AFRICOBRA: Nation Time Exhibition at Venice Biennale

By Shantay Robinson 


Curator, Jeffreen Hayes is still in shock that her exhibition AFRICOBRA: Nation Time is showing at the 2019 Biennale Arte in Venice. AfriCOBRA (African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists) was founded in 1968 by young black artists who wanted to use the power of visual art to “communicate deep meaning” to their community on the South Side of Chicago, Illinois. The collective was integral to the Black Arts Movement in the 1960s and 70s. The five founding members whose work will be in the Venice exhibition are Jeff Donaldson, Wadsworth Jarrell, Jae Jarrell, Barbara Jones-Hogu, and Gerald Williams. Meeting in those early days, the members defined their mission as one that would embody a “Black aesthetic” and help facilitate black liberation movements. In order to achieve their mission, the collective made their work accessible to the people by creating poster art, in addition to one of their most notable collective works, a radical mural called The Wall of Respect.  

Hayes curated the exhibition AFRICOBRA: Messages to the People for the Museum of Contemporary Art North Miami that opened in November of 2018 right before Miami Art Basel. Hayes states, “The response to Messages from the people in Miami blew my mind. I wasn’t prepared for that. It was really wonderful. It was like well, this is why I do it.” MOCA-North Miami was so impressed with Hayes’ exhibition, they suggested that they propose an AfriCOBRA exhibition to the Venice Biennale. While working on Messages, MOCA-North Miami that has a long history of being an international institution proposed the AfriCOBRA exhibition to Venice. They wanted to use this opportunity to reclaim their status after going through some leadership transitions. Hayes mentions, “[the museum] is one that understands that black art and art by people of color is also on this international and global stage.” Although the Miami exhibition was not yet closed when they applied to Venice, Hayes says she wanted to continue working on another AfriCOBRA exhibition because the collective “made a very huge impact on, not just African American or black art, but art in general.” She says this is the next chapter of the Miami exhibition because it’s a completely different show.

The Venice exhibition is not meant to be a retrospective, though the works in the show range from the collective’s early days to works created as late as 2017. A retrospective would imply that the exhibition included all of the work of the artists who have been part of AfriCOBRA and that’s not the case. Hayes was very cognizant to include the work of the founders in the Venice show because she feels you can’t have an exhibition of the collective without them. But she also wanted to include two early members who have continued the legacy.  Hayes remarks, “So, one of the things that is important to the collective and I’m mindful of, is while they’re been working for 50 years, and a lot of exhibitions over the past few years have looked back to those early days, the artists have been very adamant in wanting to present more current work because they’re still alive and they’re still making work.” And although the collective has been together and showing work for 50 years, this is the first time they are presenting work on this global of a stage. Despite the artists being trained as artists, who have BFAs and MFAs and who have engaged with Western art and tradition, the collective wasn’t making art to fit in those spaces. Hayes notes, “They would show at institutions that were black spaces or had a black curator mainly because of the politics…They weren’t concerned with white art critics because they understood they weren’t going to fully understand what they were making and why they were doing it.”

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Hayes notes that Nation Time is a “continuum of art history and how different art movements and art forms influence each other.” And she thinks, “it will help fill out the gaps in art history for many.” Included in the exhibition are “very vibrant paintings and fiber sculptures and assemblage and tapestry, a real range of mediums.” The exhibition will also include archival photographs of the collective’s members in the early days at Wadsworth  Jarrell’s studio, as well archival magazine and newspaper clippings. Hayes included poetry by black women of the Black Arts Movement to help open up each thematic section to show the close connection between the literary art and visual art at that time. Hayes believes art doesn’t exist in a vacuum, so viewers can expect “to see not just the artwork but the larger context for the collective and the periods in which they were making their work.”

Part of Hayes’ curatorial practice, particularly with artists who are still living is to have a conversation with them about the story they would like to be told within her larger curatorial vision. The artists selected the work to be included in the Venice show in collaboration with Hayes. There are seven members’ works included in Nation Time, the five founders along with Nelson Stevens and Napoleon Jones, two early members. While Hayes had not formed relationships with the members before the Miami exhibition, she tells that in her days as a Master’s in Art History student at Howard University AfriCOBRA was one of the roots of the art department. Some of the members of the collective were teaching at Howard while she was there, although their work is not included in the exhibitions. She does share an interesting story about Nelson Stevens who moderated a panel at a symposium at University of Massachusetts, Amherst where he retired from. She mentions they shared a laugh when reuniting to create their exhibition. When she presented a paper during her days as a graduate student, he warned her, in those days, to always carry slides of artworks when presenting because during her talk, the university didn’t have equipment for her PowerPoint presentation.

Hayes received a PhD in American Studies from the College of William and Mary because she is “very interested in the intersections and the influence of culture on art making.” She has been a curator for about 15 years, having worked at Hampton University Museum and Birmingham Museum of Art. She’s currently the Executive Director of Three Walls in Chicago where she works with contemporary artists to present exhibitions in the neighborhood rather than in the organization’s space. But she maintains an independent curating schedule “to advance [her] own personal mission of visibility and accessibility for black audiences and [she is] able to help museums see the benefits of that.” The exhibition she curated, Augusta Savage: Renaissance Woman, is currently touring.

While Hayes is now officially an international curator, that was not her first choice of professions. She was always good at the sciences and art, so she started her undergraduate career as a chemistry major. But some time in, she realized being a pharmacist was not what she wanted to do with the rest of her life. She took some time away from school, and in order to get back in, she enrolled in a humanities course about medieval art and fell in love. Although she wanted to change her major, she needed to know what kind of job she could get doing art, because as the first in her family to go to college, her father wanted her to be able to sustain herself financially. She asked her professor, and he suggested curator or critic. She got her first internship in the education department of a museum, and she was able to speak to curators who told her that a major part of curating was research. And she was sold. Hayes gives her mother all the credit for her success. It was her mother who championed her decision to get into art and convinced her father to allow it. She says, her mother “didn’t know what a curator was but supported it form the very beginning, even having long conversations with my father about letting me follow my dreams.” Her mother is the one who said, “This is your life’s work.” And then it dawned on her that it absolutely is.

Many of us can learn a lot from AfriCOBRA by the realization of Nation Time’s presence at one of the oldest and largest contemporary art exhibitions in the world. Hayes says, “I would also say that one of the biggest lessons I think that artists, as well as curators, or creatives, one of the things we can learn from AfriCOBRA on this stage is, you just have to keep working. And stay true to your craft. And not be overly concerned with institutions that may not be interested in your work…They are making work for the people. The people meaning black people, the Diaspora, and being very intentional about where they have their exhibitions.”

AFRICOBRA: Nation Time will open on May 11 and run through November 24, 2019.

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Shantay Robinson, BAIA resident scholar has participated in Burnaway’s Art Writers Mentorship Program, Duke University’s The New New South Editorial Fellowship, and CUE Art Foundation’s Art Critic Mentoring Program. She has written for Burnaway, ArtsATL, ARTS.BLACK, AFROPUNK, Number, Inc. and Washington City Paper. While  receiving an MFA in Writing from Savannah College of Art and Design, she served as a docent at the High Museum of Art. She is currently working on a PhD in Writing and Rhetoric at George Mason University.

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