March 10, 2017 (Detroit)—The Detroit Institute of Arts’ (DIA) General Motors Center for African American art recently acquired 14 works by African American artists, among them the Wadsworth Jarrell painting “Three Queens,” (1971) and three study drawings for “Three Queens.” Jarrell’s 1974 painting “Woman Supreme” was also added to the DIA’s collection of African American art.
The other acquisitions include photographs by Louis Draper, Anthony Barboza, Ming Smith and Adger W. Cowans, and prints by Leonardo Drew and Cowans.
Jarrell is a founding member AfriCOBRA, a collective of African American artists formed in Chicago in 1968 as a response to the Civil Rights Movement. Its members inspired black pride by exploring and defining a black visual aesthetic that would reflect the style, colors, cool attitude and rhythm associated with their culture. AfriCOBRA artists focused on the social and political issues that affected their communities and were committed to making art that was understandable, relevant and accessible.
“We are deeply committed to elevating the work of African American artists and using those works to ensure that all members of our community see their stories reflected in our collection,” said Salvador Salort-Pons, DIA Director. “The General Motors Center for African American Art has been a national leader on this front for many years, and these acquisitions are an important part of maintaining that momentum.”
The new acquisitions are part of the DIA’s “Reflecting our Community” initiative, which aims to have the museum’s attendance mirror the region’s racial and ethnic demographics by 2020. One of the commitments to the initiative is to acquire and display more works by African American artists.
“Three Queens” depicts the portraits of three African American women. Colorful letters swirl around them, spelling messages that allude to the “Black is Beautiful” cultural campaign from the 1960s. The letters spell “Fros are beautiful,” “Black women are beautiful,” and “Stop buying Chuck’s wigs and make up,” “Chuck” being a slang term referring to a white person or white society. The letter “B” covers the faces and necks of the women and stands for “Black,” referring to AfriCOBRA’s assertion of a black identity in their art.
Jarrell uses “coolade” colors—a favorite of the collective—in the painting, which are seen in aspects of African American lifestyles, as well as traditional and modern African textiles, but were also associated with the Pop Culture of the period. Fashion, interior and commercial design, poster and billboard art, and even some fine art displayed intensely bright colors that symbolized the dominant influence of youthful tastes in dress and music.
“Woman Supreme” is a portrait of Jarrell’s wife, Jae, who is also an artist and a co-founder of AfriCOBRA. The painting pays tribute to her as a woman, wife and mother and is a comment on Jarrell’s admiration for her. For Jae’s portrait, Jarrell complements the “coolade” colors by applying gold and silver foil to her face and sections of the background. By combining the bright colors and foil, he conveys “shine,” an aesthetic principle of the collective believed to arouse positive emotions from viewers. Jarrell applied rickrack, a flat braid woven in wave shape, to areas of the surface to emphasize design patterns and forms. Colorful letters around Jae’s head spell “Woman Supreme.” In some areas, the letter “B” refers to black identity. As with much of his art from the period, here Jarrell synthesized art and design theory with African and Western symbols, images and patterns.
The art from AfriCOBRA and other African American art collectives from the 1960s and 70s is the focus of the DIA’s upcoming exhibition “Art of Rebellion: Black Art of the Civil Rights Movement,” which opens July 23 in conjunction with a partner exhibition at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History. Both exhibitions are part of the Detroit Historical Society’s Detroit ’67 commemoration of the rebellion that took place in the city from July 23–27, 1967. Nearly 100 cultural institutions and organizations are planning related events and programs.