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.
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.
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.
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.
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