The Black Arts Movement Deserves Its Place in the Revolution

By Nidhi Bhavsar

The 1960s was an increasingly politicised landscape for the black community, facing the deaths of influential leaders like Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. alongside riots such as the 5-day Watts riots in 1965.

The assassination of Malcolm X created a stir amongst artists in the black community, who began to explore the civil rights movement in their artwork as an expression of their search for justice and equality. The 60s and the 70s saw a variety of arts, music, drama and poetry emerging on the scene, which marked the beginning of the black arts movement.

AfriCOBRA is an excellent place to start the conversation on black artists and their mark on history. AfriCOBRA, the African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists, was a Chicago-based group whose arts were a testament to black culture and identity, which ensued a political outcry that could not be ignored.

The very style of their artwork promised this attention as the pieces produced by AfriCOBRA’s founding members: Jeff Donaldson, Wadsworth Jarrel, Gerald Williams, and Barbara Jones-Hogu, showcased bright pop art-like colours with fluorescent yellows and pinks dominating the frame.

Art of the revolution included representation of black figures in paintings, especially those of the common people (Dindga McCannon, Benny Andrews). Some of the themes depicted included police brutality, an issue still common to this day. Cleveland Bellow was an artist that showed a young black boy with his hands up in the air on a billboard, a possible allegory of the phrase, “Hands up, Don’t shoot”, which originated after the killing of Michael Brown, an 18-year-old shot by a white police officer in 2014.

Other themes included rising numbers of black men being drafted for the Vietnam War, black protesters being subdued with violence, fire hoses and mass arrests like the children of Birmingham, Alabama’s Children’s Crusade in 1963, depicted in Joe Minter’s ‘Children in Jail’ – and so on.

Depictions of several black icons were central in some paintings, including sprinter Lee Evans (in Marie Johnson-Calloway’s ‘The Winner’) and Angela Davis and Malcolm X (in Wadsworth Jarrel’s works ‘Revolutionary’ and ‘Black Prince’). African tribals are also a common element; patterns and faces added a dash of heritage to the mainly American black movement, like the striking works of Jeff Donaldson.

The artistic media used among these artists was extremely diverse and experimental. Marie Johnson-Calloway, for instance, not only used pigment, metal and plastic on wood but also human hair and fabrics in the same piece (like Witchdoctor II).

The black arts movement also developed a presence within the fashion world, with Jae Jarrell’s coats and dresses designed and made in beautiful earthy blues, browns, greens and reds. The African elements are clearly seen within her pieces through traditional patterns and beads.

Depictions of black figures can also be seen on her designs, paired with striking text to emphasise her message – the words ‘Black Prince’ adorn one dress, taken from a painting of Malcolm X created by her husband Wadsworth A. Jarrell, who was also a prominent artist on the scene.

Many artists like Lev T Mills and Kay Brown also used collages and prints, adding unconventionality to the common artists’ repertoire.

The struggles of black women are a further notable issue to touch on. Black women not only struggled with being black in a ‘white world’ but also with being women in a man’s world. Kay Brown and other artists established the ‘Where We At’ Black Women’s Artists group, and with the help of Dindga McCannon, managed their first exhibition amidst scepticism. This resulted in momentum, press attention and recognition.

Another collaborative exhibition in 1986, which included black male artists, was described as “one of the crowning achievements in WWA’s history.” Women and men worked together to display their art as a joining of the two to create a ‘third thing,’ thus casting gender differences aside for a common cause, the civil rights movement.

The black arts movement is an often-unrecognised part of the civil rights movement of the 60s and 70s, albeit an impactful one. Pop art at the time engendered a bright and playful, dominating aesthetic, while a few others stuck to morose art with subtle yet powerful messaging. But regardless of artistic style, the creations were iconic and worth recognising. They were deep and emotive; the struggles of black people, male or female, were as clear as day.

Art is always a good way to study history as it’s an interpretive medium of expression. The black arts movement deserves its place today as a part of the revolution.

Pitch given by Leah Buist
Edited by Theerada Moonsiri