CLEVELAND, Ohio — Some of America’s greatest artists, Black and white, have decried anti-Black racism for decades by focusing on images of Black suffering and pain.
Cleveland artist Wadsworth Jarrell, 91, a native of Georgia and one of America’s most revered Black artists, has never been one of them. Instead, he has spent his career creating images of Black beauty and power to promote self-reliance and a spirit of overcoming.
Now, having just completed a new book about AfriCOBRA, the artistic collective he helped launch in the 1960s to promote positive visions of Black life, Jarrell spoke with cleveland.com and The Plain Dealer in a Zoom interview from his home and studio in Cleveland’s Glenville neighborhood.
“White people know what they did to us,’' he said,’' explaining his artistic philosophy. “We don’t have to put it on canvas. They made slaves out of us. What are we going to do, make paintings of slaves in the field and somebody standing over them with a whip? That’s not inspiration. Painting is supposed to be inspirational.”
Birth of a collective
It was in Chicago in 1968 that Jarrell, along with his wife, fashion designer Jae Jarrell, and three other artists — Jeff Donaldson, Barbara Jones-Hogu, and Gerald Williams — organized AfriCOBRA, whose name stands for African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists.
Rooted in a rigorous aesthetic that fused brilliant colors and upbeat text with images of Black heroes and family life that have an iconic and psychedelic edge, AfriCOBRA was meant to promote Black aspirations and pride during a period of riots, protest and unrest over unmet demands for equality and opportunity.
Jarrell’s book, “AFRICOBRA: Experimental Art Toward a School of Thought,” published by Duke University Press, brings the collective’s early years back into the public eye.
In it, he writes that AfriCOBRA stood opposed to a contemporary “avalanche of weepy, lamenting, negative, woe-is-me, and look-what-they-did-to-us-art.’'
Jarrell said he worked on the book for 10 years, starting a year after he moved with Jae from New York to Cleveland. Yet by happenstance, the volume feels well-timed amid rising national awareness of systemic racism sparked by police killings of unarmed Blacks and the disproportionate impact of the coronavirus pandemic in low-income minorities.
“What we did is just as relevant today as it was in the 1960s,’' Jarrell said. “This kind of unrest hasn’t mobilized people since the 1960s.”
Lavishly illustrated with images of works by the Jarrells and AfriCOBRA colleagues including his wife, Donaldson, Jones-Hogu, and Nelson Stevens, the book describes the formation of the collective and its first three major exhibitions.