AfriCOBRA stands for African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists. As a
Run-D.M.C. lyric famously explains: “Not bad meaning bad, but bad
meaning good.” This handful of African-American artists has been
creating a visual exponent of the black cultural revolution since the
late 1960s. Their manifesto emphasizes social commitment, but also
includes such goals as reaching “vibratory shock” and “expressive
The members also strive for “mimesis at
midpoint: where real meets unreal exactly between absolute abstraction
and absolute naturalism.” In the show AfriCOBRA: Liberated Images, now at the Community Folk Art Center, each artist uses radically different means to stay within these guidelines.
When Adger W. Cowans begins his
paintings he lays down a smooth horizon of color reminiscent of the
empty backgrounds of Yves Tanguy or Salvador Dali. Then he dabs thick
saturated paint across the surface. The blobs seem to resolve into
figures and dance across the dull space.
Nelson Stevens chooses equally bold
colors for his acrylic portraits. Close up, his lines of neon blues,
hot magentas and golden yellows seem to shoot off on their own
tangents. At normal viewing distance the faces gain solidity and a
sense of depth.
James Phillips’ blinding op-art pattern
makes up “VeVe.” Hidden within the checkerboard of bright colors are
abstract masks and dancing figures. The works of Murry DePillars and
Akili Ron Anderson also embed imagery within overwhelmingly dense
Jeff Donaldson’s images are much easier
to separate from the design. In the lithograph “Wives of Shango,” a
nude woman and her mirror image have their faces partially obscured by
circular patterns and a halo of world flags. The title refers to the
sky god of Yoruba mythology. A flying scarab is another reference to
African culture, this time to the ancient Egyptians. Interestingly,
Donaldson uses corrugated cardboard shapes to connect the composition
to modern American life.
“Penance for Oshun” is the title of a
digitally manipulated photograph by Michael D. Harris. In Yoruba
mythology, Oshun is the wife of Shango; although generous and kind, she
has a terrible temper. The original image is of a proud woman with
little round glasses and a slight smile, seated in a wicker chair. A
second ghost image sits just to the side. Drawings of birds, snakes and
the moon embellish the picture. The words “All of our thoughts are
prayers” are repeated to form a mantra.
Harris is also represented by a small
wooden shadowbox titled “Survivor Patchwork.” The top portion of the
box is house-shaped. Within it an old photograph of a black couple from
the turn of the century is framed by irregular leather scraps held in
place by gold nails. Below a rectangular box holds miniature items—a
tiny corked bottle, a delicate teacup, a glass doorknob, a Marine band
harmonica, a wooden pipe and some paper flowers—a la Joseph Cornell.
You get the impression that the couple worked tirelessly to create a
good life despite humble means and limited opportunity.
Kevin Cole’s sculptures were inspired by
the gruesome practice of lynching. Each is a tangled knot of copper
sheets with a necktie shape hanging down below. The metal is etched,
painted and otherwise decorated. Titles like “Measuring Hope I” and
“Dreams Overcoming Fears” show a desire to turn the imagery on its head.
Napoleon Jones- Henderson has some
paintings in the show but they are eclipsed by his 6-foot-tall
multimedia shrine “4 Little Girls 16th St Baptist Church.” The
reference, of course, is to the 1963 arson of a Birmingham, Ala.,
church which helped galvanize the civil rights movement. A small wooden
model with cutaway walls represents the church. It is photo-montaged
inside and out with images of hardship reaching back into the days of
slavery. In one corner, each girl’s face is pasted onto an ancient
Egyptian coffin. This structure sits atop a column draped in a panoply
of heavily patterned fabric scales and cowrie shells.
America’s legacy of racism is one of the
ugliest aspects of our country. This show proves that beauty can be
used as a weapon against that ugliness.
AfriCOBRA: Liberated Images runs
through April 5 at the Community Folk Art Center, 805 E. Genesee St.
The center is open Tuesdays through Fridays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.,
Saturdays, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. For information, call 442-2230.