The Black Arts Movement (approximately 1965-1975) encompassed many art forms: music, literature, theater, dance, and the visual arts. Visual artists (painters, sculptors, fiber artists, photographers, filmmakers and others) were especially active in Chicago, where their work was supported by the South Side Community Art Center in particular, and where they also exchanged ideas and collaborated with practitioners of all the arts and with political activists of the Black Power era. Their imagery helps to illustrate and make more concrete the political issues of this time period, when the radical edge of the Civil Rights movement came to the fore. This website supports curriculum on the visual arts in Chicago in the decade from the mid-60s to the mid-70s. Some would say the Black Arts Movement never ended—many artists continue to be inspired by its example and to push forward its ideas in their own original way. But this site chronicles a period of especially intense creative energy when the arts were closely intertwined with political activism.
The VABAM Resource page leads to primary and secondary sources that teachers and student can use to build through own units or lesson plans or to prompt deeper research. Due to copyright considerations, the page is limited in what it may post. It is important to remind the user that the exclusive focus of the site is the visual arts—painting, printmaking, and photography, etc., but not the rich sources for writing, performance/theater, and music. The webpage is supported by the Terra Foundation for American Art. Thanks to Dr. Rebecca Zorach, Mary Jane Crowe Professor of Art and Art History at Northwestern University, who led the week-long program and provided key material, including all introductory text on this webpage.
In each section, below, researchers will find some text and resources both printed and online (be it digital collections, articles, documentaries, websites).
Several resources on the Web contain timelines for the Black Arts Movement that provide political and artistic context for the Movement:
The Black Arts Movement took shape in dialogue with the Black Power Movement. Over the 1960s, many African Americans became radicalized as they experienced little material progress as the Civil Rights movement won legal and legislative battles. The assassination of Malcolm X, who had emphasized the role of culture in political struggle, pushed many artists toward political action and cultural nationalism. In these years Stokely Carmichael rose to prominence, using the phrase “Black Power” in speeches he gave around the country in 1965, as the organization he led, SNCC (the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) became steadily more militant. Black Power was about adopting a different, more aggressive attitude toward activism and toward life in America for African Americans, asserting power—acting on the assumption that one had power already—rather than passively resisting white authority or politely asking for rights. The Black Panther Party, another key symbol of Black Power, rallied many young people to the cause of Black revolution. Artists were in dialogue with and inspired by this more radical edge of the Civil Rights Movement.
Stokely Carmichael, “Berkeley Speech,” in Stokely Speaks: Black Power to Pan Africanism. E.N. Minor, ed. (New York: Vintage, 1971), 45-60. http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/stokelycarmichaelblackpower.html (includes mp3)
Hoyt Fuller, “Towards a Black Aesthetic,” in The Black Aesthetic, ed. Addison Gayle (Anchor Books, 1972), pp. 3-11. “Foreword to Nommo” [Offers a brief history of OBAC], 1971.
Larry Neal, “Black Aesthetics.http://nationalhumanitiescenter.org/pds/maai3/community/text8/blackartsmovement.pdf
The Catalysts, Black Cultural Directory (1969). "This is Our Bag:Code of Ethics for Black People".
Secondary Source Readings (brief, suitable for students)
Peniel E. Joseph, Black Power's Powerful Legacy, The Chronicle Review, July 21, 2006. http://penielejoseph.com/legacy.html
”DuSable to Obama” documentary. See the section on “Power, Politics, and Pride (1941-1968)” and “Achieving the Dream.” http://www.wttw.com/main.taf?p=76,4,5
Schomburg Center, "Black Power!" https://www.google.com/culturalinstitute/beta/exhibit/hwIiQS8vVfQiLQ
Women were key participants in all aspects of the Black Power and Black Arts Movements. Groups such as OBAC and AfriCOBRA included many women on an equal plane with men. White feminism held little appeal for most African American women in the movement because it often consciously or unconsciously disparaged Black women’s issues. Some Black women supported Black patriarchy as essential to healing traumatized Black male identities; others argued for equality of the sexes and a specifically Black form of feminism.
Carolyn Rodgers, “Feelings Are Sense: The Literature of Black,” Black World, June 1970, 5–11.
Selections from Toni Cade, ed., The Black Woman (New York: Mentor Book, 1970): Toni Cade, “On the Issue of Roles,” 101-110; Joyce Green, “Black Romanticism,” 137-142; Gwen Patton, “Black People and the Victorian Ethos,” 143-148.
“The Combahee River Statement” http://circuitous.org/scraps/combahee.html, http://www.sfu.ca/iirp/documents/Combahee%201979.pdf Originally published in Capitalist Patriarchy and the Case for Socialist Feminism, Zillah Eisenstein (1978) and in Home Girls:A Black Feminist Anthology, edited by Barbara Smith, 1983.
Secondary Source Readings
Bettye Collier-Thomas and V.P. Franklin, Sisters in the Struggle: African American Women in the Civil Rights-Black Power Movement. (New York: New York University Press), 2001. Selected articles.
Rhonda Y. Williams, “Black Women and Black Power,” OAH Magazine of History, July 2008, 22-26. (A historiographical overview)
The Organization of Black American Culture was founded by writer and editor Hoyt Fuller, Jr., sociologist Gerald McWorter (later Abdul Alkalimat), and writer Conrad Kent Rivers. In 1966, they formed a group called the Chicago Committee for the Arts, with the goal of using art and culture to shape Black consciousness. As Fuller wrote, “the Committee was convinced that, by releasing that natural, pent-up store of creativity within the community, by urging Black people toward an identification with and an acceptance of themselves and their images, their history, their humanity, art itself could achieve a fresh interpretation in the lives, the aspirations—in a word, the experiences of the community...it suggested that the seeds of liberation--political and economic and social, as well as aesthetic—would be planted in the Black psyche through this new approach to artistic expression. The interest then was primarily political; art for the sake of Black empowerment was the principle.” (Fuller, Foreword, 17).
Early in 1967, the Committee became the Organization of Black American Culture, or OBAC, pronounced oba-si (“oba” is a Yoruba word for “ruler”). Members began holding public meetings and performances, recruiting additional members, and organizing into groups: Writers’ Workshop, Visual Artists’ Workshop, and Community Workshop. Performing artists were covered by existing groups that worked closely with OBAC: Kuumba Theater Workshop, the AACM—Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians—and dance ensembles such as Darlene Blackburn’s dance troupe. Together, members of all three workshops conceived the Wall of Respect (see below), and the visual artists—painters and photographers—created it. The OBAC Writers group was the most active and longest-lived workshop of OBAC. Members published a journal, Nommo, jointly ran a storefront space on 35th Street, and met regularly into the 1990s; the group has been revived periodically up to the present day.
“Editor’s Note” and Gerald A. McWorter, “OBAC Position Paper: Some Ideological Considerations,” in Nommo: A Literary Legacy of Black Chicago edited by Carole A. Parks (OBAhouse, 1987), pp 10-12.
Hoyt W. Fuller, “Foreword to Nommo 1971” [Brief History of OBAC], in Nommo, pp. 17-20
On the side of a building at 43rd and Langley in the Bronzeville neighborhood, Black artists affiliated with OBAC painted the Wall of Respect in August 1967. This unique masterpiece was the project of the OBAC Visual Artists Workshop, a group spearheaded by Jeff Donaldson and Myrna Weaver, representing painters, photographers, and designers. William Walker, an artist with experience painting murals and connections in the neighborhood around the site, brought the idea of painting a mural at this specific location to the group, which was already in search of a way of visibly representing Black heroes in the community. The Wall was divided into seven sections, representing seven primary areas of accomplishment of African Americans: Rhythm and Blues, Religion, Literature, and Theater on the ground floor, Statesmen, Sports, and Jazz above, with Dance on the corner newsstand. Each section contained portraits of key individuals who met OBAC’s criteria in terms of accomplishment in their fields, political stance and moral stature. The Wall became a site for performances, political rallies, neighborhood gatherings, and police surveillance. It was also a source of conflict, as Walker (perhaps at the behest of community members) moved quickly to make unilateral changes following the Wall’s initial unveiling, without consulting the collective as a whole. Walker and Eugene Eda Wade made several changes over the Wall’s lifetime. In 1971 it fell victim to a fire, and the building was demolished shortly thereafter. Yet its impact was strongly felt. The Wall spearheaded the community mural movement that brought vibrant imagery to the streets of Chicago and other urban centers in the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s.
Jeff Donaldson, one of the artists of OBAC and founding member of AfriCOBRA described the origins of the Wall and its impact:
In addition to being a member of OBAC who contributed photographs to the mural itself, Robert Sengstacke exhaustively documented the Wall and the people around it in photographs.
“Wall of Respect,” Ebony Magazine, December 1967. 48-52 available through books.google.com
Photographs of the Wall on the Public Art Mural Workshop via UC Database/search OBAC http://luna.lib.uchicago.edu/luna/servlet/view/all?sort=creator%2Cculture%2Cdate%2Cstyle_or_period&os=0
Jeff Donaldson, “The Rise, Fall, and Legacy of the Wall of Respect Movement” International Review of African American Art 15, no. 1 (1998): 22-26.
Secondary Source Readings
Margo Natalie Crawford, “Black Light on the Wall of Respect: The Chicago Black Arts Movement,” New Thoughts on the Black Arts Movement, ed. Crawford and Lisa Gail Collins, pp. 23-42. 2006.
The Wall of Respect spawned a movement with far-reaching consequences. In Chicago, the Chicago Mural Group (later renamed the Chicago Public Art Group) organized itself as an interracial collective in 1971. Early members included William Walker, Eugene Eda Wade, John Pitman Weber, Mitchell Caton, Ray Patlán, Caryl Yasko, Astrid Fuller, and Mark Rogovin. Members painted murals on the South, West, and North sides of the city, typically with an intergenerational group of community members. Murals addressed many themes related to social justice: racial conflict and integration, gentrification, and women’s rights, among others.
Primary Sources -- Photographs of the Murals
Public Art Workshop Mural Archive
Georg Stahl Mural Collection
Secondary sources with photographs of the murals (among others)
Alan Barnett, Community Murals: The Peoples Art Philadelphia: Art Alliance Press, 1984.
Eva Cockcroft, John Pitman Weber, and James Cockcroft, Toward a People’s Art: The Contemporary Mural Movement (University of New Mexico Press, 1998), especially “Beginnings,” pp. 1-12; “Mural Painting as a Human Process: The Community,” pp. 71-105.
Robin Dunitz and James Prigoff, Walls of Heritage, Walls of Pride: African American Murals. Pomegranate Communications, 2000.
Mary Lackritz Gray, A Guide to Chicago Murals. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001.
Olivia Gude and Jeff Huebner, Urban Art Chicago. Ivan R. Dee, 2000.
Victor Sorell, A Guide to Chicago Murals. Chicago: Chicago Council on Fine Arts, 1978.
This tour of mid-South Side murals, all fairly close together (easily accessible in an afternoon’s bus tour, or by bike, or long walk) provides a good representation of murals by Black artists from the 1970s to the 2000s.
The OBAC Visual Artists Workshop did not survive the fallout from the changes made to the Wall of Respect, but several of its members reorganized soon after with other artists to form COBRA (Coalition of Black Revolutionary Artists) which was soon renamed AfriCOBRA (African Commune of Bad Revolutionary Artists). The original members were Jeff Donaldson, Jae Jarrell, Wadsworth Jarrell, Barbara Jones (later Jones-Hogu), and Gerald Williams. Together, they developed a set of aesthetic and political principles for their work that reflected a positive Black consciousness. The group created work based on shared themes (such as “The Black Family”) and together produced poster-prints—affordable artworks with strong political messages. Other members joined in Chicago, and the group began exhibiting nationally in 1970 with a show at the Studio Museum in Harlem. After several members moved to the East Coast (with Jeff Donaldson in particular moving to Washington, D.C. to head the Art Department at Howard University), some of the Chicago members left the group, new members joined in D.C., and the group continues to this day.
“The African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists “Manifesto” (selections)
For many Chicago artists, information can be found on the Africobra in Chicago website, http://africobra.uchicago.edu.
Other BAM Artists
Sylvia Abernathy (Graphic Designer), Sherman Beck (Commercial Art, Printing), Bob Black (Photography), Danny Hetherington (Painter, Co-Director, Art & Soul), Jackie Hetherington (Painter, Co-Director, Art & Soul), * Richard Hunt (Sculptor), Carolyn Lawrence (Painter), * John H. Sibley (Illustrator and Writer), * Herbert Temple (Commercial Artist and Designer), Eugene Wade (Murals), * Doug Williams (Murals), * Jose Williams (Painter, Printmaker, Saxophonist)
Founders -- See Chicago Black Renaissance
* Margaret T. Goss Burroughs (Sculpture, Painting, Prints, Museum Founder)
* Elizabeth Catlett (Sculpture and Prints)
* Charles White (Painting, Prints)
Kiela Songhay Smith (Murals)
* Arlene Turner-Crawford (Painter, Murals)
Images of many of the artists' works are available in the South Side Community Art Center Permanent Collection (http://luna.lib.uchicago.edu/luna/servlet/uofclibmgr2~4~4)
* Chicago Artist File at the Chicago Public Library
Barbara Jones-Hogu, “Inaugurating AfriCOBRA: History, Philosophy, Aesthetics,” Nka: Journal of Contemporary African Art, Number 30, Spring 2012, 90-97.
Jeff Donaldson, “AFRICOBRA 1: 10 in search of a Nation,” Black World October 1970, 80-89. (Available through books.google.com or in print at the CPL Woodson Regional Library)
Eugene (Useni) Perkins and Roy Lewis, West Wall Chicago: Free Black Press (copyright Roy Lewis and Eugene Perkins), 1969.
Amiri Baraka and Billy (Fundi) Abernathy, In Our Terribleness, Indianapolis: Bobbs Merrill, 1970). PS3552.A583I5 closed stacks at HWLC, Woodson, Legler.
Secondary Source Readings
Anna M. Tyler, “Planting and Maintaining A ‘Perennial Garden’: Chicago’s South Side Community Art Center,” International Review of African American Arts, 11:4 (1994), 31-37.
Claudine Ise, AfriCOBRA When it was Prepared to Strike,” May 23, 2013, Chicago Reader. http://www.chicagoreader.com/chicago/africobra-south-side-arts-movement/Content?oid=9756149
Peter Margasak “Why the AACM and AfriCOBRA Still Matter”, Chicago Reader, July 7, 2015. http://www.chicagoreader.com/chicago/aacm-mca-exhibit-freedom-principle-beckwith-africobra/Content?oid=18223562
Websites, Online Exhibitions, Digital Collections
AfriCOBRA in the South Side Community Art Center Permanent Collection (http://luna.lib.uchicago.edu/luna/servlet/uofclibmgr2~4~4)
Featured Artwork at the SSCAC. Organized as “Legacy of the Founders,” “Black Women Speak,” “A Decade of Images,” and “The Beginnings of AfriCOBRA” http://africobra.uchicago.edu/artworks/
AfriCOBRA documentary produced by TVLand: https://vimeo.com/25038341
From the documentary, “DuSable to Obama” (citation), segment on AfriCobra http://www.wttw.com/main.taf?p=76,4,5,9
Interviews with key AfriCOBRA artists (and others) are available at the website “Never the Same: Conversations About Art Transforming Politics & Community in Chicago & Beyond.”
Oral Histories with AfriCOBRA founders archived by the Archives of American Art (Smithsonian) conducted by the staff of TVLand in 2010 for its documentary. How to order a dvd or mp3: http://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/interviews-africobra-founders-15925
"Freedom Principle" exhibition at Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, Summer 2015. http://www2.mcachicago.org/exhibition/the-freedom-principle-experiments-in-art-and-music-1965-to-now/
Art & Soul
The Conservative Vice Lords, Inc. (CVL, Inc.) a street gang turned community organization, opened an art gallery in collaboration with the Museum of Contemporary Art in 1968 in North Lawndale.
Rebecca Zorach. “Art and Soul: An Experimental Friendship between the Street and a Museum." ArtJournal: August 9, 2011: 66-87. [Used with permission from author, for educational purposes only].
A rich array of primary source materials is available in Chicago collections, many of them untapped by researchers.
Primary Sources Available from Local Archival Collections
Collections particularly strong in Black Arts Movement materials at the Vivian Harsh Collection at the Woodson Regional Library, with a few selected folders (but there are many other folders within these collections; be sure to look at the finding aids):
The South Side Community Art Center maintains an archive of documents in addition to the scanned art available through the UC database.
Archival Sources and Finding Aids
This section contains resources on teaching how to analyze visual art works, thinking about their media (painting, printmaking, drawing, photography, etc.), and such elements as color, line, composition, value and contrast. In teaching photography in particular—a key medium for studying the Black Arts Movement—it is also helpful to think about how photography works as an art form (not only a simple presentation of the truth) and how photographs have circulated and been used historically. The Martin Berger reading cited below, for example, critiques the near-universal choice on the part of Northern news media to present African Americans in the Civil Rights Movement as victims while presenting white activists as heroes.
J. Paul Getty Museum: "Understanding Formal Analysis: Elements of Art." (2011).
Library of Congress: Primary Source Analysis Tool (Online)
National Archives and Records Administration:
Terra Foundation for American Art ClassroomTools for Analyzing Art
Joshua Taylor, “An Analysis of the Work of Art” and “Color and Perspective,” in Learning To Look: A Handbook for the Visual Arts (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981), 51-76.
Jennifer Roberts, “The Power of Patience,” Harvard Magazine, November 2013, 40-43.
Thomas H. Wheeler, “‘A Picture of Reality’: Qualified Objectivity in Visual Journalism,” in Phototruth or Photofiction? Ethics and Media Imagery in the Digital Age (Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2002), 3-13.
Martin Berger, “The Formulas of Documentary Photography,” in Seeing Through Race: A Reinterpretation of Civil Rights Photography (University of California Press, 2011), pp. 9-57.
ADDITIONAL LESSON PLANS (ON THE WALL)