Cleveland artist Wadsworth Jarrell sets record straight on history of revolutionary AfriCOBRA collective in new book

Steven Litt,, January 10, 2021

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 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.

Cleveland artist Wadsworth Jarrell sets record straight on revolutionary AfriCOBRA collective

The cover of Wadsworth Jarrell's new book on AfriCOBRA, the innovative collective he co-founded in Chicago in 1968 Courtesy Wadsworth Jarrell, Duke University Press


Those shows traveled in 1970, ’71 and ’72 to Black-owned and managed venues across the U.S., including the art gallery at Howard University in Washington, D.C., and the Studio Museum in Harlem, in New York.


Jarrell said members of the collective wanted to speak directly to Black audiences at the time, without relying on whites.


“We painted about positive things, about what Black people should be doing,’' Jarrell, said. What we started out to do is to make art positive for Black people.”


Notes of praise

Emily Liebert, the Cleveland museum’s curator of contemporary art, called Jarrell’s book an important art historical document.


“He [Jarrell] narrates a crucial chapter of art history with a voice that’s dynamic, personal and thoroughly engaging,’' she said. “He brings readers inside AfriCOBRA, from its founding aims to its history and legacy.”


She said the book also illuminates Chicago’s role as an important artistic center.


“We really see how art is tied to place,’' she said. “The book is very much a history of art, race and culture, specifically in Chicago during the Black Power era.’'


Chicago art historian Jeffreen Hayes, who curated the exhibitions, “AfriCOBRA: Messages to The People,’' and “AfriCOBRA: Nation Time,’' shown in Miami and Venice, respectively in 2018 and 2019, praised Jarrell’s book as “a really beautiful story about African-American history, visual culture, and pop culture.’'


AfriCOBRA continues today as an artistic collective, but Jarrell left the group in 1998 because he said his work was beginning to feel repetitive.


“Once you do something a long time you become a cartoon of yourself and it’s almost like doing it in your sleep,’' he said. “I had to stop and change.’'


Jarrell’s evolving work has earned enthusiastic responses from galleries and museums. In 2016, for example, the Cleveland Museum of Art paid $97,500 at auction for a 1973 Jarrell painting of two Black musicians, entitled “Heritage,’' then a record for his work. Since then, Jarrell said his work has fetched even higher prices in auctions and private sales.


The museum followed up a year later with a full exhibition devoted to both Jarrells, including recent paintings, sculptures and designs.


Setting the record straight

Dressed in jeans and a light-colored sweatshirt during the interview, Jarrell sported shoulder-length dreadlocks and a white ball cap emblazoned with a light blue capital “B.’'


The B appeared significant because Jarrell used the letter like a mosaic tile to construct his luminous AfriCOBRA portraits of Malcolm X, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the activist and academic Angela Davis.


But he said the letter on the hat didn’t stand for the B in his work or in AfriCOBRA.


Instead, it’s the logo for the Broad Museum in Los Angeles, which he and Jae visited in March, 2019 to see their work displayed in “Soul Of A Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power,’' an international touring exhibition organized by the Tate Modern, London and the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.


A self-described stickler about how his work is interpreted, Jarrell said he wrote his new book to set the record straight about AfriCOBRA’s origins and principles.


For example, in a 1972 review in The Washington Post, critic Paul Richard said the capital letter “B,’' that Jarrell used to construct his fiery likeness of Angela Davis stood for “Bad,’' “Black,’' and “Beautiful.”


Wrong, Jarrell says in the book. “I constructed the painting of the letter B to represent only the profound statement of praise extolling our people at the time — ‘Black is Beautiful.’ ’'


“Bad,’' indicated by the B in AfriCOBRA, was seen by the collective, Jarrell writes, as a way of calling for an art that “implied imperative meanings like bold, certainty, and integrity.’'


Early ambitions

Born in 1929 in Albany, Georgia, Jarrell grew up as the youngest of six children on a working farm in Athens, near the University of Georgia, whose campus and museum were closed to Blacks. Nevertheless, inspired by illustrations in The Saturday Evening Post, Jarrell kindled artistic ambitions from an early age.


After serving in the Army for two years, including an artillery deployment near the front lines in the Korean War, he began taking night classes at the Ray Vogue School of the Art in Chicago in 1953.


A year later he enrolled full-time at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where the G.I. Bill helped fund his tuition. He graduated in 1958.


At times supporting himself as a commercial photographer or graphic artist, Jarrell also later taught at Howard University, Spelman College and the University of Georgia — the same institution that once barred him from its museum.


He and Jae moved to Cleveland from New York after one of Jae’s childhood friends made her aware of an affordable condominium for sale overlooking East Boulevard and Rockefeller Park.


The Jarrells bought two floors in the building, using one for living and sharing the other as studio space. They enjoy the lower cost of living here, while maintaining professional contacts in other cities.


“It’s great,’' he said. “You don’t have to live in New York City to have dealers in New York.”


Opposing visions of violence

In the interview, Jarrell said he’s still opposed to art that tries to combat anti-Black racism by depicting violence against Blacks.


He said he deplored white artist Dana Schutz’s controversial painting of the slain Emmett Till, displayed at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 2017. Till was a Black 14-year-old who was murdered and mutilated by white men in Mississippi in 1955.


Jarrell also supports the controversial decision by the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland last March to cancel an exhibition of charcoal drawings by New York artist Shaun Leonardo, who identifies as Afro-Latino.


The drawings depict police killings of Black men and boys, including Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old Clevelander shot and killed by patrolman Timothy Loehmann.


Leonardo publicly accused MOCA Cleveland of censoring him. The museum said it canceled the show over fears it would re-traumatize victims of police violence in Cleveland. Samaria Rice, Tamir’s mother, later publicly stated she is opposed to art such as Leonardo’s.

“I would never make art of police killing anybody,’' Jarrell said. “I wouldn’t make any painting of anyone killing anyone because it’s a negative thing.”


Following underlying AfriCOBRA ideals, Jarrell is now working on a vibrantly colorful portrait of Jack Johnson (1878-1945), who became the first Black world heavyweight boxing champion in 1908.


“It’s infectious,’' Jarrell said of his AfriCOBRA loyalties, despite his departure from the group. “You can’t just drop it.”


And today, Jarrell said he’s glad to be around to offer fresh testimony about the collective he helped to establish.


“The good part is I’m here to write about it,’' he said. “If we were dead, all kinds of things would be written about it that weren’t true.”