AfriCobra - then and now

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Alice Thorson's 1990 interview with [Jeff Donaldson], founding member of OBAC and AfriCobra, covers some of Donaldson's history with both groups and his personal understanding of black art as a historical and cultural phenomenon.

OBAC & the Wall of Respect

Donaldson maintains that OBAC's motivation in creating the Wall of Respect was one of community building. The project was specifically not intended to be a condescending statement coming from representatives of high culture to representatives of low culture. Rather, the work was contributed as an affirmation of community identity and values.

Donaldson blames much of the disintegration of OBAC on [COINTELPRO]'s interference.


COBRA was created as the Coalition of Black Revolutionary Artists, a group formed to protest and ultimately shut down a conference at Columbia College in Chicago in 1968. The conference focused on the role of the arts in the enhancement of quality of life, diversifying the population of artists, and other worthwhile concerns. COBRA's concern was that "experts" had been brought in from outside, while artists living and working in Chicago were passed over entirely.

Genealogy of the Black Arts

Donaldson traces the historical development of black music and black art from African roots through trans-Atlantic uprooting through slavery and to the present. Black music was allowed to survive relatively unfettered, since slaveholders regarded musical and bodily expression as mentally absent activities that distracted the oppressed class from possible thoughts of group identity or collectivity. Visual images, however, were completely squashed. Any slave artisans had to adhere to European aesthetics. For this reason, Donaldson contends, black visual art must struggle to reattach itself to the African continuum.

Art as Commodity

No works in AfriCobra's first exhibit were offered for sale. This was not so much a radical statement of anti-commodification or anti-capitalism as it was a call to re-evaluate the importance of original versus duplicate works of art. Donaldson personally rejects the institutionalization of art, opting to pursue more organic routes of dissemination.

Artwork that was once considered incendiary is now finding a place in the traditional market. Donaldson attributes this to the American habit of coopting, commodifying, and/or destroying dangerous cultural artifacts.


Donaldson contends that AfriCobra's success depends on the art's achievements in technical excellence, aesthetic appropriateness, and social responsibility. Critics who feel unable or uncomfortable in discussing the racial themes in the artwork ought to be able to deal with the art on other levels. The work as a whole, however, maintains its integrity through excellence in all three areas.

Implications and Questions

Donaldson makes a compelling argument for students as community members who contribute to shared struggles. Particularly in conversations on this campus, there is a tendency for students to recognize the value of the "community" of Hyde Park, while at the same time distancing themselves from the community, effectively other-ing a group in a gesture of misplaced respect.

I would be interested to know more about Donaldson's construction of "Africa" as a shared ancestor and cultural source. Is he considering Africa as it was during the era of massive exportation of individuals as slaves, or contemporaneous to his work? Pre- or post-colonization? Pre- or post-Islamic conversion? From what areas? Using Africa as an umbrella term has strong unifying benefits as well as some culture-muddling drawbacks.

See also AfriCobra


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  1. Feb 05, 2008

    mtaft says:

    Can you say a bit more about the 'conversations on this campus' and the distanci...

    Can you say a bit more about the 'conversations on this campus' and the distancing process? I'm new to the University and am not yet entirely familiar with how these sorts of issues play out here.

    1. Feb 22, 2008

      Erin Franzinger says:

      In my experience (and of course your mileage may vary depending on your social c...

      In my experience (and of course your mileage may vary depending on your social circles) there's a pretty significant disconnect between U of C students and the surrounding community. There's a certain contingent of people who are uninterested in participating in Hyde Park or South Side community life, but they don't figure in to my argument much because these people will probably end up in condos in the loop as soon as they graduate.

      But there's also a contingent that actively maintains what I think is an intellectual distance from non-university folks in the area. I have noticed a tendency for students to describe the population of Hyde Park as consisting of two groups – students and "community members." These students view the University as something that is necessarily imposing on its surroundings, and see themselves as entirely separate from the broader community. Of course this view is rooted in historical truth-- the University has historically (and still presently) taken the position of gentrifying and community clearing (think the buffer zone of the Midway, extended down to 61st, then extended to 63rd, and now moving as far as 65th).

      But I just don't think that students are not necessarily implicated in this-- by supporting local businesses, using public spaces, and participating in the life of Hyde Park and its environs, one stops being a visitor and is actually a part of the community. One group working on community relations between the University and Woodlawn in particular is the Southside Solidarity Network, a student RSO that co-coordinates (redundant?) projects like Art in Action, a community-building social space for creativity and artistic expression.

      And that's my two cents.