AFRICOBRA: The African American Pulse of Chicago

Julie Chaizemartin, artpress, October 1, 2022




The Expo Chicago art fair was held from the 7th to the 10th of April, featuring 140 galleries from 25 countries. Despite the international vintage, American galleries predominated, keen to seduce the market of the Midwestern capital. The event, which had been postponed since 2019 due to the pandemic, was an opportunity to take the pulse of Chicago’s contemporary scene, renowned for its galleries, its prestigious institutions and its critical eye.


Two frail figures stepped forward hand in hand, as shy as two discrete, attentive children. In the huge, chic bar on the 5th floor of the Peninsula Hotel, a group of journalists from France, Italy, Germany, England and South Africa awaited them, eager to learn more about the mythical history they embody from the perspective of the Chicago art scene. On the wall, black and white archival photographs gave a taste of this history. Here, a meeting of young African-Americans. There, a photograph of the Wall of Respect before it was destroyed after a fire in 1971: the famous shopfront in the Bronzeville district known for the density of its African-American population who arrived from the southern United States in the 1920s. In 1967, some 40 artists from the Organization of Black American Culture (OBAC) decided to cover this facade with the faces of inspirational figures from the black community (Aretha Franklin, Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, etc.). Amongst them, Wadsworth Jarrell represented the musicians Louis Armstrong and Quincy Jones, in homage to Chicago, the city of jazz and blues. This wall was later considered to be the first urban mural in the United States.



Today, Wadsworth Jarrell, in a grey suit, dark hat, and purple shirt, enhanced by an elegant medallion, stands beside his wife Jae Jarrell, whose sparkling, childlike eyes belie her reserved appearance. At 93 and 87 years old, they still proudly stand for AFRICOBRA, the artistic movement that emerged in 1968 alongside the enactment of the Civil Rights Act. Amidst the civil rights movement’s struggles and hopes for change, the five members of AFRICOBRA–Jeff Donaldson, Wadsworth Jarrell, Jae Jarrell, Barbara Jones-Hugo and Gerald Williams–met at Jarrell’s home on the South Side, with the idea of building a new aesthetic in which to engrave the economic and racial difficulties that remained to be overcome. Their art diffuses a very colourful palette, made up of scansions of letters and slogans for freedom that swirl on the canvas like a free jazz loop. Wadsworth likes to represent icons from the black community, especially Angela Davis, whilst Jae makes clothes that she sells in her shop. The faces of activist speakers emerge from these kaleidoscopes of colours and these hard-edge, geometric flat tints, the faces of Malcolm X or Martin Luther King, but also of anonymous black people, as in the 1969 canvas I Am Somebody by Gerald Williams, which gave its name to the Peninsula Hotel exhibition and which perfectly corresponds to the dignity that emanates from the Jarrell couple. Organized in collaboration with the influential Chicago gallery Kavi Gupta, the current representative of the collective of artists, the exhibition brought together 18 works, echoing the Expo Chicago fair, and focused more specifically on the foundational years of the group and its first exhibition at the Studio Museum in Harlem in 1970.



Needless to say, the spirit of AFRICOBRA has left its mark on the Chicago art scene. In a context where racial discrimination continues to rankle in the United States, its legacy is being revived in our contemporary times, shaken up by new community-based political action, of which the Black Lives Matter movement is one of the most powerful standards. At Expo Chicago, a young generation once again strove to give visibility to the identity of the bodies and faces of black people, echoing the clamour of the streets, with the aim of inscribing it within a history of art. On the Claire Oliver Gallery’s stand, from Harlem, Stan Squirewell, Robert Peterson, and Gio Swaby each seized upon the portrait genre in their own ways to explore the memory of traditional motifs or to magnify that of African bodies. On the stand of Nara Roesler from New York, Elian Almeida’s highly acclaimed portraits of black women featured model’s poses from the covers of Vogue, whilst Mariane Ibrahim’s stand strikingly displayed the paintings of the gallery’s thirty-year-old star, the Ghanaian artist Amoako Boafo. His paintings, composed of luminous brushstrokes that showcase black, tastefully-dressed silhouettes, are going haywire on the art market (with an auction of more than a million dollars at Christie’s in 2020 after he was spotted at Art Basel Miami Beach in 2019). The gallery owner, who moved from Seattle to Chicago in 2019 and opened a space on Avenue Matignon in Paris in 2021, also presented the lyrical abstractions of the young Chicago-based artist Carmen Neely.


This new generation, which celebrates Black Power and fights stereotypes, draws inspiration from tutelary figures, well-versed in this artistic journey which is steeped in the social emancipation at the heart of Chicago’s intellectual and artistic fabric. Works by Kerry James Marshall stood out at the fair, but also in the city. He is an iconic Chicago artist who lives and works in Bronzeville. In 2017, he created a huge mural–a nod to the Wall of Respect–on the west facade of the Chicago Cultural Center. To say nothing of Theaster Gates, who notably rehabilitated part of the Greater Grand Crossing district on the South Side (also known as the Al Capone district!) by means of art, through the action of his Rebuild Foundation. (1) The latter artist also exhibited works at the Art Institute of Chicago, in a room devoted to contemporary art, alongside a dazzling painting by Mary Lovelace O’Neal, Running with Black Panthers and White Doves (circa 1989-90, from the Panthers In My Father’s Palace). O’Neal was also present at Expo Chicago on the Jenkins Johnson Gallery stand, and was the guest of Jamillah James, a curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, for a conversation in which she looked back over her career as a painter and her civil rights activism following her escape from a very poor childhood in Jackson, Mississippi, underscoring her pride in seeing a young generation still fighting for hard-won rights. 



This young, ebullient generation was also on display in the West Loop, a neighborhood of former slaughterhouses that has been undergoing major transformations over the past five years, converting its huge industrial spaces into trendy venues with restaurants, shops and art galleries. In one of them, on Peoria Street, the collective exhibition Skin in the Game was held in a nightclub atmosphere where the community of young Chicago artists rubbed shoulders with works by Kerry James Marshall and Nick Cave on the topics of skin, the latter considered in all its intimate, social, religious, identity-based and even feral aspects. This was an opportunity to grasp the richness of the alternative Chicago scene that welcomes many artists who have been priced out of New York. Here, contemporary art is freed up by a community-based and collaborative spirit. 


This spontaneous, close-knit mentality can also be found amongst collectors in Chicago, albeit in a more commercial and institutional way. They are very committed, especially to museums: “Collectors here are very interested in painting, and there is incidentally little conceptual art on the stands. This is probably partly because the Art Institute has one of the most fabulous collections of paintings in the world. Here, purchases are decided quickly, impulsively. We must not forget that Chicago is the second financial centre after New York and the first on the commodity exchange. Grain market prices are fixed in Chicago,” said Jean de Malherbe, from the Galerie La Forest Divonne, who flew from Paris for the second time to present works by Jeff Kowatch, a Californian artist based in Belgium, and the French painter Vincent Bioulès, whose L’Étang de l’Or was “the most photographed painting of the fair,” according to the gallery owner. Success was on the cards, with ten paintings being sold out of twelve.



The fair was an opportunity for the Parisian gallery owner to exhibit alongside heavy-weights from New York and Los Angeles, such as Kasmin, Richard Heller, Nancy Hoffman, Nino Mier… All these names give this fair, which was founded in 1980, a strong national dimension, although there is a tendency towards internationalization. The event, ideally located at the end of the Navy Pier, by the gigantic expanse of Lake Michigan, also boasted a fine representation of the city’s main galleries: Kavi Gupta, DOCUMENT, Mariane Ibrahim, GRAY, Rhona Hoffman and Stephen Daiter. On the latter’s stand, the Chicago-based photographer Dawoud Bey presented a magnificent series in black and white, whose powerful, silent framing played on the memorial road of old plantations along the Mississippi. “The South’s segregationist past is the story of my family, a terrible story, but one from which current African-American culture emerged. There’s no one in these photographs. I use the tradition of landscape to open a window into the mind,” the artist explained in his deep voice. “I think institutions are finally catching up and recognising the work of black artists who have been overlooked for decades, because a viable twenty-first century institution needs to be more reflective of the people. The market is also starting to catch up,” he said, adding that in Chicago, these issues can be raised from a critical perspective because the scene is under less pressure than that of New York. His opinion was shared by Anne Wilson, who has also been based in Chicago for several years, and who presented her delicate constellation-like textile works on Rhoma Hoffman’s stand: “Chicago is a city of great culture with strong museums and galleries. Many students move here. There are apartment galleries, pop-up galleries and all kinds of interesting collaborative spaces. Chicago is particularly known for what might be called its alternative or non-commercial opportunities. But alongside that, there is also a developing world of commercial art. Chicago is a city with deep roots that truly values critical thinking,” she said. And if the capital of the Midwest is nicknamed “the Windy City” because of the wind that blows incessantly between its breath-taking, science fiction-like buildings, the name might just as well refer to a wind of intellectual freedom.


Translation: Juliet Powys

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