“Black Men – We Need You – Preserve Our Race – Leave White Bitches Alone,” screams the angry text on a silk-screened poster from the early 1970s. Thank goodness Barack Obama Sr. didn’t heed that advice ten years earlier! This is but one of several historical issues that arise when contemplating the AfriCOBRA exhibition at Northwestern University’s Dittmar Gallery.
Why did the young women carry rifles? Why do the colorful graphic designs seem as psychedelic as they do African? And whatever happened to the Chicago-based AfriCOBRA (African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists)? As it turned out, most of the commune artists began or continued careers in academia. Forty years later, all that anger and Afrocentric cultural activism seems gone, especially in the concurrent exhibition of “African American Contemporary Paintings” at the Murphy Hill Gallery in Garfield Park. The skills in graphic design seem gone, too, as Murphy Hill has assembled a hodgepodge of local artists, most of whom lack professional training, have any kind of ideological commitment, and some of whom aren’t even African American (similar to the “post-black” strategy used in “Black Is, Black Ain’t” at the Renaissance Society in 2008). Ethnic boundaries may not be drawn as sharply as they were back in 1970, and, as opposed to relentless ethnic idealism, there’s instead mugshots of relentless despair, as seen in attorney Tim Leeming’s paintings and drawings of young criminals.
Most of the AfriCOBRA people were competent graphic designers who could carry and sugarcoat a message as well as any commercial artist. Some are exceptional artists, like Murry Depillars (1938-2008), who managed a brilliant synthesis of narrative figuration with African-American folk-art quilting in his homage to the imaginary “Queen Candace.” Depillars eventually retired as Dean of the Visual Arts at Virginia Commonwealth University. Frank Smith (b. 1939) took that quilting back and forth with abstract expressionist painting in his “Banner for a New Black Nation,” and later became a professor at Howard University.
At Murphy Hill, Mary Qian’s recent drawings effectively record and celebrate the individual spirit of people she meets on streets and trains. It’s too bad that Murphy Hill could not pull in more good work on African-American themes, and even show local masters like Kerry James Marshall or Robert Guinan. Perhaps, though, only museums can mount that kind of comprehensive exhibition—but would they, and have they? (Chris Miller)
“AfriCOBRA and the Chicago Black Arts Movement” shows at Northwestern University’s Dittmar Memorial Gallery, 1999 Campus Drive, Evanston, though March 17. “Contemporary African American Painting” shows at Murphy Hill Gallery, 3333 W. Arthington, though April 3.