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AFRICOBRA weaves a rich tapestry

The hut displays posters for AFRICOBRA an exhibit South Side Community Art Center. | JOHN H. WHITE ~ SUN-TIMES

The hut displays posters for AFRICOBRA, an exhibit at the South Side Community Art Center. | JOHN H. WHITE ~ SUN-TIMES

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They called themselves AFRICOBRA — the African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists.

From their Chicago homes and studios, on the heels of the civil rights movement, they redefined what it meant to be a black artist, spreading the “black is beautiful” message throughout the broader culture staring in the last 1960s.

Now, three local South Side cultural institutions are joining together to present a multi-part exhibit on the group’s storied past and continuing influence.

“It was a vital time in American history and civil rights,” said Heather Irleand Robinson, executive director of the South Side Community Art Center in Bronzveille, where AFRICOBRA members created some of their earliest works. “Black people were finally standing up and saying ‘We are beautiful.’ It echoed but also documented the black movement that was going on all over the nation.”

“AFRICOBRA in Chicago” opens May 10 and runs through July 7 at the South Side Community Art Center ( with “AFRICOBRA: Prologue — the 1960s and The Black Arts Movement.” Then it moves to the University of Chicago’s Logan Center for the Arts ( for “AFRICOBRA: Philosophy” from June 28 to August 11. The final installment, “AFRICOBRA: Art and Impact,” will run at the DuSable Museum of African American History ( from July 26 through Sept. 29.

“It’s a way to do a show that’s a little bit ambiguous,” said Rebecca Zorach, an art history professor at the University of Chicago and show curator. “It allows people to go to different venues to see different aspects of the time period and really give some much needed attention to the artists of the period.”

Zorach, who taught a University of Chicago class on Chicago’s black arts movement, said the city was a key part of the movement that was also emerging in New York and the West Coast in the 1960s.

“It was really kind of a cultural arm of black power and black liberation,” she said. “Chicago has been underappreciated as a real center for the black arts movement. It was really a place of enormous ferment in arts and politics.”

Several of AFRICOBRA’s founding members worked on the “Wall of Respect” mural painted at 47th and Langley in 1967.

“The ‘Wall of Respect’ kind of generated a whole mural movement across the country,” Zorach said. “That’s a really good example of Chicago being on the leading edge of the black arts movement.”

Robinson said she hopes the show leads to a greater awareness of not only AFRICOBRA but the role Bronzeville and the South Side played in it.

“I think it’s important to tell these stories,” she said. “And if we don’t tell them nobody will.”

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