Art Basel Miami Beach: Chicago Artist and AfriCOBRA Co-Founder Gerald Williams Debuts at Kavi Gupta Gallery — Victoria L. Valentine

Culture Type , 12.08.2017

THE PRINCIPLES AND COLLECTIVE AESTHETIC established by AfriCOBRA in 1968 are evident in the work of Gerald Williams. Exploring culture, place, and identity from a global perspective, works by the Chicago artist are on view in the Kavi Gupta booth at Art Basel Miami Beach.

Williams, a co-founder of AfriCOBRA, the artist collective that developed a visual aesthetic intended to empower the black community, joined Kavi Gupta over the summer. It is the first time he has been represented by a major gallery. After hosting “Gerald Williams” (Sept. 9-Dec. 2, 2017) his first show with the gallery and first solo exhibition in two decades, Kavi Gupta is presenting a selection of his works at Art Basel, marking the artist’s first appearance at the Miami art fair.

I asked the gallery about its representation of Williams. Describing him as an “esteemed” artist, Kavi Gupta said, “We could not be more thrilled to represent Williams at a time when AfriCOBRA’S distinctive and influential work is once again coming sharply into view.”

“We could not be more thrilled to represent [Gerald] Williams at a time when AfriCOBRA’S distinctive and influential work is once again coming sharply into view.” — Kavi Gupta

Indeed, the social histories and identity politics explored in work made during the Civil Rights, Black Power, and Black Arts Movements is being investigated by a new generation of scholars and curators, bringing attention to overlooked artists central to the era, AfriCOBRA artists in particular.

Work by Williams and other AfriCOBRA artists is featured in “Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power,” the group exhibition organized by the Tate Modern in London, which is scheduled to debut in the United States at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art on Feb. 3, 2018, before traveling to the Brooklyn Museum.

AfriCOBRA’s work also appeared in “Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties” at the Brooklyn Museum. Currently, fellow AfriCOBRA co-founders Wadsworth and Jae Jarrell have an exhibition at the Cleveland Art Museum. The other two co-founders of the collective have forthcoming posthumous exhibitions. Barbara Jones-Hogu, who died last month, will have her first-ever solo museum show at the DePaul Art Museum, opening in January 2018. At the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse, N.Y., “Jeff Donaldson: Dig,” the artist’s first museum retrospective, is also opening in January.

Meanwhile in Miami, works Williams made between 1976 and 2010 are featured at Kavi Gupta. The selection documents how his oeuvre has evolved over the years and been profoundly influenced by his international experience.

BORN IN CHICAGO, Williams served in the U.S. Air Force before earning a bachelor of arts degree from Chicago Teachers College (1969). Williams was one of five co-founders of AfriCOBRA in 1968. The artist collective sought to empower the black community through positive visual images. Using elements of color, text, and abstract symbolism the artists created iconic representations of the people and issues that defined the time.

Williams got an MFA from Howard University (1976) in Washington, D.C., where Donaldson, a co-founder of AfriCOBRA was serving as chair of the art department. After graduate school, he served two years in the Peace Corps in Kenya. He returned to the United States where he taught for four years in the Washington’s public schools. Then Williams headed abroad again, this time for an opportunity that turned into a more than two-decade career, serving as director of Arts and Crafts Centers on United States Air Force bases in South Korea, Japan, Italy, the Azores, and South Carolina, from 1984 to 2005.

Settled back in his hometown of Chicago, he is concentrating on his practice. Here is how Kavi Gupta describes his work:

    “The confident vision Williams presents has grown out of a lifelong exploration of what he calls ‘mimesis at mid-point.’ To mime does not mean to copy precisely, but rather to express the essence of something in a universally meaningful way. The mid-point to which Williams refers is a fluid arena of expression bridging the extremes of representation and abstraction, specificity and openness. His paintings, drawings, collages and constructions convey a vision of harmonies informed simultaneously by contemporary urban symbology, indigenous traditions, personal narrative, and global perspective. Williams’ work is polyrhythmic, layered, and multi-faceted; flowing between expressive, gestural freedom and meticulous control.

Works by Williams “convey a vision of harmonies informed simultaneously by contemporary urban symbology, indigenous traditions, personal narrative, and global perspective.” — Kavi Gupta

Hyperallergic recently published a profile of Williams in which the artist said he no longer believed in a universal black aesthetic, a concept that was embedded early on in AfriCOBRA’s vision. He still recognizes the importance of nationhood, though, the kind of nation building, or community building, really, that was a principal part of the Black Power and Black Arts Movements and that he expressed in one of his early paintings titled “Nation Time” (1969).

“A nation is a mental construct. Country is land, something you can dig in, concrete. A nation is how you perceive yourself, the relationships that people have among one another. The interactions that people have. That’s what makes a nation,” Williams told Hyperallergic.

Soon, Williams will revisit his early days in Chicago, when he and other black artists were sussing out the role of art in politics. 2018 marks the 50th anniversary of the founding of AfriCOBRA. The solo exhibitions of Donaldson and Jones-Hogu open in January. In the spring, Williams is commemorating the milestone with a group show he is curating at Kavi Gupta featuring his work along with that of the other four founding members of AfriCOBRA.

Last year, Williams exhibited his work at the 57th Street Art Fair in Hyde Park, Chicago. This year, he joined Kavi Gupta and is debuting at Art Basel Miami Beach.

Williams is embracing the interest and arguably overdue attention. “It’s exciting, he told Hyperallergic. “I’m excited.” CT