The Magical Revolution:
Frank Smith and the Rise of AfriCobra
In 1967, on the corner of East 47th Street and Langley on Chicago’s South Side, there was an old neglected building that epitomized the worst of the ghetto. Its façade was missing chips of paint, its windows were dirt-encrusted, its roof seemed to wobble.
But it was here – at this urban eyesore, this totem pole announcing Chicago’s social and cultural underbelly – that a revolution took place.
A small group of African American artists stood high on ladders one day and painted the entire façade – studding it with portraits of African American heroes: Malcolm X, Billie Holiday, Muhammad Ali, Thelonious Monk and W.E.B. DuBois.
They called the mural “The Wall of Respect.”
It became a flash-point for the Black Cultural Nationalist Revolutionary Movement, a visual war-cry, a middle finger held up at Chicago’s white aristocracy. And it helped launch one of the single longest-lasting art groups in America: The Coalition of Black Revolutionary Artists (COBRA), whose members still meet regularly even today, four decades later. (The group has changed its name, since those fist-raising years of late 1960s counter-culture, to “AfriCobra” or “African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists.”)
The artist Frank Smith joined AfriCobra in 1972. He was young then, and today he is older. When he looks at his life’s work, his eyes are clouded by nostalgia. He stands before his paintings and stares into the patchwork as if to study an old photograph.
What he sees are the revolutionary stepping stones that helped AfriCobra cross from obscurity to relative fame, by way of a unique pan-Africanism. As the 1970 AfriCobra manifesto explains, the group’s objectives were “to develop a new African American aesthetic… and promotion of pride in Black self-identity.”
For Smith, this new aesthetic is best seen through the notion of “anonymous rage” –and in particular, syncopated visual jazz.
Just imagine, for a moment, a street corner in 1890s New Orleans, where a band of African Americans are banging on pots, plucking the guitar-string of a broomstick – creating batteries of sound. This is how American jazz was invented, and it served one chief purpose: to draw attention to society’s fringe, to the “colored people,” the African Americans who felt “invisible.” By imposing sound on passersby in the street, proto-jazzmen asserted their identity, demanding attention and respect. They raged against the sense of namelessness – of anonymity they felt, as victims of racism.
Yes – jazz developed as a form of anonymous rage, a raging against the anonymous sheen imposed upon blacks by whites, a way of shouting “Look at me! Look at me!” That same idea has been carried down through the lore of African Americana to give rise, today, to the everywhere-present hip-hop culture – the “look-at-me” sensibility of break-dancing, the bubble-lettered tags of kids “getting up” on subway cars, the bling of jewelry on rap-stars. It has become a theme of African American heroism.
In Smith’s work, the notion of anonymous rage creates a unique aesthetic – a mixing together of bright color, syncopated pattern, and high-energy gesture that recalls the most sweeping moments of jazz: a sweat-dripping Charlie Parker, say, in 1950s New York, blowing sax at some late-night gin joint, cheeks puffed, eyes closed, his music less a combination of sound than an endlessness of breath. As Smith explains: “The aesthetic philosophy of my work is to seek and explore visual equivalents of Jazz.” He puts a capital J on “jazz,” as if to point out that jazz is more than merely a genre of music. For African Americans – and for the members of AfriCobra, jazz has always been nothing less than a screaming out of pride for black identity.
Smith writes of his jazz-based style: “In this regard, I am thoroughly committed to unpredictable outcomes, bizarre associations, complex textures and improvisational working methods.”
The “improvisational” is what drives the best of his work.
In the construction of his paintings, Smith’s sense of improvisation boils down to the act of sewing, the selection of fabrics and found objects, and use of color. These are the three keys jutting up from his trumpet. He pushes them down to various degrees and combines them to make strange decorative harmonies that point to his roots in AfriCobra – a sense of pan-Africanism. Consider the found objects: a sock, or a tiny mitten, woven into the backdrop of the quilt. These items of clothing are the ones most likely to be overlooked and lost, made “invisible.” They are the misplaced fringe of American laundry – and serve, in that capacity, as stand-ins for African Americans who still struggle for attention and respect. Smith weaves them into the narrative of his painting, texturing the look-at-me bright color and eye-catching pattern.
His use of misplaced laundry as improvised metaphor signals another pan-African art motif: the clever, resourceful use of ready-made “trash.” In parts of the Deep South, for example, front yards are cluttered with bottles hanging from trees – an African Ghana voodoo tradition meant to “bottle” evil spirits – creating beautiful glitters of glass: accidental cathedrals in the yards of poor Southern blacks. And it was “trash” that spawned the instruments of New Orleans’s first jazz batteries: pots, bottles and broomsticks. By improvising his materials in a similar approach, Smith taps into this rich tradition, coating his work with an invisible sheen of history.
The craftsmanship behind Smith’s paintings offers additional insight into his brightly textured abstraction. These are not simply paintings, after all – but quilts, or fabric-sewn objects that can be taken off the wall and used on a cold night, to wrap around a human body. In this sense, there are few domestic objects with greater personal meaning than a plain old quilt. You can lose your virginity under a quilt. You can use it to stop chills in a fever. Perhaps the quilt was hand-made by your mother. A quilt holds such personal meaning that for some people it becomes a magical object – and for Smith, the “magic” is the pan-African sense of magic: the ethos of African voodoo tradition. For those who practice voodoo, certain domestic objects can carry strange magical power. For example, there is a story of one woman in the South who, afraid of intruders, attached a Snoopy figurine to the roof of her house, as a vicious guard-dog. Though Smith himself may not practice this style of faith, in the hands of those who do, his quilts carry all the potential for magic. And if the quilts are magical, then those who use them are capable of achieving magical ends – attention and respect, perhaps – or a sense of both personal and cultural pride.
The question, then, is who are these quilts for? Who is saved by the making of them? Smith admits of his working method: “The process comes out of necessity to sturdily adhere fabric together.” The key word here is “necessity.” Is it really necessary, after all, to make these quilts? Is art itself necessary? The answer varies, but it does seem obvious, in the context of Smith’s hanging scrolls, his patchwork quilts – that he has made his work for an invisible body – read that again – the “Invisible Body,” perhaps even the Invisible Man of Ralph Ellison’s 1952 novel about an African American who lives underground, surrounded by lights, to illuminate his own sense of being. Smith makes his quilts for the Invisible African Americans who are still overlooked because of racism – and his colorful, neon-light-busy patterns cloak the black body and turn it into a celebration of self-identity. “I am black!” his quilt-cloaks seem to shout, in that scenario. “Look at me, respect me, because I am African.” The effect is magical: the quilts illuminate those who wear them.
And so the necessity of Smith’s painting – his quilt-making – is a secret and never-ending mission to sturdily adhere the fabric of African-American selfhood. These are paintings that hang on gallery walls, but if you look closely, you’ll notice that all have jagged edges, hang limply, cast shadows, and seem ready to be pulled off the hook at a moment’s notice to be worn in the Next Great Revolution.
– Justin Gershwin