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UBC Theses and Dissertations

It’s a Black thing -- you wouldn’t understand : the Wall of Respect, Africobra, and the birth of a new aesthetic Phillips, James Wellington


During the late 1960's in America, Black people began to realize the failures of the Civil Rights Movement. Their previous desire for non-violent integration, -which had sparked behavior in the white community ranging from violent opposition to benign neglect—had radicalized to embrace a notion of separatism and liberation from America. Black Cultural Nationalism called for Black Power and an affirmation of the currency of Black culture that required representation. The Black Arts Movement attempted to meet these needs by attempting to establish a Black Aesthetic. Qualities of Black art and the Black aesthetic were hotly debated in the media as both black and white writers argued the relevancy of black art. The Black aesthetic advocated a return to figuration and social realism, deemed essential to communicate with the black masses, as well as an espousal of the political responsibility of the artist. The critique of a black art was based on the argument that the category ghettoized and essentialized black artists. Instead a Greenbergian modernist aesthetic was embraced that favored abstraction over figuration, perceiving figurative art as low art. This was the dilemma faced by the politically minded artist in Franti's lyric. How can an artist make aesthetically valid art and maintain its access—and relevancy to Black people. An articulation of these black cultural problems needed a specific visual vocabulary. In my paper I will examine the art coalition called Africobra—The African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists- as they attempted to negotiate the fine line between socially relevant and aesthetically viable art. Formed in Chicago in the wake of the 1968 Democratic Convention Riots, Africobra wanted to produce and exhibit art specifically for Black people without their art being dismissed as protest art. By merging their figurative art with African color schemes and textile patterns, Africobra aspired to create their own type of African-influenced social commentary. They chose Africa as a source of pride as the 'dark continent' had recently shed its colonial ties to emerge as a free land for Black people. Africa thus represented ties to a forgotten past, and hope for an independent future for American Blacks. My thesis will focus on an event that galvanized the Black Arts Movement, and brought together the artists that would later form Africobra. That event was the 1967 creation of the Wall of Respect, a public mural on the south side of Chicago that depicted images of Black heroes and contemporary politics. Using the mural as well as Africobra prints and paintings, I will argue that their work questioned conventional aesthetics and endeavored to create a space for a new black aesthetic. This merging of social realism and African color was made more poignant by the inclusion of African notions of the functional communal object. By returning to their African roots, Africobra was critiquing the Western art world while glorifying their own heritage. By doing this they believed that they could inject some much needed color into White America.

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