Barbara Jones-Hogu and the Philosophy of AfriCOBRA

[Part of the “Best of Chicago Art Magazine” August series. Originally posted 1/13/2010]

 Kathryn Born

Work by Barbara Jones-Hogu

Work by Barbara Jones-Hogu

Barbara Jones-Hogu is currently getting a Master’s in film, and plans to create documentaries about the work of artists. But her history won’t let her be — she was one of the founders (and one of the few women), in the African American art group, AfriCOBRA.

The South Side Community Art Center brought together several of her older works and is introducing her first new print in thirty years.

We chatted on the phone about her past with AfriCOBRA, her current work, and the years in between. Jones-Hogu immediately clarified that the group is still active, and explained that her break from the group was due to logistics. “Most of them moved east in the early 70’s, that was my first disconnect with the group. And I had a child soon after that.”

She explained why the meetings were critical. “Part of ‘our thing’ was that we would meet and discuss our artwork, about our ideas, and things we wanted to create in our imagery. So the meetings were a part of being in the group, as we had a philosophy that we wanted to center on.”

Work by Barbara Jones-Hogu

Work by Barbara Jones-Hogu

Jones-Hogu was kind enough to send me the original AfriCOBRA philosophy. You can look for this on the web and find varieties of the AfriCOBRA philosophy, but her document is really the God’s-mouth-to-your-ear version, as Barbara directly contributed to the creation of the philosophy. She explained that when the group formed, they looked at each other’s artwork, and from each artist, they picked an aspect of their artwork to be a part of the AfricCOBRA philosophy. “I know the lettering came from my work. And from Wadsworth Jarrell – strong color. Someone else might have stressed form. We incorporated what we considered positive, formal elements.”

But here is the source of my fascination with AfriCOBRA. I love alternative systems. I love when people make a break from the mainstream and re-think core issues. What makes AfriCOBRA so famous is that it can be interpreted as the 60’s Black Power movement as it applied to visual art theory, a reflection of a larger cultural desire to not rely on the (white) establishment’s ideas about art, and instead create an Afro-centric paradigm.

As Jones-Hogu explains, “the mainstream art system wasn’t even considered; it was supposed to be from our African American base. It was, ‘looking at our people looking at our work’, and putting out positive images for them to view, and ideas for them to consider.”

Barbara Jones-Hogu "God's Child" (2009)

Barbara Jones-Hogu "God's Child" (2009)

Jones-Hogu says that although today’s AfriCOBRA artwork looks different, the core values are there, just expanded. “It’s more into design, or more abstraction. You have to blend whatever concepts are out there. Some of the topics would be different, and some of the works became more patterned, but it still picks up on the principal of the application of rhythm as a source for the pattern.”

At the end of our conversation I asked, “Why make a new print after all these years?”. Barbara laughed and said, “When I saw the exhibit of my older work at University of Chicago, I was inspired, I was enthused!”

Jones’ new print and her silkscreens from the early 70’s were on view at the South Side Community Art Center during her artist’s talk. For more great pictures of her work, visit the U of C exhibit link above.