language in the comment above requires greater precision ...

      (I realize a lot of my language in the comment above requires greater precision and further explanation. I will continue to think about it and edit accordingly. But there it is for the time being.)

    2. Feb 06, 2008

      Jennifer Macdonald says:

      Visual Activists? I thought Maggie's post (above) picks up on some really inter...

      Visual Activists?

      I thought Maggie's post (above) picks up on some really interesting issues, especially her point towards the end about how "the artist becomes linked to the collective, including and incorporating the public in a system of mutual communication..." She then asked: "What then happens to the point of origin?"

      I have been thinking about what it would mean to push this further in the context of our readings for this week, i.e. art for the people. What if, when considering this artwork, we eliminate the artist altogether?

      This week I've been reading Roland Barthes' "Death of the Author", which he also wrote in 1968. His essay addresses literature, but can be easily extended to the field of art. Barthes argues that the identity of the author is actually lost to the identity of the body of writing (or in our case, the art work). This allows the authorless work to be timeless. Rather than being something that the author produced, like a father does a child, the authorless work is timeless - it represents no other time than that of the enunciation. It is "eternally written here and now". Thus the text's unity lies not in its origin (the writer) but in its destination (the reader). I think Maggie's example above illustrates Barthes' point beautifully:

      "I was painting Nina Simone when this old lady that lived across the street asked me to come over. She said: "I gotta look at that ugly motherfucka you just painted every day." So I changed it."

      As Jeff Donaldson writes in "The Rise, Fall and Legacy of the Wall of Respect Movement" , in order to function as people's art, the work should "build people's self esteem and stimulate revolutonary action". But if the image is attibuted to its author, Barthes argues that one will consequently be enclined to seek an explanation of the work in the man or woman who produced it. This, as Frye recognizes in his dissertation, will compromise the message of the image. In order to exist in the hear and now, and truly belong to the people, the image must be theirs (as readers), not the artist's (as author).

      The powerfulness of eliminating the identity of the point of origin still persists today. It exists in Banksy.

      I was moved to think of Banksy by the Donaldson interview we read this week, where it stated that the 'guerilla spirit' of the Wall of Respect acted asa precursor to the graffiti movement of the eighties.

      Banksy has been daubing London with his elabourate, subversive graffiti since the beginning of the decade. His message is usually anti-war, anti-capitalist, anti-establishment, or pro-freedom. In the spirit of Emory Douglas, one of his key subjects are policemen.

      Banksy is Britain's most celebrated graffiti artist, but his anonymity is vital to him because graffiti is entirely illegal in Britain. The day he goes public will necessarily be the day the graffity ends

      But is this set of circumstances actuallya fortunate turn of events? His fans say he has customized the city, reclaimed it, made it theirs.

      In relation to his graffiti, Banksy is reported to have said "It all comes from that thing at school when you had to have name tags in the back of something (i.e. your uniform, your kit bag) - that makes it belong to you. You can own half the city by scribbling your name over it". Only in this case, Banksy's 'name' is an empty signifier - it relates none of his identity as a British citizen or artist to those you look at it. It merely identifies the work as art that has been put there for the people. The name 'Banksy' does nothing to identify the author - it actually identifies the receivers of the piece: the viewers.

      PS: the spirit of the Wall of Respect lives on! Check out the images below, spotted outside the Regenstein this week!

      1. Feb 06, 2008

        mtaft says:

        On another page, Professor Zorach suggested their might be a way to think about ...

        On another page, Professor Zorach suggested their might be a way to think about this without setting up an individual/collective dichotomy.
        I wonder if the idea of agency might not be helpful in thinking about this. It doesn't necessarily have to be that the author-as-source (I use the term author in the broadest sense, in a way similar to Jenn) is underwritten in favor of the collective, but rather that the affirmation of the author's agency is capable of furthering the agency of community.
        Once again I find myself referring to the Theories of Media keywords glossary and, in this case, the entry on Agent/Agency. The author writes, "embedded within the concept of agency is always an assessment of efficacy, and within any scene for action, there are people who are more and less empowered to make that assessment." So I wonder if inscribed in the AFRICOBRA aesthetic (maybe this is the wrong term? Maybe "the AFRICOBRA project" is more accurate) is this ability to make an assessment of efficacy granted to a public community in a way not previously granted, in a way that responds to a very specific set of circumstances and conditions. And, through this form of empowerment, this community is given a field of action, a space for understanding and communicating.
        Here a discussion of specific artworks and the formal elements of AFRICOBRA might be useful. For the time being, I'll just mention a few thoughts on the Wall of Respect and why this concept of respect is so appropriate. The concept necessarily depends on a mutual relationship. There must be at least two parties involved. There is the one who takes an initial action and then there is the one who asserts this action as worthy of respect. Both (individuals/parties/etc) have agency and participate, though of course in different ways.

        1. Feb 06, 2008

          Jennifer Macdonald says:

          I definitely agree that with respect to my earlier post, 'Revolutionary I' (on o...

          I definitely agree that with respect to my earlier post, 'Revolutionary I' (on our Medium Cool page), the dichotomy that I set up against Chris' post ('Revolutionary We') is probably far too binary, and deserves some serious reconsideration. I look forward to developing my thoughts about that as we proceed through the course. However, with respect to my setting up a false individual/collective dichotomy with regard to the Wall of Respect (see my post above, 'Visual Activist'), I'd like to underline that I am not using 'author' interchangeably with 'individual'. That is, though we know an author must necessarily be an individual, by no means is an individual necessarily an author - no least because, in this context at the very least, they could just as easily be a 'reader'.

          I'm not sure that we can take for granted that an author's/artist's agency necessarily empowers the reader(s)/viewer(s), and that it is this that grants them "a field of action, a space for understanding and communicating." I can't help but wonder (though this might be somewhat pessimistic and sweeping) whether, for the viewer, the figure of the 'artist' is necessarily attached to a priviledged artistic sphere. If this is the case, then by ceding some or all of his authorial control, the artist can create a space where everyone is capable of conjuring their own translations of what they see or 'read' - and this 'everyone' includes the artist himself. Consequently, there is no priviledge medium, and no priviledged starting point; that is, it is not necessary for anyone to make "an initial action" (an action that I think Maggie is attributing to the artist, in her post above, although I might be misinterpreting this...)

          Perhaps then, by eliminating this 'initial move' (that is, the author or artist's initial act of creation), it becomes possible to extend an invitation for the 'reader' (be he individual or collective) to appropriate artworks for himself, and make use of them in ways their authors may never have dreamed of.

    3. Feb 06, 2008

      Chloe Ottenhoff says:

      I think that you bring up really interesting points of comparison between modern...

      I think that you bring up really interesting points of comparison between modern classical music and what was going on in jazz through the AACM and how it manifested in the visual imagery of AfriCobra artists.

      Not only rhythm - but also the idea of atonality - which was a principle of Schoenberg's compositions, and which was also a big part of Braxton's and Abrams improvisation within ensembles. Atonality in music, for me, deemphasizes the individual, and the hierarchies in music of harmony/melody prevalent in Western music. The way Abrams' ensemble would collectively pursue melody that was not linearly structured, seeking atonality and rhythm that transcended traditional time, seems to me to be part of the larger aim of modern music, not just something that jazz musicians in the AACM were developing at that moment.

      In this format, the individual musician is integral to the ensemble, collectively pursuing a melody that shifts time and character throughout, while individual lines can develop, diverge, etc... The point of origin is not able to be recreated in this format - it is taken hold of by the collective and changed, added to, extended, etc... and is not meant to be permanent (although were frequently recorded...), as Donaldson says of the intentions for the guerilla mural.

      I don't think that collectivity in these instances calls for the elimination of the artist (as Jenn ponders), but rather something more along the lines of the elimination of individual ownership of creative expression??? The different lines - individuals - respond to each other. Which I think is what Maggie says here: "there is the one who takes an initial action and then there is the one who asserts this action as worthy of respect" or in other words, call and response, one of the basic roots of jazz (see Radano article p.93).