Chicago’s Black Avant-Garde Art and Music Tradition Goes on Display

Now at Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, 'The Freedom Principle' explores how the 1960s shaped the black aesthetic.

Nov 12 2015, 8:50pm

Art Ensemble of Chicago performance at MCA Chicago, 1979. © MCA Chicago

In the years following the Civil Rights Movement, artists and musicians were searching for ways to contribute to the message of freedom and equality. In 70s New York, writer Amiri Baraka’s Black Arts Movement flourished while Nina Simone formed her own one-woman musical revolution; in Chicago, the black avant-garde formed the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) and the African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists (AfriCOBRA) as a way to creatively highlight the communities facing racial and economic injustice and to offer new ideas through their art. The music and art created in Chicago by AfriCOBRA and AACM are now on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago exhibition, The Freedom Principle: Experiments in Art and Music 1965 to Now.

Wadsworth Jarrell, Revolutionary, 1972.Courtesy of the artist. © MCA Chicago

The works on display at MCA Chicago distinctly embody the feelings of the 60s and 70s. Wadsworth Jarrell’s 1972 portrait, Revolutionary, of a figure sporting an Afro constructed of words like “resist” and “black” perfectly illustrates the collectives' revolutionary rhetoric bleeding into their artistic practices. All five of the founding AfriCOBRA members—Jeff Donaldson, Jae Jarrell, Wadsworth Jarrell, Barbara Jones-Hogu, and Gerald Williams have work on display along with ephemera such as posters, banners, photographs from that Civil Rights era. 

“The exhibition recognizes these unknown histories that we were willing to dig into and share, which coincides nicely with the 50th anniversary of the AACM," explains Curatorial Assistant Karsten Lund, who organized the show with lead curator Naomi Beckwith. “On the whole, it is largely driven by the incredibly vibrant and interesting moment in the mid-1960s in Chicago and the ways that has continued to spread outward.”

Gerald Williams, Nation Time, 1969. Johnson Publishing Company (Chicago). Photo: Geoffrey Black/Johnson Publishing Company. © MCA Chicago

The exhibition is also rooted in what Lund calls AACM's “experiential and real cross-disciplinary spirit.” Each group's efforts expanded the boundaries of jazz, both musically and aesthetically as a culture. Muhal Richard Abrams, a painter, pianist, and founder of the AACM painted his own album art for his jazz records. Take, for instance, the sound piece titled Rio Negro by George Lewis, Douglas Ewart and Douglas Rapetto. “[It's] also this environment piece that incorporates all of these sculptures that Douglas Ewart himself has made to hang in the space and make noise," Lund tells The Creators Project.

Installation view, The Freedom Principle: Experiments in Art and Music, 1965 to Now, MCA Chicago. July 11-November 22, 2015. Work shown: Nari Ward, We The People, 2011. In collaboration with The Fabric Workshop and Museum, Philadelphia. Courtesy the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong. Photo: Nathan Keay. © MCA Chicago

The Freedom Principle aims to illuminate the lasting impacts these collectives have had on contemporary art and show the work of artists who came after, such as Nick CaveWilliam Pope.L, Rashid Johnson, Terry Adkins, and Sanford Biggers. The strength of the show is in its intergenerational dialogue that highlights a contemporary black artistic expression. Lund describes this important dynamic as, “a visual language that AfriCOBRA and [AACM] matched to positive images of black figures and musicians playing.”

Nari Ward's 2011 piece, a wall of patriotic themed yarn piece that spells out “We The People,” in big cursive letters, echoes the 1967 Wall of Respect mural painted by Robert Abbott Sengstacke on the Southside of Chicago.

Robert Abbott Sengstacke, Wall of Respect, 1967. Photo by Robert Abbott Sengstacke/Getty Images. Courtesy of the artist. © MCA Chicago

The Freedom Principle gives historical charge to today's Black Lives Matter Movement. It is in and of itself a plea for continous intergenerational dialogue. “In this exhibition, we are largely deferring to the artists to explore what has continued and what has changed,” says Lund.  

Wadsworth Jarell, New Orleans-style group photo in painter Wadsworth Jarrell’s backyard c. 1968/printed 2015.Courtesy of George Lewis.© MCA Chicago

The Freedom Principle: Experiments in Art and Music, 1965 to Now continues through November 22 at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. For more information, click here.


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