Beyond the Bauhaus: How a Chicago-Based Art Collective Defined Their Own Aesthetic

Beyond the Bauhaus

Much of what has informed graphic design education comes from the Western world, with a heavy emphasis on principles and practices from movements like the Bauhaus, Constructivism, and the International Typographic Style. This narrowed lens ignores design contributions from many parts of the world and perpetuates a narrative that “good” design must be derived from these specific origins. At what point are we, as design educators, responsible for challenging this narrative? The content featured in Beyond the Bauhaus aims to highlight design contributions from underrepresented cultural and social groups that do not have roots in modernist or Bauhaus methods. The goal is not to deny the contributions of the Western world, but to broaden the scope of what we teach and discuss in the classroom, while providing ideas toward practical applications of the referenced work. Submissions from readers are encouraged. Contact Kaleena Sales (ktucker2@tnstate.edu) to submit a feature.

Feature: How a Chicago-Based Art Collective Defined Their Own Aesthetic

If there was ever an antithesis to modern design movements like the International Typographic Style, with its clean lines and desire for logic over emotion, it might be the boldly energetic artwork from the 1960s Chicago-based art collective, AfriCOBRA. 

AfriCOBRA (African Commune Of Bad Relevant Artists) was founded by 5 visual artists with the specific goal in mind of establishing a visual language and aesthetic based on positive black culture. For this group of artists, positivity was much more than a buzzword. It proved to be a conceptual framework, governing not just style, but also subject matter. 

Wall of Respect
The Wall of Respect. Photo by Robert A. Sengstacke

Working alongside many other black visual artists, and as part of a workshop by the OBAC (Organization of Black American Culture), many of the founding members of Africobra worked together to create a 60-foot-wide mural, titled Wall of Respect. Displayed on the South Side of Chicago, the mural paid homage to 50 influential African-Americans and became a hallmark of the group’s origins. More than just a mural, this piece was a message to the people living in that community. It said to them that their culture mattered. In an interview for the Harvey B. Gantt Center, AfriCOBRA artist, Michael Harris, discusses this point: “We are speaking to people within the community, so rather than squeezing into the canon, we’re saying let’s make the canon more elastic so it includes what we do and who we are.”

AfriCOBRA’s Mission: “…An approach to image making which would reflect and project the moods, attitudes, and sensibilities of African Americans independent of the technical and aesthetic strictures of Euro-centric modalities.”

Black Family
Black Family, Wadsworth Jarrell, 1968, acrylic on canvas, 46 x 36 in. (117 x 91 cm), Courtesy of Wadsworth Jarrell and Kavi Gupta
Revolutionary
Wadsworth Jarrell, Revolutionary, 1972

Barbara Jones-Hogu, of AfriCOBRA, described the collective’s aesthetic as:

“black, positive, direct statements created in bright, vivid, singing cool-ade colors of orange, strawberry, cherry, lemon, lime and grape. Pure vivid colors of the sun and nature. Colors that shine on black people, colors which stand out against the greenery of rural areas. … Black positive statements stressing a direction in the image with lettering, lost and found line and shape were the beginning elements …”

In an attempt to widen the canon of design education, we must be open to discovering applicable design inspiration from people and places who may not have traditional graphic design backgrounds. Certainly there are many ways to apply AfriCOBRA-inspired practices into design classrooms. Students can be encouraged to:

  • Utilize hand-generated lettering processes
  • Develop digital work using expressive typography
  • Use rhythm as a dominant design principle
  • Work with peers to develop visual systems

Perhaps it is beyond the technical applications though where we find even more impactful teaching material. The human-centered, problem-solving approach to communications that keenly considers the needs of real people is really at the heart of what this collective did so well. For a group of black men and women coming to age during a time where blacks were fighting for civil rights and basic human liberties, there was an urgent desire felt by many artist of color to create content that addressed these social ills. The artists making up AfriCOBRA felt their community’s needs, and responded by filling a void many did not know existed: positive black imagery. Referencing the intentionality of the work, Michael Harris says: “We are not addressing racial antagonism, because that is a dialogue and conversation that speaks to power.” Instead, through winding letters and vivid colorful imagery, we see hope and power and love for a community that needed those exact things.


Founding members: Jeff Donaldson, Wadsworth Jarrell, Jae Jarrell, Barbara Jones-Hogu and Gerald Williams

Additional members: Napoleon Jones-Henderson, Nelson Stevens, Sherman Beck, Carolyn Lawrence, Omar Lama, Howard Mallory Jr. and Frank Smith

Check out AfriCOBRA Now to learn more about new members and how the group’s aesthetic has evolved over time.

References:
https://www.arkansasonline.com/news/2018/sep/16/africobra-getting-respect-50/

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7XegxlZ1Qqg

https://arts.uchicago.edu/logan-center/logan-center-exhibitions/archive/africobra-philosophy

By Kaleena Sales
Published January 14, 2020
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