Happy New Year POU!
“Every year you are reminded of George Washington’s birthday… my kids learn about this at school, but nothing is said about black heroes. If white Americans can engage in what I call repetitious advertising, then I feel justified in advertising for black Americans.” – Wadsworth Jarrell, 1978
Wadsworth Aikens Jarrell is an African-American painter, sculptor and printmaker. Born in Albany, Georgia, he moved to Chicago, Illinois, where he attended the Art Institute of Chicago. After graduation, he became heavily involved in the local art scene and through his early work he explored the working life of blacks in Chicago and found influence in the sights and sounds of jazz music. In the late 1960s he opened WJ Studio and Gallery, where he, along with his wife, Jae, hosted regional artists and musicians.
After military service, Jarrell moved to Chicago where his sister Nellie attended Northwestern University. It was in Chicago where Jarrell would have his first museum experiences. Growing in up Georgia, African Americans were not allowed to visit museums until the Civil Rights Act of 1964, therefore these early museum visits made a ermajor impression on him.
In 1963, Jarrell met Elaine Annette Johnson, known as Jae, who ran a clothing boutique, became his second wife on June 2, 1967. In 1964 Chicago experienced two major race riots. Triggered by Civil Rights struggles and angst, more riots followed in subsequent years and the Black Power movement came into fruition. Artists began to explore ways to express black pride, self-determination and self-reliance leading in 1966 to the Organization of Black American Culture (OBAC). Artist Norman Parish asked Jarrell to attend a meeting for OBAC’s Artists’ Workshop. The meetings would consist of artists bringing their work to be critiqued and reflect on ideas of the black experience in art, leading to the concept behindWall of Respect. The mural consisted of African American heroes and personalities, each artist deciding who should be depicted in their section. Jarrell focused on a favorite theme,rhythm and blues, and featured portrayals of James Brown, B.B. King, Billie Holiday, Muddy Waters, Aretha Franklin and Dinah Washington. The Wall was considered a success, triggering the creation of liberation themed murals in Chicago and beyond.
Jarrell became involved in the Organization of Black American Culture, a group that would serve as a launching pad for the era’s black art movement. In 1967, OBAC artists created the Wall of Respect, a mural in Chicago that depicted African American heroes and is credited with triggering the political mural movement in Chicago and beyond. In 1969, Jarrell co-founded AFRICOBRA: African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists. AFRICOBRA would become internationally acclaimed for their politically themed art and use of “coolaid colors” in their paintings.
n 1968, Jarrell and his wife opened WJ Studio and Gallery, below their home and studio. The space not only showcased the couple’s work and that of other artists but went on to display the talents of Chicago poets and musicians. The gallery also served as a gathering place for the likes of Jeff Donaldson, Barbara Jones-Hogu, Gerald Williams and others, who would come to discuss concepts of a relevant black art aesthetic. The group struggled: Jarrell described the search as an attempt to find “a collective concept that would say ‘black art’ at a glance.” Eventually, the group made a breakthrough while listing principles and ideas regarding the concept of black art; the word “coolade colors” was contributed by a fabric designer. The term covered the bright fashion of stylish African American men of the time, which Jarrell described as “loud lime, pimp yellows, hot pinks, high-key color clothing.” The final concept for their aesthetic search would be message oriented art, revolving around socially aware content. African design would be included and meaningfulness for black people would be a necessity. This group’s formation would be considered one of the best aligned and organized collectives in theBlack Arts Movement. This group went on to form COBRA
Like many African American grass roots organizations, Jarrell’s gallery group struggled to carry the torch after the deaths of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. Jarrell and his fellow Chicago artists took the path of non-violence by way of their artistic talents and a sense of ownership through their contributions at WJ Studio and Gallery. With these ideals backing them and their new aesthetic philosophy, the group took on the name COBRA – Coalition of Black Revolutionary Artists. With the creation of COBRA, Jarrell completed his first work that conceptualized the concept behind the group, Black Family (1969), which utilized the color scheme of the coolade colors such as light blue and orange contrasting with white areas, which heightened the bright colors’ intensity. This technique allowed Jarrell to create what he described as an “intuitive space,” drawing the viewer’s attention towards the family on the canvas: a caring mother, protective father and two relaxed children. With a father depicting strength and honesty, and what Robert Douglas describes as a “heroic quality,” to the painting, Jarrell expresses important aspects of the COBRA ideal. Writing also appears on the canvas, with the word “blackness” represented by the letter B. The group decided to go from focusing on themed exhibitions to encouraging artworks that “portray the general problems of black people or attempt to visualize some solutions to them.”
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