Wadsworth Jarrell – Creating Identifiable Art

Personal History of Wadsworth Jarrell

Wadsworth was born in art. Growing up on a farm near Athens Georgia, he  watched his mother make quilts and his father make furniture. After graduating high school Wadsworth joined the army and served in Korea. On returning he moved to Chicago and enrolled in the Art Institute of Chicago.  While he did graduate he soon lost interest in commercial art and started creating for himself, focusing his work to become an independent artist. Throughout his life Wadsworth created art to try and capture the beauty of Blackness, he wanted to create art that at a glance would be recognizably black. Wadsworth helped create coalitions of black artists and functioned as a focal point for the black art scene in Chicago. Below is more detail on specific parts of his artistic life and vision, specifically his involvement in OBAC, WJ Studio, and AFRICOBRA.


OBAC (which stands for Organization of Black American Culture) was a coalition of artists formed in 1966 in response to a multitude of race riots. Similar to other arts groups at the time, this group looked to explore the idea of black pride through their art. Artists in the coalition helped critique each others work and reflect on the idea of Blackness.

OBAC’s greatest success was their creation of the “Wall of Respect” in Chicago. Artists were designated a space on the wall in which to depict black leaders. Wadsworth was given a 12×14 foot space to work with.  Pulling inspiration from his earlier works he focused on music, specifically Rhythm and Blues. Wadsworth’s section includes portraits of James Brown, B.B. King, Billie Holiday, Muddy Waters, Aretha Franklin and Dinah Washington.

The hugeness of this project and its positive reception lead to the creation of other liberation murals. Due to controversies within the group though and despite their success, OBAC was later dissolved.

WJ Studios and Gallery

Wadsworth opens WJ studios with his second wife in Chicago in 1968 and became a hub for the Black arts scene in Chicago. In the space below his studio Wadsworth created a gallery. There he shared not only his own works but those of other black artists. Extending beyond that though, Wadsworth made sure to highlight contributions from Black poets and musicians. With his love of blues and jazz and his connections through OBAC Wadsworth was able to bring together all sorts of performances in his gallery. This space dedicated to black art allowed artists to come together and try to figure out how to define black art. These meetings would develop into COBRA and later into AFRICOBRA as these artists came to define themselves.


Afrocobra (African Commune of BAD Relevant Artists) developed out of group meetings for artists at WJ Studios. Painters, sculptors, poets, musicians, photographers, designers, and more, all came together to discuss how blackness was a part of their work. Specifically, they felt that “Black visual art has innate and intrinsic creative components which are characteristic of our ethnic group”(Jones-Henderson, N. 2012). More so they looked to create a type of art that was recognizable as Black from a single glance. They hoped that this art would embody ““beauty,” “good,” “love,” “family,” “music,” and “spirituality” as the foundation for a set of principles based on our commonly held aspirations and desires.”  (Jones-Henderson, N. 2012) In this was a hope of an art community to create a genre of art that would reject their reality. They were looking for Black pride and self determination, specifically to create images to help them feel represented and the helped heal the mental scars of the black diaspora. These artist felt a need to create a sense of Black beauty. To do this, as many other groups did, they turned to Africa for inspiration and to find a connection to the past. As one artist of AFRICOBRA said “we have carefully examined our roots and searched our branches for those visual qualities that are more expressive of our people/art. Out of this desire came the development of coolade colors.”(Douglas, 1996).

Coolade colors were bright neon colors that were meant to define and identify art as black art. They were meant to create “surreal images for SUPERreal people,” (Douglas 1970). More so they were created to foster a visceral connection for the black community to Africa. AFRICOBRAs desire to redefine black history away from America went so far as to change how they labeled themselves, going from African-American to identifying as African exclusively. This can be seen in how one AFRICOBRA artists described their color choice by saying “We strive for images inspired by African people—experience and images that African people can relate to directly without formal art training and/or experience,” (Douglas, 1996).

Memory in Art

Art is and has been a huge form of material memory, especially when that art was created specifically to show a emergent history. Wadsworth helped crate a black artistic history and  future. But even though AFRICOBRA artists continue to be in arts shows today, their art is not largely taught or well known. Sadder yet, while at the time their work succeeded in being identifiably black with a single glance, that concept is no longer true. Art moved towards where these artists were already, making it harder to recognize separately black.  For the spirit of AFRICOBRA to continue black artists will have to continue to redefine their space in the art world. With each redefining movement though, the one before it will become more and more lost.


Jones-Henderson, N. (2012). Remembering AfriCOBRA and the Black Arts Movement in 1960s Chicago. Nka Journal of Contemporary African Art2012(30), 98-103.

Douglas, R. L. (1996, Oct). An AFRI-COBRA artist wadsworth jarrell. American Visions, 11, 16-19. Retrieved from http://libproxy.lib.unc.edu/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/220109717?accountid=14244

Donaldson, Jeff. “Africobra 1 (African Commune of Bad Relevant Aritists): ’10 in Search of a Nation’.” Black World XIX, no. 12 (October 1970): 89-89. https://books.google.com/books?