Jan 24, 2008 Nancy Keefe Rhodes Uncategorized
The first Saturday in December, Carol Charles was browsing through Plowshares Crafts Fair at Nottingham High School with Napoleon Jones-Henderson when they stopped near Ralph Minnifield’s leather goods table. Jones-Henderson, who has an alert, steady gaze and a good handshake, was in Syracuse for the first of two Ford Foundation-sponsored artist-in-residence workshops for young people he’s teaching at the Community Folk Art Center (CFAC). He returns in March or April for the second week. Charles, CFAC’s managing director, said he’d be back before then too, for a group exhibition celebrating the 40th anniversary of the continuously active AfriCOBRA collective.
The “Liberated Images” show’s opening coincides with CFAC’s third annual gala on Saturday, Feb. 2, marking CFAC’s move into its present building. AfriCOBRA stands for “African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists.” As the group’s friend, poet and writer Larry Neal, put it in 1979, “bad means bold; bad means aesthetic integrity, artistic and social commitment.”
Dr. Khelli Willets of Syracuse University’s African American Studies first met Jones-Henderson in 2005 at an Atlanta conference. She knew the work of AfriCOBRA from her own research on art in the Black Power movement. Willets, CFAC’s academic director, helped bring Jones-Henderson’s exhibition, “Requiem for Our Fathers and Other Warriors,” here in 2006 for CFAC’s first gallery opening in the new building, a joint show with documentary photographer Marjory Wilkins.
He has other Syracuse ties too. Journalist Francis Ward and his wife Val crossed paths with Henderson-Jones when they operated Chicago’s Kuumba Theater in 1968. “We shared a similar vision,” Ward said, “about a new direction based on the role and responsibility of the Black artist.”
Willets says the AfriCOBRA show is a perfect match for the gala event.
“What we do here all the time speaks to AfriCOBRA’s mission — art for and by the people. The gala really celebrates the African Diaspora. AfriCOBRA is not just about images — they’re messengers and political griots. Even if you didn’t read, the work they do would grip you.”
Atlanta-based AfriCOBRA member Michael D. Harris says the Nigerian Yoruba tradition of the wandering itinerant artist/storyteller provides a positive template for the Diaspora available through image-making. “The whole culture is about Diaspora.”
The AfriCOBRA image-makers — who sometimes prefer this term to “artist” — came together in 1968 from Chicago itself and places as far-flung as Pine Bluff, Arkansas, Washington, D.C., Brooklyn, and New Berlin (twenty miles west of Albany). Since then, they’ve dispersed again. The 10 men whose 40 pieces comprise “Liberated Images” now hail from D.C., Baltimore, Roxbury, Massachusetts, Brooklyn, Connecticut, Atlanta and points beyond. One major shift occurred when founder Jeff Donaldson went to Howard University and some members followed him. Dean of the College of Fine Arts there, he built a new curriculum and faculty around non-Western art. AfriCOBRA members were in Dakar, Senegal in 1985 and later in Lagos, Nigeria, for the first and second international festivals of Black image-makers. They’ve taught, chaired, advised, published, collected and exhibited in more places than we could list here. Most of the ten exhibiting in “Liberated Images” plan to be here on Feb. 2nd when they’ll talk about these matters at CFAC that Saturday afternoon.
Akili Ron Anderson is coming. Anderson lives in Washington, D.C., where his stained glass murals “Sankofa I and II” are installed at Columbia Heights station on the metro’s Green Line in Northwest D.C. In 1985 he began creating African images in Black D.C. churches — stained glass windows, murals, sculptures — entering a national debate about depicting Jesus and other early Christian figures as white Europeans. As a student, Anderson left Howard University without his degree during the 1968 campus revolt, one of three symbolically prosecuted for taking over buildings. He’s back there now, finishing his master’s thesis, which he expects will make a book.
Reached by phone late Monday, he’d been trying to get to his studio to work all day, waylaid by the King holiday TV broadcast of “Eyes on the Prize.” He says traumatic memories that keep cycling without resolution — which intentional images can provide – lead only to pervasive depression. AfriCOBRA’s longevity sets an example for younger artists who may face parents who consider image-making “a good hobby” but not a career.
Kevin Cole, who’s coming from Georgia, transforms such memory. His large, graceful wall sculptures are brightly patterned, tied and knotted strips of cloth, tarpaper and etched metal. Since 1992 he’s used the necktie as a design motif, recently adding scarf shapes to include women’s struggles.
He’s written, “When I was 18 my grandfather stressed the importance of voting by taking me to a tree where he was told African Americans were lynched by their neckties on the way to vote.”
Adger Cowans travels from Bridgeport, Connecticut. After a career including film still photography, jazz and acting, Cowans now makes paint collages, applied pieces of paint “that remind you of other things, lead you to your spirituality.”
He joined AfriCOBRA in 1979, adding on the phone, “And I’m not a joiner. I don’t really like groups.”
Jones-Henderson says the collective’s early weekly critiques provided support, cross-fertilization and a laboratory from which emerged a thought-through aesthetic whose cohesiveness spans four decades, busy professional careers and geographic dispersal.
“This is fairly unique,” he said. “Most such groups are gone in a decade — even the Impressionists, or Spiral in New York City with Romaine Bearden.”
Jones-Henderson taught art history. He talks easily about the group’s aesthetic development and concerns. For example, the affinity for jazz — Coltrane’s sax, Abbie Lincoln’s vocals, Billy Taylor’s piano and Art Blakey’s drums — and consequent quest for “visual music” that you see in the highly pixilated surfaces of their work, with layers of patterns. Or “Kool Aid colors — generally the palette of African people everywhere.” Or the choice of silk screen prints as “the most democratic medium, because many people can own an original.” He laughs, “Well, if you don’t understand it, it can be discombobulating.”
Jones-Henderson says founder Jeff Donaldson also had a profound effect.
“He was an academic, an extraordinarily gifted painter, all of six feet four with a deep voice that sounded like Paul Robeson.”
Donaldson died at age 71 in 2004, and several “Liberated Images” pieces commemorate him — Murry DePillars’ “Lifting the Plate” and James Phillips’ “Flowers for Jeff.”
Remembrance is core to AfriCOBRA. Both Henderson-Jones and Michael D. Harris have work in “Liberated Images,” that each readily agrees could function as ancestor shrines — Henderson-Jones’ dwelling-like sculptures for Duke Ellington, June Jordan, the “3 Little Girls” (the 1963 Birmingham church bombing), and Harris’ “Survivor Patchwork,” which also employs a peaked roof form and, like other of his assemblages, arrangements of talisman-like objects that Harris photographs. His “Penance for Oshun” evokes the Yoruba goddess of love, an image drenched in gold for the deity’s taste in honey.
Harris, also coming north, emphasizes AfriCOBRA’s collective identity as “fundamentally different in a profession that’s so based on individuality, to the point that some artists exaggerate. It’s so isolating.”
Frank Smith travels from Baltimore. He’d grown up in a Chicago family of artists and musicians and was working in New York City when Howard students revolted. Jeff Donaldson invited him to go teach urban art.
“The students interviewed me,” he recalls. “I went for a one-year appointment and spent half my life.”
Like others in AfriCOBRA, Smith seeks the visual equivalents of jazz in his work. “I work entirely improvisationally,” he says. His commitment to “unpredictable outcomes and bizarre associations” has led him to current large hanging works that mix textiles — sewing, embroidery and quilting — with painting.
Another Maryland resident coming next week, Nelson Stevens graduated from Utica’s Mohawk Valley Community College in 1958 after growing up in Brooklyn. An original AfriCOBRA member, he was 30 years old when he joined in Chicago. He wants other professions to adopt the durable AfriCOBRA model.
“Doctors Without Borders is the closest thing to it,” he said last week, perhaps also evoking art’s curative power. “And we have a higher goal than the AMA. They say, do no harm. We improve everything.”
“AfriCOBRA: Liberated Images” Exhibition is on view at Community Folk Art Gallery, 805 East Genesee St., Syracuse, from Feb.2 to April 5, Tuesday-Friday 10-5 and Saturday 11-5.
Panel discussion with exhibition participants: Sat., Feb. 2, 3 to 4 p.m..
Community Folk Art Center’s 3rd Annual Gala, Feb. 2, 7 to 10 p.m., includes exhibition reception, reggae music by Selah Vibe, Caribbean cuisine catered by Jerk Hut & Valarie Escoffrey, & performance by the Kuumba Project Dancers (fresh from their trip to Dallas where they perform this week in the Youth Showcase at the International Association of Blacks in Dance conference).
The Saturday afternoon panel is free & open to the public. The evening Gala is a fund-raiser for CFAC’s educational programs, with tickets for $50. Information and reservations at 442.2230 or communityfolkartcenter.org.
*See more images from AfriCOBRA at cnylink.com under sights and sounds AfriCOBRA.