Artists who defied convention
By Susie Allen
At face value, it looks simple enough: A woman silhouetted against an abstract background of bright reds, oranges, yellows, and purples.
Her violet-colored eyes draw you in. Slowly, shapes swimming among a sea of “Kool-Aid” colors, and tangled within the woman’s afro, emerge as letters. Though the words are disguised, their message is clear:
“To be free
We must protect our community
Come together to learn to defend us”
The silk-screen print, To Be Free, is part of a new exhibition, Looks Like Freedom, which runs through Oct. 4 at the DOVA Temporary Gallery on 53rd Street. Rebecca Zorach, Associate Professor in Art History and the College, organized the exhibition, which takes a closer look at the radical South Side art scene amid the politically charged time leading up to and following the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.
“The thing that’s interesting about it is the complexity of the message,” says Zorach of Jones-Hogu’s 1971 work. “‘To be free’ sounds like a blandly positive message, but when you read more closely, you realize that there’s a message that emphasizes the need for self-defense. It’s a sense of community that feels under attack.”
Historians of 1968 have focused on antiwar protests and the violent police response outside the Chicago Hilton near Grant Park, but they paid relatively little attention to groups on the South Side. Looks Like Freedom commemorates the work of Chicago’s lesser-known radical artists and thinkers of the mid-1960s and early ’70s.
Though much of her scholarly work focuses on Renaissance art, Zorach also has a personal and academic interest in contemporary works. The 40-year anniversary of the 1968 riots provided her an ideal opportunity to research the history of art and politics in Chicago, working together with students to prepare the exhibition and share the results with viewers.
In addition to several of Jones-Hogu’s silk screens, the exhibition includes posters, photographs, and comic books featuring Bob Crawford, The Hairy Who, and The Chicago Women's Liberation Union Graphics Collective, as well as audio and newspaper clippings. The pieces engage a wide range of controversial topics from the time around the convention, including urban renewal, gender equality, and racial discrimination.
Zorach hopes the materials reflect the complexity of Chicago in the late 1960s. “The goal was to provide context for the more famous events around the convention, but with a focus on projects at the intersection of art and the political sphere.”
Looks Like Freedom grew out of a class Zorach taught on Chicago in 1968. She wanted her students to better understand the year’s events and be aware of the city’s many resources for research. She encouraged them to explore the Chicago History Museum and the South Side Community Art Center, which lent many of the pieces in the exhibit.
“I wanted to encourage students to discover the city,” she explains.
As her students delved into research, they uncovered the rich South Side art scene of the 1960s. Among the most important art collectives was OBAC (Organization of Black American Culture). In 1967, OBAC’s Visual Artists Workshop created the Wall of Respect, an influential mural. The Wall of Respect, painted on the face of a building at 43rd Street and Langley Avenue, depicted scenes of both historical and contemporary African-American leaders.
Several photos of artists at work on the Wall in August 1967 are included in the exhibition. “They wanted to do something positive to influence the community,” says Faheem Majeed, curator of the South Side Community Art Center. While the mural might seem uncontroversial today, many once saw it as a dangerous assertion of African-American rights, Majeed explains. “They operated outside the mainstream.”
Though OBAC fell apart, some of its original members reassembled to form AfriCOBRA (African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists). Like OBAC, AfriCOBRA used art to spread its message of black empowerment. Artists like Jones-Hogu incorporated African motifs and themes of heritage to promote a sense of collective identity. Little noticed by the mainstream art world, they sought alternative venues and banded together “as a means of mutual support and strengthening,” Zorach says.
The work of the South Side’s radical artists continued to influence the art world. The Wall of Respect gave rise to the urban mural movement, helping to make murals part of the visual landscape of many cities. Because of the wall, artists “began to see the mural as a possible medium of art in public,” Zorach says.
AfriCOBRA artists presented militant views, but Zorach notes, their imagery is also related to the “Black is Beautiful” movement of the late 1960s and early ’70s. “With their low-cost prints, they made art available to a wide audience of African Americans,” Zorach says. “They gave the public Black images to hang on the wall and asserted their value as subjects of art.”
Though not all of their art survived—the Wall of Respect was damaged and later demolished, and few of Jones-Hogu’s prints remain—the political themes in the work of Chicago’s radical artists became part of the cultural landscape of the late 1960s.
“The AfriCOBRA artists looked at their community and felt they needed to step up and make a change,” Majeed says, “and their past and current efforts continue to inspire generations of younger artists.”