After years of hard work and dedication to their crafts and curriculums, 2020 graduates are unable to experience the joy and satisfaction of gathering for ceremonies celebrating their accomplishments, due to widespread social distancing mandates in the wake of COVID-19. In-person commencements have been replaced with virtual events.
BEFORE THEY CAME TOGETHER to form AfriCOBRA in 1968, Jae Jarrell, Wadsworth Jarrell, and Gerald Williams studied at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC). On May 16, the artists received honorary doctorates from SAIC during the 2020 online commencement exercises.
The Jarrells and Williams co-founded AfriCOBRA in Chicago, along with late artists Jeff Donaldson (1932-2004) and Barbara Jones-Hogu (1938-2017), who earned a BFA from SAIC in 1964 and later taught at the school.
Established in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement and at the height of the Black Power and Black Arts movements, AfriCOBRA promoted powerful and uplifting images. The group was dedicated to unity and strengthening the spirit, mindset, and political will of the black community.
The collective communicated in a language of bold images defined by bright colors, rhythmic text, and positive portrayals of black people. Printmaking was a significant aspect of their activities, emphasizing the importance of making their artwork affordable and accessible to the masses.
“We expressed a willingness to work as a collective, realizing its uniqueness and multifaceted characteristics, given each artist’s background and education. All of us had studied at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in some form, or had attended the same institution for advanced studies.”
— Wadsworth Jarrell
In his new book, “AFRICOBRA: Experimental Art toward a School of Thought,” Wadsworth Jarrell writes about AfriCOBRA’s first meeting in June 1968 and their common backgrounds. The artists assembled in his work space (WJ Studios and Gallery) and discussed each other’s work.
“Jae and Barbara made comments critiquing Gerald’s painting. The critiques in the beginning were more complimentary than critical but would later become sincere. This would be a test of our egos. We expressed a willingness to work as a collective, realizing its uniqueness and multifaceted characteristics, given each artist’s background and education. All of us had studied at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in some form, or had attended the same institution for advanced studies,” Jarrell writes.
“Jeff and Barbara had attended the Illinois Institute of Technology and Design. Jeff and I had roots in the South– Arkansas and Georgia. Barbara and Gerald were products of Chicago, and Jae was born in Cleveland, Ohio. With all our experiences and with parents of varied professions, and as mature artists, we brought an enormous amount of talent and expertise to the table.”
He continues: “Our experiences emboldened our ideas and resolve as artists because of our formal educational backgrounds in art and our professional exhibition endeavors. Additionally, we were products of strong family structures. All of us had family members we thought of as role models.”
GIVEN THE CURRENT CIRCUMSTANCES, the commencement activities took place online. In addition to the living AfriCOBRA artists, SAIC honored Katherine Sherwood and Mel Chin.
A San Francisco-based painter and UC Berkeley professor, Sherwood suffered a brain hemorrhage 23 years ago, a life-changing experience that also altered her approach to her art practice. Chin, the inimitable North Carolina-based artist, has a multifaceted social practice involving individual and collective projects. He was invited to deliver the commencement address. SAIC described all the honorees as “citizen artists.”
SAIC President Elissa Tenny and Jefferson Pinder, an artist, professor of sculpture, and interim dean of faculty, paid tribute the Jarrells and Williams in a video conference call with each party in a different location.
Pinder introduced the honorees by stating that AfriCOBRA artists were revolutionaries determined to change the world by seeing it anew.
Acknowledging their individual practices and collective strength, Pinder said AfriCOBRA artists “marshalled their talent political will and sense of responsibility in jointly creating a new black aesthetic which to this day provides uplift to black people and inspires adoration among all art lovers.”
Pinder added: “The members of AfriCOBRA were not primarily concerned with validation from the white art establishment. Rather they sought to speak to and advocate for black people, creating a purposeful art expressing statements of truth, action, and education.”
AfriCOBRA were not primarily concerned with validation from the white art establishment. Rather they sought to speak to and advocate for black people, creating a purposeful art expressing statements of truth, action, and education.” — Jefferson Pinder, SAIC
Tenny asked the artist why working together as a collective so important. “I had always been impressed with the idea of strength in unity,” Williams said. “A group of people coming together are stronger than a single individual, in a lot cases The individual being put to service of a bigger cause is something I was impressed with.”
At the conclusion, each artist offered words of wisdom to the graduating students:
Wadsworth Jarrell (SAIC Diploma, 1958): Follow your dreams and hone your skills so you will be prepared to make that dream a reality. And also be intelligent enough to assess you ability, and what you can do, and your value, and your worth regardless of the opinion of others.
Gerald Williams (SAIC 1966-67): Never ever throw anything away that you produce. And always produce. Always work, even when you don’t have inspiration. Take good notes, because in the future, near future, people are going to be interested in the interesting times that you sculpt or draw or paint or manage.
Jae Jarrell (SAIC 1959-61): Be independent. Create. Feel powerful and you will be powerful. CT
TOP IMAGE: Jae Jarrell and Wadsworth Jarrell. | School of the Art Institute of Chicago Magazine, Courtesy SAIC
FIND MORE about AfriCOBRA’s exhibition during the 2019 Venice Biennale on Culture Type
WATCH VIDEOS of entire SAIC 2020 virtual commencement