Art Synergy: The Emerging of A New Visual Art Renaissance on Chicago’s Southside

October 15, 2013
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NEVER had I seen art like this.

Backdrops of lime green with “coolade” colored art did more than adorn the walls and present a new exhibit. This was something refreshing. The visuals were vibrant. The artwork shouted freedom, creativity, authenticity, and bold text awakened a sense of identity  – Black identity with a Black-based aesthetic. Stories were being told. Messages were bold.

And it wasn’t until Bill Michel, Executive Director of the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts, unlocked the glass doors exposing the AFRICOBRA in Chicago exhibit, that it all hit me.

Art can spark revolution when it reflects society. In fact, that’s exactly what the work of AfriCOBRA constructed, on their terms and their philosophy. The power and beauty of each composition evoke conversation and influence progressive ideologies that allude to solutions working toward building community and the Black family.

Yes, the coolade colors aide in a pleasant shock, but it was something much deeper that caused a shift, mentally. There was an exciting energy created by vivid colors, imagery and language. The focus was not on the oppression of Black people and their oppressor but rather an outlook of progression, the family unit and the relationships between man and woman.

The language fused in the art, were of revolutionary and liberating context. There was no way to misunderstand what you were looking at because the artists of AfriCOBRA made sure to be direct in their messaging. And could care less as to what critics had to say. It wasn’t for them. It was for the people.

It was this group that changed the perception of Black art and created syntax that was very dichotomy from European concepts. The art works and fabrics made by AfriCOBRA united African Americans and planted a foundation for future generations of visual artists to make relevant art for the community. Their influence lives on.

Over the summer, Chicago’s South Side produced three mind-blowing exhibitions, AFRICOBRA in Chicago, Maleness To Manhood, and Kin Killin’ Kin. These exhibits took place at three out of the five Black art institutions on Chicago’s Southside. Included were the Southside Community Art Center (SSCAC), DuSable Museum of African American History and the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts.

With the energy the art scene create this Summer, the exhibitions have sparked a conversation surrounding an organically growing visual arts renaissance where multiple institutions are working to actively engage the community and dialogue with hopes of providing social awareness and creating change.

From the Artists to You:

All art is collective and reflects the values of the people. Therefore what makes us able to identify an artist’s work is not individuality, but personality, which is an expression of the different personal experiences of the artist within the Black framework.” – Maulana Ron Karenga, professor of African American studies, activist and author.

AFRICOBRA in Chicago (African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists), curated by Rebecca Zorach with assistance from University of Chicago faculty, staff and students, exhibited across the SSCAC, focusing on the Prehistory; The Logan Center highlighted AfriCOBRA’s aesthetic philosophies; and the DuSable Museum, curated by AfriCOBRA member Arlene Turner-Crawford held the theme “Art & Impact.”  Works from AfriCOBRA founder Jeff Donaldson and founding members Jae and Wadsworth Jarrell, Gerald Williams, Howard Mallory and Barbara Jones-Hogu were displayed, to name a few, respectfully.

Code of Silence

Code of Silence

Curated by Heather Robinson, Dayo Laoyo, and Raymond A. Thomas at the SSCAC, “Maleness To Manhood: The Reclamation of the Young Black Male” presented the works of 45 Black male artists that spoke to humanizing and celebrating the Black man while offering a visual response to the issues of mass incarceration, murder ratings and lack of education. Among the visual artists who took part were Hebru Brantley, Calvin Coleman, Gerald Griffin, Rahmaan Statik, Andre Guichard, Raymond Thomas and Dayo Laoyo, just to name a few, respectfully.

DuSable Museum’s ‘Kin Killin’ Kin’ exhibition, running thru November 20th, is a thought-provoking and brutally honest series reflecting artist James Pate’s love for and great concern for the epidemic of youth violence in the African American community. The art is layered with messages – some subliminal and others blunt; but all seeking to reach the “at-risk” African American male.

When experiencing these exhibits, I saw the foundation of Black Arts and the roots that romanticized an ideal of artistic creation and black advancement. The visual dialect is thick and the importance is rich as it represents an open canvas of the Black experience. It holds true to the aesthetic of  art for the people, of the people and by the people.

The late 1960s was an era of Black Power. The Black voice was not silent and through creative arts, a movement stirred. Mainstream progression was slow, political assassinations were taking out powerful leaders, which eventually led to marches, sit-ins, and various protests. African Americans were fighting for civil rights. The energy of the world was high.

The Black Chicago Renaissance surfaced and artists created from the energy and attitudes of society, which is what motivated AfriCOBRA when they formed in 1968 and was seen in the Maleness to Manhood and Kin Killin’ Kin exhibits.

“AfriCOBRA came about because of the mood of the country at the time,” explains painter, sculptor and print-maker, Wadsworth Jarrell, who has also recently been added to the visual art archive at the National African American Smithsonian Museum.

“When we made this art, there was a lot of energy in the country then and being in a major city like Chicago, it was great. Dr. King brought his march to [Chicago]; Dick Gregory did a march. There were all types of things going on. Artists had to get up and do something. That’s why you see so much energy built into the AFRICOBRA show.”

Art, then and now, can be used as an agent of change.

Art, Community, and Impact:

Wadsworth Jarrell "Revolutionary"

Wadsworth Jarrell “Revolutionary”


These institutions are exhibiting African-American Art and/or art of the African Diaspora. The trained technique and visual talent provide more than surfaced appeal, and extends beyond contemporary and mainstream. The pieces empower and show social, visual and contextual depth.

“What’s going on now is very organic and all in response to what’s going on nationally,” says painter and filmmaker Raymond Thomas. “And it’s all in response to love as well – us wanting to reaffirm our humanity. Hopefully, those feelings will spread further than Chicago’s South Side; but you have to be diligent in doing the work.”

The next phase in developing an appreciation for the work these artists produce is making it accessible, tangible and exciting to people who aren’t already deep into the arts.

There is hope.

Visual artists are becoming more innovative as it relates to community involvement and creating conversations where the art or the artist does not intimidate newcomers, but encourage curiosity and invite fellow creative’s to pull from these works and fuse them with their expressive outlet.

It’s the feeling that lived during the 1960s and ‘70s, where the Civil Rights Movement and The Black Arts Movement birthed a united vision and a creative platform for artists; a time when the arts fueled action.

During the AFRICOBRA exhibit, along with multiple art talks with AfriCobra founders and members –current and past, and film screenings, the Logan Center partnered with various organizations to bring in youth to experience the exhibit.

“We had over 400 youth who came here for a national spoken word (Brave Young Voices) competition and saw the exhibit and it inspired some of them to write a spoken word piece about it,” shared Bill Michel, Executive Director of the Logan Center. “We also worked with different partners to bring groups of youth of all ages in to really engage with the work in a way that we hope inspires the next generation.”

The Southside Community Art Center has always been the Mecca for Black Art, dating back to 1941. Community is a key component in their agenda. Programming surrounding the Maleness to Manhood exhibit included the “Paint the Block” event where there were five pop-up art shops throughout Bronzeville equipped with art supplies and local artists that assisted the community with the creation of small murals currently showing at SSCAC and local businesses.

Together these bodies of work are, in a sense, reviving the once culturally, socially and politically exuberant south side by connecting art to community and re-introducing art of relevance with their strong messaging, direct language and visual attraction.

Thomas expresses, “This art speaks to particular dynamics of culture and community. I think it’s vital to think about our motivation behind what we’re doing now. These times are very trying with the mass incarceration, murder rate, lack of education and the misguided minds of young people. We’re in a crisis situation. So just like those times in the 60s and 70s, our work needs to be moved by these situations.”

Please, allow that to soak in.

As with any strong message and/or plead to end violence and negativity, the challenge is broadening these conversations and exposing the arts to the audience outside of you and I.

The brother who just sold that “rock” or fired bullets at the playground for revenge, needs to know that ‘Kin Killin’ Kin’ is speaking to him and showing him where that life can lead.

The young lady who wants to give up because it’s hard keeping up with the ideals of mainstream or raising a family on her own is overwhelming; she needs to read the messages presented by AfriCOBRA artists that focus on the Black family and empower women. You can do it, sista. Keep going.

Raymond Thomas,"Poet Queens"

Raymond Thomas,”Poet Queens”

And that young fella who’s torn between two worlds – a dream for his future and a temporary run in the street life, he needs to take a look at ‘Unknown Parameter Value’ in the Maleness to Manhood exhibit and know that what’s before him in that present moment of  negativity or discouragement, can be changed. Stay focused and continue to work toward your dreams.

“Our job as artists is to create a new paradigm in the perception where we are masters of our own images,” states Thomas. “When we master our own images then we change the perception of our own realities.”

Art and creativity is a gift. Embrace it. Accept it.

“The power that you create with several voices is a chorus.”

–Jae Jarrell, sculptor using reclaimed furniture as her medium

[box_light]**Current Exhibitions**

South Side Community Art Center – Recess

Logan Center – Diasporal Rhythms: A Ten Year Love Affair With Collect Art of the African Diaspora

DuSable Museum – Kin Killin’ Kin | Charly Palmer: The Dream Lives On

Gallery Guichard

Blanc  Chicago Gallery : Shacks and Shanties[/box_light]


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