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Between Abstract and Barack

by Patrick Lynn Rivers
2 Jul 2012 • Comment (0) • Print
Posted: Post-Racial Imaginaries [9.1] | Commons

There is not a seamless line connecting Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, 1968 politics to Barack Obama’s 2008 election.  Thinking about abstraction in art helps to explain why African American artists could pursue a different politics than African American politicians.

Figure 1. Romare Bearden, Prevalence of Ritual: Mysteries, 1964

“To abstract,” as understood by artists, is to expose the limits of and expand the ways by which something can be represented and understood.  Artists who abstract notably move away from figurative representation and towards representation that is not so easily recognizable.  Abstraction allows what is being represented to become recognizable and knowable in different ways.  For African American visual artist-social worker-songwriter Romare Bearden, abstracting resulted in Mysteries (1964)(Figure 1) from his Prevalence of Ritual series with its abstract composition outside figurative representation, yet discernibly black in its depiction of the everyday. By abstracting, Bearden, in short, tested the limits of and expanded the ways that blackness in particular could be imagined, and realized. He did this via a very particular process: using rainbow rolls, photo, and hand coloring, as well as by bringing white male canonical art masters into conversation with the everyday of working class black folks without working class blackness being hierarchically subsumed by canonical whiteness; collaborating with artists working in different media, yes, but also challenging a friend like political theorist Hannah Arendt when, for example, Arendt saw activism and litigation by blacks in 1950s Little Rock as merely a social struggle distracting from what she saw as a more substantial fight for political rights.[1]

Abstracting blackness, a black and young group of Chicago community-based artists and designers formed AfriCOBRA in 1968—the African Coalition of Bad [as in “good,” as in, clap, “Dyn-o-mite!”] Relevant Artists.[2]  These artists were in synch with the new black assertiveness not disconnected from the progressive politics of late-1960s youth activists from Chicago to Prague.

Contrary to the assertions of some scholars contributing to Is it Nation Time?,[3] AfriCOBRA as art collective informed by Black Power and nationalism was not strictly insular.  AfriCOBRA co-founder Jeff Donaldson wrote in a manifesto published in a 1970 issue of Black World that the “buoyant times” of the early 1960s were over; no more would “the ‘negro’” succumb to “education, integration, accommodation, assimilation, overcomation (sic), mainstremation (sic).”[4]  Instead, AfriCOBRA was to be oppositional, abstracting representations of blackness in particular — that is, taking blackness in the U.S. outside white supremacist representations and even outside the representations of black establishment voices at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) headed by Martin Luther King, Jr., and its youth affiliate, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).  And this was an unfixed blackness, yet a blackness identifiably black even as AfriCOBRA engaged white artists (faculty and students) at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and the Illinois Institute of Technology in debates about civil rights and Vietnam, even as AfriCOBRA drew its own name from the post-WWII COBRA movement in Europe through which white artists sought to democratize art with Marxist principles.  These cultural currents converged in a number of Chicago spaces — downtown, on the (mostly white) North Side of Chicago, not to mention the South Side Community Art Center (in the historically black Bronzeville community).

Figure 2. Barbara Jones-Hogu, To Be Free, 1971

Barbara Jones-Hogu, also an AfriCOBRA co-founder, promoted this new abstractable blackness in a pair of 1971 silkscreen prints.  (Notably, the blackness, here, described by Jones-Hogu also echoed the flexibility yet strong sense of self needed for the coalition politics advocated by Shirley Chisholm, the late member of the U.S. House of Representatives.[5])  In Unite, image and word texts show what Jones-Hogu characterized as a blackness represented in unfixed ways with “free symmetry,” with “syncopated, rhythmic repetition which constantly changes in color, texture, shapes, form, pattern, movement, feature.”[6]  Yet, in Unite, prominent are the Kool-Aid colors, anti-straightening-comb afros, Black Power fists, with black men and women whose faces reference African mask art.  Likewise, Jones-Hogu’s To Be Free (Figure 2) was all about, as Jones-Hogu wrote, “the interesting irregularity one senses in a freely drawn circle or organic object, the feeling of movement, growth, changes.”[7]  Yet, identifiably black, To Be Free also centered a potent symbol for African Americans in the early 1970s—a black woman, with strong shoulders and distinctly African facial features, topped with an afro crown, a-la-Angela Davis and the poster art of that moment, calling for Angela to be sheltered in “our” homes while on the run, or freed once caught.

Figure 3. Jeff Donaldson, JamPact/JelliTite, 1988

Figure 4. Adger W. Cowans, Water Series 1, 2005

That was AfriCOBRA in the lead-up to and aftermath of 1968.  Though AfriCOBRA is still active, with Baltimore-Washington, D.C., being more of its epicenter than Chicago, AfriCOBRA’s work is even more broadly abstract and abstractable. AfriCOBRA representations of blackness, and what blackness can be, being even more varied and dynamic, yet unequivocably black, with blackness and the material politics being attached to it being the antithesis of stasis.  For example, Jeff Donaldson’s 1988 JamPact/JelliTite (Figure 3) is without the early AfriCOBRA Kool-Aid colors and black power iconography, but with figures even more abstractly embedded in the piece than in early AfriCOBRA work.  It is, as painters and critics say of painting as discipline, “slow,” where, in the case of JamPact/JelliTite, you can return to the richly layered geometric shapes constituting abstract figures and see a new iteration of blackness.  As reiterated in an article for a 2007 AfriCOBRA exhibition at the Hampton University Museum, styles and mediums vary in the current lineup of collective members.  Adger Cowans—a current and probably most abstract AfriCOBRA member—epitomizes this move away from more afrocentric making.  Cowan’s recent work (Figure 4) is not so much about “the race” as it is about the individual, especially the individual artist and “the artist’s responsibility…to keep the temple [body, mind and spirit] clear and open.”[8] The author of the exhibition article basically considered Cowans’ statement to be a kind of personal manifesto, in which “the ultimate goal of liberation is freedom,” something attainable only through “pure abstraction,” with the effect of connecting blackness in the U.S. to Africa and its diaspora in yet another way.[9]

AfriCOBRA history, 1968-2008, is the way it is for a reason: blackness can be abstracted—taken outside fixed boundaries—yet still be black. This becomes evident in a 1997 “conversation” in which African American curator Karen C. C. Dalton interviewed Lowery Sims, an African American collector of memorabilia representing African Americans in stereotypical ways, and Michael Harris, an African American historian of art as well as an AfriCOBRA member. The interview recurrently returned to the question of whether or not images rooted in racist representations could be turned upon themselves.  Harris, the historian and AfriCOBRA member, answered no. (“I don’t think that Sambo ever becomes Nat Turner,” according to Harris.)[10] This led Dalton, the curator and interviewer, to ask about younger African American artists like Kara Walker and Michael Ray Charles who abstract blackness by directly but not didactically referencing white supremacist stereotypes.  Lowery Sims, the collector, gingerly replied that Harris’ especially sensitive response might be grounded in black insecurities about the physical markers of blackness, which younger artists more easily address.[11] The 1960s and 1970s insecurities, as Sims pegged them, led to “the black nationalist, big breasted, big buttocks, big Afro stereotype of black womanhood,” which Sims, by her own admission, “certainly couldn’t live up to.”[12] Ultimately, Sims suggested that African Americans, especially intellectuals, must broadly explore blackness regardless of where representations of blackness emerge.  Early AfriCOBRA enjoyed such license, reflecting AfriCOBRA’s engagement with a particular multicultural and global moment when the times made such explorations possible and urgent in the everyday.

From Here
Martin Luther King, Jr.’s 1963 dream is easier to remember, not to mention reckon with, than his 1968 dream. That 1963 dream was very much in line with the vision of the civil rights generation. Namely, in the 1950s and early 1960s, the civil rights generation led by King sought a colorblind society, in which, as Shirley Chisholm wrote, “a lot of us hoped that all it would take was to convince the white majority of the simple truth and justice of our cause, and the day of equality would dawn.” Chisholm added: “The movement was a failure.  Everyone who was deeply involved in it hates to admit that.”[13]

In response to the above “failure,” and the political energies of black youth including those constituting AfriCOBRA, King interestingly became the leader of both the post-civil rights generation as well as the civil rights generation.  He articulated post-civil rights generation concerns in his 1967 “Where Do We Go From Here” speech delivered in Atlanta to the tenth anniversary conference of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.  “Here,” for King, was everything from housing inequality to disproportionate African American troop deaths in Vietnam.  “Where do we go,” according to King, included augmenting black knowledge of self, meaning that African Americans “must no longer be ashamed of being black”[14] in order to “upset this cultural homicide”[15] that demeans black dignity.  Further, African Americans needed to embrace both love and power.  He continued, “Power without love is reckless and abusive and that love without power is sentimental and anemic.”  Ultimately, for King, “power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting anything that stands against love.”[16]  This, along with introducing material elements like a guaranteed income, meant that the structural apparatus upon which the U.S. functioned would start to become undone and then reconstructed.  King, in fact, likened this project to the biblical figure Nicodemus needing to be “born again.”  Likewise, America, according to King, needed to be “born again.”

Figure 5. Image by Platon, The New Yorker, 22 Sept 2008

Black politicians from 1968-2008—from Richard Hatcher and Shirley Chisholm to Bobby Rush and Barack Obama—abstracted blackness in their own way by navigating within and between racial groups and political perspectives on race.  In doing so, African American electoral politics from the late 1960s moved inward in response to white racism as black political elites sought to protect narrow racial interests.  As a result, during the 1970s and 1980s, black politicians largely found themselves relegated to representing inner-city “homelands.”  From the 1990s in particular, younger African American politicians like Barack sought to appeal to broader racial constituencies by embracing the cropped perspective of an increasingly neoliberal consensus prevalent among Democratic and Republican politicians alike as these politicians ran away from a state-centered multicultural developmentalism in which racism and its intersections were understood to be more than an anomaly. This African American politics from the 1990s on was very much about the expedience of now (see Figure 5.) Both 1970s-1980s and 1990s-2000s formulas for advancement through electoral politics failed to produce the society about which King dreamed because the prism through which electoral politics could be abstracted and realized shrank.

Today’s electoral politics, neoliberal to its core, will not help America be “born again” as art and design can.  Hence, we arrive at divergent paths followed by African American artists and designers on the one hand, and African American politicians on the other hand.  Artists and designers of the 1960s and today can imagine and hope to realize the nexus of love and power not to mention the structural rebirth envisioned by King.  For example, AfriCOBRA artists and their heirs highlighted in shows like Freestyle sought to make an impact upon formal politics by acting against, undoing, and reconstructing the systemic underpinnings of a racially supremacist U.S.[17]  Politicians who want to get elected and reelected in the conventional way cannot easily buck the neoliberal consensus because they are imbricated within these systemic underpinnings even as they try to place a gloss over these underpinnings in order to win elections.

Barack Obama himself, without intending to do so, hinted at why elected officials regardless of race cannot get us to where we need to be—why elected officials cannot further King’s dream, or even really dream King’s dream.  Notably, Obama differentiated himself from King in particular in his 2009 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance lecture.  King, according to Obama, stood for particular political ideals—and he could stand for these political ideals—because he was not a head of state like Obama.  While not dismissing King outright, Obama saw King as merely offering a moral vision—not a practical vision—emphasizing love over power.[18]  In fact, King rejected such a dichotomy in which “love is identified with a resignation of power, and power with a denial of love.”[19]

More able to “see the revolution” in multivectored ways, artists and designers can understand that race and racism are abstractable and will continue to be abstractable as artists and designers explore, for example, blackness in their work and as African American studies undergraduates and graduate students, for example, find themselves pondering critical race theories alongside African Americans of Ethiopian heritage and those of Indian and Tibetan descent whose experiences with colonialism are different yet similar to the African American experience. Artists and designers recognize that blackness remains abstractable in the everyday, outside art and design and what we understand to be formal politics.  Some of this comes to the surface in a 2007 Pew Center poll.  One of the major findings is that 40% of black respondents in the Pew survey suggest that we cannot say that there is a singular black race in the U.S. because of the internal diversity within this racial demographic.[20]

Artists and designers appreciate the utility of abstraction as they arrange and rearrange race as construct along with accompanying political alliances and coalitions that can point us in a direction other than a neoliberal one.  This helps to make coalitions and alliances more possible, as, for example, black middle class values increasingly become more in synch with the larger middle class and less linked to the black poor.  Dreams permit us to imagine a blackness not solely dependent upon melanin.  Coalitions and alliances bring material inequalities within and between difference to the fore.  Dreams empower us to understand political possibilities in coalitions and alliances without the old material guarantees. Artists and designers know that abstracting allows African American-Latina/o ties to be realized, both as a matter of fact as well as a matter of political exigency in order to advance love and power. This realization shone through in art and design work shown at the 2006 and 2010 “African Presence in Mexico” collaborative exhibitions curated across racial difference and forging change at Chicago’s National Museum of Mexican Art and Chicago’s DuSable Museum of African American History.


1. See Hannah Arendt, “Reflections on Little Rock,” Dissent 6 (1959):45-56. [↑]

2. See Eddie S. Glaude, ed. Is It Nation Time?:  Contemporary Essays on Black Power and Black Nationalism, (Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 2002).  Former U.S. Representative Shirley Chisholm argued not unlike I do, here, in her autobiography Unbought and Unbossed when she labeled the Black Power insularity critiques of white activists and the black middle class as “shortsighted,” which is not to say that she had no disagreements with those she called “young zealots.”  Chisholm, Unbought and Unbossed, (New York:  Houghton Mifflin, 1970), 136, 171.  Chisholm wrote of critics of Black Power:  “To their minds, Stokely Carmichael and George Wallace had the same goal—rigid segregation of the races.  That interpretation of Black Power was a shortsighted one.  Perhaps the young black leaders who hit upon the concept did not realize it, but they had grasped a real American political truth.”  Chisholm, 136. [↑]

3. On AfriCobra, see AfriCobra:  The First Twenty Years, (Atlanta:  Nexus Contemporary Art Center); Alice Thorson, “AfriCobra—Then and Now:  An Interview with Jeff Donaldson,” New Art Examiner 17 (1990):26-31; Robert L. Douglas, “An Afri-Cobra Artist:  Wadsworth Jarrell,” American Visions 11 (October-November 1996):16-19. [↑]

4. Jeff Donaldson, “Ten in Search of a Nation,” Black World (October 1970):80. [↑]

5. Notably, the blackness, here, described by Jones-Hogu also echoed the flexibility yet strong sense of self needed for the coalition politics advocated by Shirley Chisholm, the late member of the U.S. House of Representatives.  Chisholm wrote:  “By its nature, [coalition politics] confronts the traditional politics of expediency and compromise.  It is called into being by the failure of compromises and the shabby results of action taken out of expediency.  It is not a comfortable kind of political action for its leaders, because it involves creativity, innovation, change, and commitment to the people instead of to personal advancement.  It means opening up participation to the out-groups as well as the in-groups, and giving real power instead of token representation to the minorities, at the policy-making and administrative levels.  It means real effort to make the base as broad as possible and the leadership as responsive as possible and the leadership as responsive as possible to the needs of a wide and various constituency.”  Chisholm 128. [↑]

6. Barbara Jones-Hogu, “The History, Philosophy and Aesthetics of AfriCOBRA,” (1973). [↑]

7. Jones-Hogu. [↑]

8. “The Current Collective,” International Review of African American Art 14 (2007):8.  On Cowans, also see Dowoti Desir, “Adger W. Cowans:  Running Deep with Photography,” NKA:  Contemporary African Art 24 (2009):136-143. [↑]

9. “The Current Collective,” 9. [↑]

10. Karen C. C. Dalton, “The Past is Prologue but is Parody and Pastiche Progress:  A Conversation,” International Review of African American Art 14 (1997):20. [↑]

11. Dalton, 20. [↑]

12. Dalton, 18. [↑]

13. Chisholm, 135. [↑]

14. Martin Luther King, Where Do We Go from Here:  Chaos or Community?, (Boston:  Beacon, 2010), 42. [↑]

15. King, 44. [↑]

16. King, 38. [↑]

17. See Thelma Golden, Freestyle, (New York:  Studio Museum in Harlem, 2001). [↑]

18. Barack Obama, “Remarks by the President at the Acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize,” (10 December 2009). [↑]

19. King, 37. [↑]

20. Pew Research Center, Optimism about Black Progress Declines:  Blacks See Growing Values Gap Between Poor and Middle Class, (Washington, D.C.:  Pew Research Center, 2007). [↑]

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Patrick Lynn Rivers is an associate professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He is the author of Governing Hate and Race in the United States and South Africa.
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