AfriCOBRA: Art for the People – The Q&A
Q&A with AfriCOBRA co-founder Gerald Williams and producer Deva Newman, moderated by art historian/artist D. Denenge Duyst-Akpem, following AfriCOBRA: Art for the People at the DuSable Museum of African American History on November 17, 2018.
The event was presented by South Side Projections and the DuSable Museum of African American History as part of South Side Projections’ film series Chicago’s Black Arts Movement on Film. Chicago’s Black Arts Movement in Film is part of Art Design Chicago, an initiative of the Terra Foundation for American Art exploring Chicago’s art and design legacy, with presenting partner The Richard H. Driehaus Foundation. Chicago’s Black Arts Movement in Film is funded by the Terra Foundation for American Art. Learn more at artdesignchicago.org.
Deva Newman (DN): I’m so happy to once more have this being shown to folks who really appreciate art, and who appreciate the Black Arts Movement, and AfriCOBRA’s role that they played in pretty much jump starting much of what you saw on the Black Arts Movement in Chicago.
“Why TV Land,” is a lot of times the question that I get—or that we get, because I represent a team of creatives who are super passionate about this project, and jumped at the opportunity to be a part of it. I work for a big corporation, Viacom, with a number of networks, and for prosocial and for representation of different—within the company, I should say, there’s lots of affinity groups—for different ethnicities, for the LGBT community, so there’s a number of affinity groups. And each group will celebrate during different months, they’ll have different activities and celebrations. And then, also, my background is in production, but before working in marketing and promotion, I also worked in news. So the opportunity to work on a documentary kind of went back to those roots a little bit. So that was also an amazing reason to be a part of it.
So, Black History Month is our opportunity to really step outside of our promotion of Andy Griffith. [Laughter] Which, TV Land actually focuses on classic television, but this was an opportunity to tell some real stories. And I actually worked for, at the time, the president of TV Land, Larry Jones—a huge, huge, huge collector and lover of art, particularly African American art. And so he came to me in 2010, and asked had I heard about AfriCOBRA. And I had not, and he said, “Well, you have to get up to speed on it, because I’d love to do not only the vignettes and the kind of short pieces that normally our networks do for Black History Month.” He said, “I’d like to take this opportunity to do a half hour.” I’m, like, “Okay, that would be amazing. I’d love to be involved in the production of that.”
So I went about becoming a student of the collective, and learned so much. It wasn’t easy. I approached many of the living—basically all of the living founders of AfriCOBRA. And they participated, as well as the more contemporary founders. Unfortunately Mr. Williams is not in the film, but I am so happy to meet him today.
But it wasn’t easy, because if you know anything about the group you know that they weren’t trying to be out in media. It was a very, kind of an underground, almost, if you don’t mind me—and not very trusting, you know, “Why is TV Land interested in telling our story? What is the reason behind that?” And it was really about a celebration, and making sure that this particular group and this particular story is shared with folks.
And so, we went to Cleveland and interviewed the Jarrells, we came here to Chicago and interviewed some artists that you’ll see, and then we had Phylicia Rashad moderate, which was amazing. And the rest was a really great journey in putting this together, and we hope you enjoy it.
[film screening, then the discussion starts]
Denenge Duyst-Akpem (DDA): Good evening everybody.
All: Good evening.
DDA: Just gonna bring this a little closer here. So excited to be here with you tonight, Gerald and Deva. I just want to give a little, brief bio information for each of them—information that has been probably in the promotion, but just to review.
So, starting with Gerald Williams. Gerald Williams is a painter and founding member of AfriCOBRA. Born in Chicago, he earned a Masters in Fine Arts at Howard University, served in the United States Air Force, and was a Peace Corps volunteer for several years. He taught in public schools in Chicago and Washington D.C., and served as Arts and Crafts Director for the United States Air Force for twenty years until his retirement in 2004. He has exhibited in Chicago, nationally, and internationally.
Deva Newman is Senior Vice President Creative at Paramount Network and TV Land. Before starting at Viacom in 2002 as a producer for Nick at Nite, she was an Emmy-nominated field producer for Dateline NBC. And you already had my intro, so. [Laughter] I’m so excited to have this conversation this evening, to moderate, and I wanted to start using the film and other research as a foundation for some of the ideas that I’d like to focus on tonight. It’s a great honor to be able to talk with you all.
Rebecca Zorach—thank you so much for the invitation—has asked me to include some reference to my work as well. I have been teaching about Black Arts Movement for many years, and I also teach and practice in the world of Afro-futurism, subtitled “Pathways to Black Liberation,” so it’s very much rooted in the Black Arts Movement, and the work of Sun Ra, et cetera. And so, I’m really interested in—especially within the art historical framework—in illuminating archives to histories that may have been hidden, looking at the archive as a space of agency where true stories can be revealed, and also decolonizing the canon. Who do we consider as having the voice? Whose work do we consider to be part of that? So, I’m going to throw out some terms that we hopefully can kind of riff on.
The first one is the idea of legacy. And so, as we’re celebrating the 50th anniversary of AfriCOBRA’s founding, how we frame histories, and what we remember, and how that is presented. One of the statements, Gerald, that you had mentioned in conversation with Kavi Gupta, is that the basic idea behind the exhibition that you curated, AfriCOBRA 50, is the origin and evolution of the work by founding members who are still living, and also the idea that AfriCOBRA is an open-ended creation that will continue to evolve, which was referenced by many of the artists, as well, in the film.
So I’d like to focus on this idea of living legacy, how you see yourself in the role of curator in terms of putting this exhibition together, and this idea of intergenerational representation, because there are artists included who are of different generations, who are being very much influenced by AfriCOBRA, Black Arts Movement, and such. So just thinking about this idea of legacy, and how you craft that.
Gerald Williams (GW): Curating, as a couple of people in the room might understand, is not one of the easiest endeavors there is in the art world. It’s a lot easier to just sit quietly minding your business and create whatever you’re creating. But faced with the idea of putting together an exhibition of artwork that was done fifty years ago, and had a particular kind of feel to it, and work that is of recent origins, was challenging.
I must mention that two of the founders are no longer with us. Jeff Donaldson and Barbara Jones-Hogu both passed away. Barbara more recently, about a year ago. And the three founding members, Wadsworth Jarrell, Jae Jarrell, and myself, we are still active, still energized, still producing. So the show at Kavi Gupta included our very first AfriCOBRA productions, as well as some later work. As always, I ask, what is the work trying to do, and I don’t want to sound repetitive, because there were a lot of views expressed in the film—the videotape—film’s not used anymore. [Laughter] At any rate, capturing the spirit of the age, and there are a couple of you here in the room who were around at that time. And perhaps some of the work you hadn’t seen before, but it comes to your mind—the demonstrations, the war, the anti-war movement, the long, hot summers that we don’t have anymore. [Laughter] Those things permeated the work that most of us did at that time.
We had in the show an artist [Shahar Karen Weaver] who studied under two AfriCOBRA members at Howard University. We had an artist [Bernard Williams] who worked to restore some of the murals by Calvin Jones, and a textile designer, Robert Paige. He was not a member of the group, but his work showed his spirit as someone who was there before there was actually AfriCOBRA by name. And Sherman Beck—Sherman Beck is an illustrator who had a long career with Ebony magazine. I included work by James Phillips, who joined AFRICOBRA later, and who was one of Shahar’s mentors at Howard.So this show came together with the outstanding gallery staff that made it easy for me. The show ended on the 22nd of October, and most of it’s going to be in Miami at the Miami Museum of Contemporary Art, opening on the 27th of this month. A little more than a week from now. And it’s going to be there, I think, until April. And it’s going to combine the older work and the newer work. So evolution is a natural facet of life, it’s a facet of art, more than we ever know. So when you go down to Miami next week, [laughter] you’ll be able to see the way the world has evolved. My work, as well as Wadsworth, and Jae, and Napoleon Henderson, and Nelson Stevens. Am I talking too much?
DDA: No, this is beautiful, this is beautiful. I had a follow-up. I also want to ask Deva, in conjunction with this, as we think about this idea of presenting legacies, histories, and present practices of artists, how you navigate that within the space of television, the digital realm, perhaps. How do you approach that curatorially?
Deva Newman (DN): I think with regards to legacy, the whole idea of producing this and sharing it—the group was born in the ’60s, and being able to share it with an untapped audience was key, and gave an awareness that many people didn’t have of the group. We were also able to submit the program, as well as the raw interviews, to the Smithsonian. So it lives on, and we’re really quite happy that we were able to share that. Of course, we’re no longer able to air it on TV Land, but folks are able to see it, and museums are able to share it, and I think that’s a part of the legacy we’d love to give.
Funny enough, I was able to reconnect with a friend of mine, who just so happened to be Jeff Donaldson’s daughter, in the creating of this. When I started studying the group, I realized that the only way I could get his work was to go through his daughter, Jamila Donaldson. And, you know, my light bulb went off in my head, and I was, like, “Oh my god, she’s a producer, and we used to work together back at ET many years ago.” She was so warm, and welcoming, and willing to share, and I think her enthusiasm, too—I think when you think about legacy, you think about all the many ways that she was able to share her father’s story, and the story of the group. It’s wonderful.
DDA: Well, and as we think about this idea of representation, and reflecting AfriCOBRA to present day influences, Gerald, you’ve spoken about the idea of flux and change. And I wanted to also share, as we’re thinking about flux, and change, and evolution, in one of my courses, Afrofuturism: Pathways to Liberation, we talk about the work of Octavia Butler, a science fiction writer who was very prophetic. And she wrote a book called Parable of the Sower, which basically foretold the present time down to the apocalyptic conditions in California, to “Make America Great Again,” and the rise of a fascist dictator, et cetera. And the main character, Lauren Oya Olamina, whose middle name references the Yoruba Orisha of thunder and whirlwinds, she creates a spiritual community called Earthseed. And their aim is to take root among the stars, and their central tenant is that God is change. She has broken it down to that. So if we think about God as change, if we think about core ideas of flux, change, and connecting that to “mimesis at midpoint.” I’d like you to perhaps talk a little bit more—because that’s a key element for you—around change and such. “Mimesis at midpoint,” can you speak to us more about that?
GW: Speaking of change, do you know that we’re in a post-racial era? [Laughter] Not so fast. And that’s something that hit me pretty hard, because I’ve been away from Chicago. I left Chicago in 1973. I went to Howard, did graduate work, and then I spent seventeen of those forty-five years outside the country. In 2001, about that time, I made a visit to The Studio Museum in Harlem, where we had the Ten in Search of a Nation show that is referenced in the video. Their featured exhibit was post-racial art. The whole exhibit was post-racial art.
And, you know, there’s a philosophy behind it, and it mostly has to do with change. And artists change, you know, we were reflecting—trying to capture the spirit of the age, fifty years ago. And I would venture to say that you’d have to have a focus group, today, to come together and figure out how to capture the spirit of this age. Afro-futurism is one of those terms, like progress, progressive, you know. When do you reach the future? When do you reach progress? And I’m not trying to say Afro-futurism is a self-defeating term, but it is a label, and it’s something to think about. Which art does. It’s there to provoke your thoughts about change, about what’s coming next. What are we gonna see in fifty years? Fifty years from now, it’s 2078? Is that right?
GW: ’68. But, you know what I mean? What is going to be the world view of 2018, seen through the eyes of artists in public in 2068? So, change is the inevitable reality of life. Sometimes I think you can manage it, sometimes I think it just occurs. And you try to be ready to either catch it, or adjust to it, or ignore it, maybe. But change is there.
DDA: And so, this idea of thinking of 2068, and—I really want to get a little more into your “mimesis at midpoint.” And what exactly does that mean in your process of creating, what you’re trying to do with the work?
GW: Well, it’s very formidable concept, but it’s really very simple. You have abstraction and reality. A lot of artists work strictly abstractly, you know, non-thematic, or non-figurative. And some are very naturalistic: the world is as we see it. And there are unseen aspects of this existence. So mimesis, or mime-esis, as some say, is the point somewhere between abstraction and reality. Where that point is would vary, you know, I guess if you had a scale of some sort, you could say, well, from one to zero, and from zero to fifty, you’re over here and you’re over here. So, if you look at most African traditional carvings, for example—not just African, but indigenous peoples around the world created work that was between abstract and realistic. How far depends on the culture.
You know, a mask is a mask, but they tried to capture the personality of somebody. Imagine trying to create a work based on Jackie Robinson. And you just want to capture all the attributes of Jackie Robinson, without all of the clues that tell you that this is a baseball player—he’s got a number, he’s got a uniform—trying to do that with limited clues. And you’re on that path, to trying to work with “mimesis at midpoint.” And you might find this leads to a rabbit hole, but when you get there, as I expect, eventually you give clarity to a concept.
DDA: And thinking about unseen forces, and your mention of the mask, I’m thinking about, in my study of African art, the activation of the mask. I wanted to ask you, Deva, about—thinking about some of the comments from Wadsworth, and others—Wadsworth specifically is talking about image optics that represent music, though not trying to paint the music, but the feeling he gets when listening to the music. I’m really interested in the sort of multi-sensory activations that you were doing in the film—or video—itself. Yeah, how you kind of added these extra levels and layers to bring it to life in a different way.
DN: Right. It was really—and we talked about this a little bit, and Gerald said, which I totally agree, the art is the production. The art is the star. So our goal in developing this film—or this video—was to figure out how we can bring—for video’s sake, how we can bring an extra layer, bring it to life without compromising. So, when you saw the musicians perform, you see texture, and you see shapes that are representative of the style of the artists. You see shapes that come to life. The music section, when we brought up some art, we decided why not layer some of the art, paint some of the art on, or layer it to kind of give it some definition as far as some of the techniques with the coolade colors, with the actual works that are part of the technique. And being able to bring it on to highlight and punctuate some of what the artists are saying was a goal in trying to bring it to life with the dialogue. So that was an artistic approach for us.
DDA: Is that something—oh, you were gonna say something.
GW: I was just gonna add just a little tidbit. There is a sculpture—and artists will say, “Well, my work is influenced by John Coltrane,” or, “This is something I did based on Thelonious Monk,” and so forth and so on. The critic comes along and analyzes all of the technical aspects of the work when it’s done. Then the question is, but where’s the music? You know, if the work is inspired by A Love Supreme, where’s the music? And the production, you know, shows some notes coming out of the instruments, and that’s a way of trying to explain, give an example, of—music had a color, and art telling you music is an abstraction. So I just wanted to add that. Something to think about.
DDA: Absolutely. I think I wanted to touch on one—you were mentioning about reflecting African indigenous carving, and between abstraction and realism. And I’m actually wanting to move from that into the question about FESTAC. So, in 1977—you have said FESTAC has something to do with everything. So I’m wanting to unpack what that means for you. So FESTAC was 1977, for those who may not know, it took place in Lagos, Nigeria. It was the Second World Black African Festival of Arts and Culture, a month-long showcase of transnational black art, sixteen thousand black artists from around the world. Myself, being born and raised in Nigeria—though from the bush, not from the big city—but I’ve always been very fascinated—especially when I first started learning about AfriCOBRA, and learning about so many things that were happening at that moment, which was a really dynamic period of time.
One other fact, I talked with Jae Jarrell about this, and she designed the fashion shows that took place there, which she really spoke about in terms of call and response, and what kind of folks were really activating the space: designers from Nigeria, designers from the U.S. The State Department funded two planes that was a sort of who’s who of famous black artists. I guess Jae ended up on the party plane, apparently. [Laughter] But five hundred artists who were coming, traveling there. FESTAC was a village, and artists’ village, that remains a neighborhood to this day. So, speaking of legacy.
But this was an important moment, you took time to go out and travel, go to Benin City, visit historic sites, meet with bronze casting sculptors. So, could you speak with us about your experience of that? And just bring us in to that moment. And what do you mean by, “FESTAC has something to do with everything”?
GW: Well, before I say anything, you better go back before all the bushes are gone. [Laughter] FESTAC was a festival of black and African arts and culture. It started off being a festival of black arts and culture, but somebody realized that not everybody on the African continent was black, so they wound up having to change it to Black and African Festival of Arts. It kind of gives you a picture of the planning that went on for that festival, some fifty-five nations on the continent, plus all of those nations that were forming colonies, that were colonizers—Europe, and, you know, elsewhere—anywhere there were black people, or Africans, in the diaspora, participated in the festival.
It started here, with a meeting at the Johnson Publication building on Michigan Avenue. And a lot of questions, and doubts, and, you know, elegant harpies thought that there was gonna be this festival that we might have a chance to be involved in. It helped having Jeff Donaldson as the chairperson of the North American contingent—he represented the United States. And as a member of AfriCOBRA, he himself was elated at the idea of being able to have some of his brethren and sisters be part of the festival. So AfriCOBRA was admitted as a group.
It was in January of 1977, I was in the first group. It was a Boeing 707. Shows you how old Boeing is. Artists from everywhere, all disciplines, all on this plane, headed for Lagos. One stop in Madrid. We land in Lagos, and it occurs to you immediately that everybody you encounter is a black person. You know, flying the plane, everybody. And it was a very good feeling. Nigeria put this festival on to show that they were ready for the rest of the world, so to speak. They had all this oil money, and they wanted to put on a good show. And they did. The village that you spoke about was brand new. It hadn’t really been completely finished. And so that became home for the two weeks.
As for me, after fixing the toilet that was leaking, which was very simple, they drove everybody out to this dormitory—you know, there’s power, and this and that and the other. We really tested ourselves as to how gritty we wanted to party. [Laughter] Or perform, or do whatever we were there to do. Me, kinfolks, and…
[I was among the group of visual artists who helped to prepare for the show by unpacking work and checking the condition. There wasn’t much else to do, but wait for the curator to arrive to organize the exhibition. There was a lot of time before the opening, so the visual artist had time on their hands. There was no practicing to be done or other preparations. .
I spent my time in various ways. One day, I just took off, walking. We were about seven miles from Lagos, from the center of Lagos. So I said, well, this is maddening. I didn’t come here to just sit around. [Laughter] I just started walking and I saw villages where herders had brought their cattle in to be auctioned off, and people carrying big baskets on top of their heads, and seeing this woman with a big tin full of rocks. And that’s kind of typical, it’s nothing that you really get excited about, you know.
But I continued walking, found some artists who were arguing with an official about not being able to get into some venue, and they came over to me and said, “We can’t even be part of this, and we live here.” And they had my sympathy, of course, but, you know, that’s part of being a native. We kind of experience the same sorts of things here. Try to understand what I’m saying. Try to go to Washington D.C., selling your artifacts, where the money is, down at the mall. Anyways, that’s what’s going on.
I ran into another group of artists in a village that were doing some fabric work. Anyway, I just hung out there for a couple of hours, and they invited me to come back, and I did. One of them lived in Benin City. Benin City is, according to people in Benin, the only place where there’s culture in Nigeria. And Benin had its own festival. They were part of the festival. But everything was centered around Lagos, and some other areas around the country. So they gave me the royal treatment. A tour of the entire city, even the inside of the electric company. [Laughter] You know, they were really proud to show off.
I stayed with a family who lived next to bronze casters. Benin, as you might know, is the center of bronze casting. And I was able to watch this family cast bronze. And when I was ready to leave after a few days, they gave me a piece they had made. So that was away from the group thing. And it made for a special moment, meeting some of the local carvers. I took a tour to the American Consulate, where after staying for a little while, the man who worked at the Embassy asked my escort where I was from. [Laughter] ‘Cause he didn’t understand a word of English.
DDA: I’m just curious, your experience there, did that lead to your desire to want to be away for seventeen years?
GW: I was invited to teach at University of Benin. [at this point, Gerald gave an enigmatic shrug and was silent for a moment. Everyone laughed.] My hosts in Benin were overly generous.
DDA: That’s amazing.
GW: That never happened. [Laughter] It never happened. You know how bureaucracies work. It just wasn’t more than a thought. But during that—that was in January. I never seriously considered applying for a job in Benin.
I did wind up going into the Peace Corps. Later that summer, I ran into a woman who asked me for directions to the theater on campus, because she was going there to do a—she was recruiting for the Peace Corps. And I said, “Well, it’s right over there. I’ll show you.” I mentioned to her that I was in the service, in the Air Force, at the time the Peace Corps came into existence. And I felt awful, you know, I would much rather be there in the Peace Corps than in the military. Although the military at that time was—Vietnam was just getting underway, but I wasn’t involved in that in any way. And she said, “Well, it’s never too late to join the Peace Corps,” and cited all these other people who were well up in age who served in the Peace Corps.
Later, during the fall, I was sold on the idea. So I signed up. I was in charge of a course called Prevocational Workshop for Mentally Handicapped Young Adults. And the slogan for the Peace Corps is—or was, I don’t know what it is now—”the hardest job you’ll ever love.” And it really did a lot to help sharpen my sense of what this existence is all about. Because we can talk about going back to the motherland, going back to our roots, and the romanticized vision of Africa, but you actually spend some time there, and you really understand the hardscrabble life that goes on. So, I did the two years that were required, came back, and had the urge to leave the country again.
It gave me a totally different perspective on life in America. And not to disparage anything about this country, but living in other countries does a lot to teach you about this country. I was gonna ask, I know the answer to the question, but I’m just gonna ask anyway. If anybody in here served in the Peace Corps, raise your hand. But I know the two people who—[Laughter] [two audience members who Gerald met in Kenya were in the audience]
DDA: On that note, I wanted to reference—because you served in Kenya, and there’s a young artist, Wanuri Kahiu, she’s a filmmaker, who has just done some wonderful projects. She’s from Kenya, and she has talked about the cultivation of radical joy, which is something also that Jae Jarrell has spoken about. And Deva, you were talking about this presentation of the film as a celebration, and Wadsworth had referenced, you know, we’re not looking at—he didn’t use the word abjection, but—we’re not trying to highlight images of abjection, but we are celebrating blackness. Uplift, that’s another word that comes up over and over again.
So I wanted to—I guess as sort of a final kind of wrap up question, since we want to get to some audience questions as well—thinking about representation, what it means to see ourselves reflected in art and media, and the community as the audience. I’m just wondering if you can speak to that. I’m also gonna throw in another term that we had been talking about earlier, which is “thrival,” a combination of surviving and thriving, which is from Amanda Williams, who’s an architect and artist in the city doing wonderful things. You have talked about your commitment to wellness and natural living, and just thinking about how can we—looking forward, and work that you’re doing now—how do we think about surviving, thriving, as black folk, as artists. Where are your spaces for that, and your projects? What gives you that “thrival” energy now?
GW: Well, it’s really very simple. I retired to Chicago three years ago, and one thing that really gives me uplift is to go down the street I live on and pick up trash. Seriously. And I’m conscious of the fact that it’s a never ending process. [Laughter] But I do it. Wellness is important, it’s just keeping physically active, and exercising. I swim a lot. Fortunately I live about a mile from the YMCA, and I try to swim every day, at least five hundred yards. That’s not too much.
And I walk my dog to the park, so I’m very able to really preach about what an asset we have right here. And if you’re not taking advantage of this park, or the park near where you live, or anyplace, you’re missing out. Because of the dog, I have to get up. [Laughter] Go for a walk in the evening. You know, just walking. Those kind of things, that don’t take a lot of special equipment or anything, just the love of being outdoors. And eating… I won’t go there, because… [Laughter]
DDA: So quick final question for each of you. What song is most recently on your record player inspiring you?
DN: Record player. [Laughter]
DDA: What’s on your phonograph? [Laughter] Just a song inspiring work right now.
GW: Most of you haven’t heard of this song before. “What’s Going On?” [Laughter]
DDA: What inspires passion for the work?
DN: Passion for work. I was actually just listening to, before I came here—because I was working on a project with Black Thought from The Roots. He helped to promote another documentary that an outside company produced on Trayvon Martin. And he did a piece called “Rest in Power” that was a spoken word rap piece that you can actually listen to on Apple. But I listen to that because it’s really inspiring, even beyond the project with him. And so, I actually listened to some of that in the hotel room today. But his work—because he stepped out on his own, outside of The Roots—but his work has really inspired me of late.
DDA: It’s nice to end on—
GW: What about you?
DDA: Myself? Oh, goodness. What’s on my phonograph? [Laughter]
GW: Your record player.
DDA: Yes. Oh, goodness, I’ll pick Stevie Wonder, “A Seed’s a Star.” I break out in tears just thinking about it. I want to thank my two esteemed guests, Gerald Williams, Deva Newman, thank you so much for this wonderful conversation. Thank you Rebecca, thank you DuSable, thank you everybody, everybody. All these beautiful people. We have time for questions now. So, yes, let’s jump into it.
Audience Member #1: This is for Mr. Williams. So you traveled the world, forty years, came back to Chicago recently. Welcome back. How did your travels abroad inform your co-founding and your praxis within AfriCOBRA?
GW: I have to think for a second. I had a life—have a life—outside of AfriCOBRA. I worked a full-time job during that travel. Just as I had a full-time job when we got started. We all worked regular jobs and found time to meet and produce. It convinced me that I needed to work smaller, because I couldn’t carry or ship larger work around with me. And the work got finished in a short period of time. So I had to tailor whatever I did to my job. I was fixed for maybe three years—one place, three years, another place, two years—and had time to travel and go to other places. Just to see what the other areas looked like. I’m not sure I’ve gotten everything that you—
Audience Member #1: That’s cool. [Laughter]
DDA: We have another question.
Audience Member #2: Hi. Mr. Williams, you mentioned how you felt when you saw all black people—driving the planes, everybody you saw. I returned from Ghana two weeks ago tomorrow, after nine days. And I experienced for the first time what it looked like to live in a hotel where there were African carvings outside the building, and all kinds of African-centered things on the wall, and everywhere you went. And my people were on the money. Boy. It was an experience. But one of the people in the movie said that black history had been submerged, I think he said, and it really doesn’t exist. And I think today, maybe—and I’d like to have your opinion on it—that our history is more submerged today, but the people aren’t aware of it. And you had a heads up, to know that your history was being submerged.
When I hear terms like “people of color,” I wonder, who doesn’t have color? And I didn’t feel too good as a little girl when I was going to a three-room schoolhouse with an outhouse in the back, and blacks were the people that were omitted out. And whoever the people are that are omitted out today, I don’t see how that is not reverse segregation, and I don’t see how it does anybody any good to leave anybody out of the human family. Whether you’re seeing people of color and white people left out, or you’re seeing people of color, and they’re the ones left out, it’s time for everybody to be included in.
And so I wanted to ask you, I came back from Ghana, I brought back this—it’s about six feet long, and it goes from biblical times all the way to Martin Luther King Jr., just our entire history, because of the 1619-2019, four hundred year history, of black kidnapped Africans arriving in this country. There’s a long—nobody’s even talking about it. And so, I would like to know, are we being more submerged today?
In conclusion, I was listening to their country’s music, and their country’s artist was taking pride in their country, regional music, and I said, “Well, where’s the blues? Are we taking pride in our blues? Where’s our music?” And if you hear somebody—it used to be that black people would sing black people’s music. Now somebody white is singing black people’s music. So it seems like—
DDA: So the question—
Audience Member #2: The question is are we more submerged today, history-wise, than we were when we were at least aware of it?
GW: When we started our organization, part of the spirit of the age was discovering, or re-discovering, everything African. Where our roots were, where we came from, all the clothing styles were based on African concepts. It was a time when we identified with the heritage that you’re speaking about. It had been submerged since we came. It re-emerged, that spirit, the feeling of reconnecting with ancestry, during the early part of the twentieth century. The Harlem Renaissance, for example. And the organization that started a museum that collected—it was a foundation, actually—that collected African art. So, you know, my travels have told me that the world is made up of a lot of different people, and all are there to learn about, and to share this planet with.
You know, if somebody wants to sing the blues, let them sing the blues. Just hope that they can do as good of a job as whoever first sang the blues. Nobody has a monopoly on anything, especially the arts. The big bucks that flow around—I think some people have a monopoly on that, because the trickle down theory, that’s kind of how it works. But nevertheless, you have to take it all in. Take in every culture. You didn’t get a chance to ask me what I’m working on now. [Laughter] But I wanted to tell you.
DDA: Yes, please.
GW: Before Rebecca comes over. Most of you are too young to know who Paul Robeson is. I’m working on a piece dealing with Paul Robeson, and the kind of life—he led a very fulfilling life as a humanist. And somebody revered in a country where you wouldn’t think he would be a hero. Wales, for example, where he was key in their labor disputes. And a man who possessed all of the characteristics that are prized in this country. A master of all the things that we really admire, from being a great singer, and an actor, a tremendous warrior, and a leader—a labor leader—an activist. To have been diminished the way he was is part of the tragic tale—is part of the general tragedy of a life evolved. And, you know, some things get submerged, and then they reemerge. But he’s somebody who I’ve always admired. So I’m doing a piece about him.
DDA: On that note, we’re kind of out of time now. So hopefully just some time to have more conversation…
MP: Can I ask—I just wanted to ask Deva a really quick question about the production of the documentary.
DDA: Okay, we also have a question in the back, though.
Audience Member #3: Just one question. When has America ever been post-racial?
GW: We have historians here…
DDA: This just opened the door—Okay, yes.
MP: I just wanted to kind of bring it back to the film for a bit. How closely did you work with the artists on things like which works to show, techniques like visualizing the music, and animating the paintings, which stories they wanted to tell. ‘Cause I mean, AfriCOBRA was a collective, and they collaborated, and they came up with this aesthetic. How much collaboration was involved in making this film about them?
DN: A lot of collaboration. It was weekly conversations with Barbara, Jae, Wadsworth, and Napoleon, about how should we best represent some of the dialogue, you know, some of the interviews. Once we got the interviews, what works would best support a lot of what they’re saying. They were okay with us manipulating that video, so we did ask about that. In Wadsworth’s studio, and going through so much of his art, and just being there with all of that was spectacular. And, yeah, so, they were heavily involved.
DDA: How long was the whole process from beginning to end?
DN: Probably about a three month process.
DDA: That’s fast. I’m not sure—I don’t know with the museum folks, can we continue with questions, or?
MP: Maybe one more?
DDA: Okay, one more question.
Audience Member #4: Yes, Gerald. The sisters in the organization: Barbara Jones-Hogu, Carolyn Lawrence, Jae Jarrell, were there others? And what was their influence, how was it different from the men? If it was?
GW: There wasn’t any difference performance-wise, or organizationally, structurally. I think we all contributed as equals. Everybody had their strengths and areas that they were strong in. The dynamic of gender was sublimated to the desire to develop and grow. So it wasn’t, you know, the women had to do all the cooking. [Laughter] And you had to chop the wood. [Laughter]
DDA: If I can also, I just wanted to mention, a couple years ago for the 50th anniversary of the Black Arts Movement, as part of the class I hosted a Women of AfriCOBRA conversation. And one of the things that sticks out to me from Jae is that she said, “I like to quote the lyrics, ‘It never entered my mind,’ when people ask about the gender elements.” Sometimes it’s almost as if historians were almost placing—we have to be careful about how it’s being framed after the fact, because she said in that moment everything that you’re mentioning. It was about the collective, it was about the work, the product, the movement together.
DN: They had such a rich contribution.
GW: Egos cross the gender divide. [Laughter]
DDA: And Jae also said she was not necessarily serving Kool-Aid at the parties. [Laughter] She made that note about the reference to coolade colors, that it didn’t necessarily reflect the things that she had prepared when it was at her house.
Audience Member #5: Can I please get my question in?
DDA: Yes, yes.
Audience Member #5: Thank you. Mr. Williams, what I wanted to ask you about is that—you kind of touched on it in terms of talking about money and the trickle-down effect. I think one thing that’s interesting is that you had your launch at The Studio in Harlem, which, you know, has done a big shift with gentrification. And we see that now here in Chicago, these changes. And the DuSable, for example, as an institution that was started as a black cultural institution that now has to compete with other institutions for doing projects like this, and sharing—sorry if I’m being inarticulate, but I’m trying to get at, in terms of the whole—what do you think about in terms of the money? And how does it get to the emerging artists in the communities? Black arts, like you said, everyone had a day gig. And can you talk on that? If I’m making sense.
GW: I don’t want to be overly simplistic, but next week in Miami is something called Art Basel. One of the largest art markets, where galleries and artists from all over the world go to sell our artwork. Simple as that.
Audience Member #5: But the only thing is—the push back is that’s for emerging, more established artists, or those who know how to take risks. But I guess I’m looking at what happens in terms of the ties within the community. For example, arts education deserts that are the access to the cultural resources and things. So, sorry to interrupt, but—if that makes sense. Just the whole idea of that access to our cultural resources in our community that are done by black institutions, like by Burroughs at the South Side Arts Center. Versus—which is great that we have it—Logan Arts, which is part of the University of Chicago, which didn’t necessarily reach out to support these communities that were surrounding it, if that makes sense.
GW: The only thing I can say about that is, very briefly, an experience I had when I first graduated from college. I was on a path to teaching high school that took a long time, so I substitute taught, and I was in the field at the time when art was removed from priority in the school system. Art, and music, and everything else. The only thing that the community can do is convince the people who are making those decisions that art is not a frivolous activity. It’s a multi-billion dollar activity. You can ask the Art Institute how much their students pay to go there.
DDA: And ask how much the teachers actually get paid. [Laughter]
GW: But they go there—you see what I’m saying? You can’t do it by standing on tables and pounding on desks.
DDA: And one of the times, I mean, I’m going back to the manifesto. “We want everyone to have some.” So that was something that for me—what has really moved me about AfriCOBRA, and that’s not speaking to the day jobs, but just the fact of—and, you know, to keep twelve, I don’t know the exact number—but ours here in Chicago is one that has remained part of the community. So, that this is a commitment of dimes and nickels and pennies. What does it mean to create work that can then be thinking about Dudley Randall and the Broadside Press in Detroit? Producing something that can be easily disseminated. Everybody can have some. So, that also speaks to me of access, around what choices artists are making, what choices AfriCOBRA made, to make their work something that could be shared more easily, and getting away from that preciousness of the art market space.
GW: We did prints that were made to make art accessible to the community. Low cost, sold for ten dollars. You’d be hard pressed to find one for under a couple thousand dollars, at least. Like bubblegum cards.
DDA: And that’s it. Thank you.