by Wadsworth Jarrell. Duke University Press, May 2020. 320 p. ill. ISBN 978478000563 (pbk.), $29.95.

Reviewed September 2020
Laura Haynes, Catalog & Metadata Management Librarian, Binghamton University, lhaynes@binghamton.edu

jarrellAFRICOBRA, or The African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists, was a revolutionary collective of African American artists who sought to create a global aesthetic language meant to unify and empower those of African descent. The collective was founded in 1968 on the South Side of Chicago during the civil rights era and the Black arts movement.

This book represents a crucial perspective and gives valuable insight into the foundation of the collective. It is written by one of the founding members of AFRICOBRA, Wadsworth Jarrell. In this book, Jarrell constructs a timeline of the movement’s history through vignettes including visual analyses of individual works and transcripts of significant conversations amongst the group that determined the collective’s artistic direction.

Each artist in the collective was classically trained at institutions such as the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and the Illinois Institute of Design and Technology. Given that the art world is entrenched in Western aesthetics and concepts, AFRICOBRA members wished to reorient their minds away from what was learned throughout their education, liberating their minds from colonization.

The artists set out to form a new ethos that rejected the tenets of Western art history into which they were indoctrinated; tenets which suppressed, marginalized, and appropriated Black voices. The book begins by enticingly listing the artistic and philosophical principles of AFRICOBRA’s aesthetics. Via these principles, the collective sought to embody the core essence of African art to provide images that are accessible to all African peoples.

Readers have the benefit of clear visual analysis by an actual member of the collective instead of a secondhand account. Jarrell frames critics’ views in such a way that reflects a disconnect between the hegemony of the art world of the 1960s and 1970s versus the anti-establishment themes of AFRICOBRA’s art. To contextualize the movement further, Jarrell presents collective members’ views on white appropriation of African imagery in Western art history, pointing out figures such as Paul Klee and Picasso who drew from African influence in their art. This helps create a holistic portrait of the positionality of the AFRICOBRA collective in relation to the art realm at the time.

The book contains vibrant color photos of all works discussed along with bibliographical references and an index.

AFRICOBRA: Experimental Art toward a School of Thought is a timely book as part of a movement that remains current as many art organizations are assessing their complicity in the suppression and appropriation of Black voices. This book will be of interest to scholars of African American art history and American art history in general.