Artists Video

‘Your Body Itself Is Already a Place of Politics’: Contemporary Artists Respond to Eight Questions from AfriCOBRA Cofounder Jeff Donaldson

 

On the first Monday of each month, through June, in a partnership with the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art, ARTnews will be sharing a short film directed by Wes Miller from a series that the AAA produced about its collections.

Today’s selection focuses on an open letter penned in 1967 by Jeff Donaldson, a cofounder of AfriCOBRA (African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists) in Chicago in 1968. Sent by Donaldson to his friends and peers in the Organization of Black American Culture, the letter includes details about a forthcoming meeting of visual artists in which eight questions would be on the agenda. (It’s among the artist’s papers that are held by the AAA.)

In the film, artists Maren Hassinger, Shaun Leonardo, Mickalene Thomas, Jacolby Satterwhite, and Elia Alba answer the questions posed by Donaldson in his letter. In response to the first query, “Do you consider yourself a Black visual artist, an American visual artist, or an artist, period?,” Leonardo says, “If you move through this world, someone is very much going to care that you’re Black. So, at some point, it’s not your decision to make.”

Question number seven asks, “Who do you create for?” Thomas answers, “I like to think that I create for Black people, but mostly for myself,” and Satterwhite explains, “It’s a fight between creating for yourself more than you’re creating for your audience. That’s what the road to integrity is, I guess.”

Donaldson also asks, “Do you believe that an artist’s ethics should be separable from his aesthetics?” To which Alba says, “I don’t know if you can separate it. I’m not sure I want to separate it. I just believe, as an artist of color, it’s intertwined. Your body itself is already a place of politics.”

The presentation concludes with a series of new questions from the featured artists. Hassinger: “Why are you doing this?” And Leonardo asks: “When do you employ a whisper versus a shout?”

“AfriCOBRA: Nation Time,” an exhibition on the group and its members that was curated by Jeffreen Hayes at the Museum of Contemporary Art in North Miami, has been selected as an official collateral event of the 2019 Venice Biennale. It will run at Ca’ Faccanon from May 11 through November 24.

Here’s more from the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art on its work, and the film project:

The Archives of American Art is a living collection, evolving with the changing world of art and artists and continually growing with new acquisitions each year. What is new is always exciting, but scholars, artists, and others continue to revisit material that is decades or even centuries old, bringing new interpretations, new framing, and new ideas to letters, diaries, oral histories, and the wide range of other materials that the Archives preserves.

In 2017, the Archives began a collaboration with filmmaker Wes Miller to produce a series of short films on important documents in its collections. The oral history, letters, and poem at the core of each film provide a glimpse of the range of historical evidence the Archives of American Art safeguards and brings into vivid detail artists’ inspirations, motivations, and the art communities in which they lived. These personal accounts preserve moments in time in a way no textbook ever can, adding richness and depth to our understanding of the American art world.

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