Wadsworth Jarrell (Africobra) USA, b. 1929


Wadsworth Jarrell is an internationally acclaimed painter and sculptor. Jarrell was one of the original five founders of the Black arts collective AFRICOBRA, which was formed on the South Side of Chicago in 1967.


Born in Albany, Georgia, Jarrell was raised on a working farm, where he recalls being inspired at a young age by the art in the Saturday Evening Post. His artistic inspirations were encouraged during his enrollment in the US Army, where he became the company artist for his unit. After his service in the army, Jarrell enrolled at the Art Institute of Chicago, where he earned his BA in 1958.


Jarrell stayed in Chicago after college, establishing his painting practice on the city’s South Side. There, he became acquainted with the city’s burgeoning community of Black artists, designers, performers, musicians and writers, including fellow artists and future AFRICOBRA founders Jeff Donaldson, Gerald Williams, Barbara Jones-Hogu, and his future spouse Jae, whom Wadsworth met while shopping in her vintage clothing boutique.


Wadsworth and Jae soon became involved in the Organization of Black American Culture (OBAC), a collective of artists who went on to create the famous Wall of Respect, one of the key works in the burgeoning urban mural movement of the 1960s. Wadsworth and Jae also opened a small gallery below their home and studio, where they hosted live jazz music and art exhibitions. It was in that gallery that many of the early meetings of AFRICOBRA took place.


Jarrell was already a mature painter when he contributed to the development of the AFRICOBRA aesthetic. He had been experimenting with his aesthetic voice for decades, transitioning gradually from the illustrative figuration of paintings like Come Saturday (1959), to the Orphic Cubist-inspired, abstract dynamism of Cockfight (1965). AFRICOBRA’s embrace of “cool-ade” colors, text, and positive images of the Black community may be seen as an enlargement of Jarrell’s voice, but as we can see in paintings like Sign of the Times (1966) and Shore Market (1968), to a large degree these ideas were already emerging out of his own experiments.


Essential to his work is Jarrell’s belief that the creation of an art object is inherently personal. Though informed by history and governed by material realities, his process always begins and ends with his own experiences. Many of the seminal works he painted at the height of the AFRICOBRA years—like Black Family (1968) and Boss Couple (1970)—directly reference Jarrell’s personal life. Even seemingly less personal works, such as I Am Better Than Those Motherfuckers and They Know It (1969) and Homage to a Giant (1970), examine the broader culture through Jarrell’s distinctly individuated point of view.


Recent major exhibitions of Jarrell's work include AFRICOBRA: Nation Time2019 Venice Biennale, Official Collateral Event, Venice, IT; Come Saturday Punch, Kavi Gupta, Chicago, IL; AFRICOBRA: Messages to the People, MOCA North Miami, FL, USA; AFRICOBRA 50, Kavi Gupta, Chicago, USA; Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power, Tate Modern, London, England; Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Fayetteville, AR; USA, Brooklyn Museum, NY, USA; The Broad Museum, Los Angeles, CA, USA; San Francisco MOMA, CA, USA, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, TX, USA; and Heritage: Wadsworth and Jae Jarrell, The Cleveland Museum of Art, OH, USA. Jarrell’s work is included in the collections of the Worcester Museum, the Cleveland Museum of Art, the High Museum of Art, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, and the Studio Museum in Harlem, among others.