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The Black Arts Movement

Mar 12, 2011 • 7 comments • 3964 views
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During the late 1960’s and 1970’s, the Black Arts Movement took the Black aesthetic to new heights. Originally started in Harlem in 1965 by LeRoi Jones, the Black Arts Movement, (primarily a literary movement), a commune of Black Arts, Black Power, and Afri-Cobra movements, defined a general Black aesthetic that collectively embraced the notion that the Black aesthetic be rooted within the core of Black life. In Gayle Addison’s edited volume, The Black Aesthetic, it is well asserted that the central component to Black artistic endeavors not be nested within “…aesthetic philosophies or aesthetic history, but in Black History, Black culture, and Black social life.” During the Black Arts Movement, visual communication presented Blacks with the opportunity to embrace their own culture by bringing issues of social, economic, and political conditions to the forefront of American life. Graphic design was used to produce connotations of Blackness–Black as beautiful, creative, militant, and proud (fig.01). Emory Douglas, artist/designer, and minister of culture for the Black Panther party, viewed revolutionary art as the only means of expressing “the correct picture of our struggle.” 



(Fig.01) Art by Emory Douglas



(Fig.02) The Black Panther Party created a newsletter to keep the Black community up to date with current affairs.

The ideology of this period was one that evoked a dynamic sense of confidence; Black artists believed whether or not whites or Blacks accepted their work, it was still considered beautiful. Groups such as the Afri-Cobra and Black Panther Party used graphic design (fig.02) as a method of propaganda in attempt to educate, inform, and eradicate the system of “racist American domination.” These efforts sought to reveal a visual component to the Black cultural revolution of this period. However, not all work produced by Black artists depicted the struggle. Alma Thomas (fig.03), the first African American artist to have a solo exhibition in the Whitney Museum in New York, created abstract works of art. She was often criticized for her lack of responsiveness to address the cultural hegemony of the Black Nationalist agenda. Despite the often conflicting viewpoints, during the 1960’s and 70’s artists created inspired work that cultivated an eclectic mix of dynamic art and presence for Black people. 


AfriCOBRA, Wadsworth Jarrell, Revolutionary (Angela Davis), 1972



The Black Arts Movement provides an interesting model for contemporary design practice today, because it links to a visual form can be used to integrate a system of value, awareness, and empowerment that embodies the philosophies of Black life.

Unfortunately, the Black Arts Movement only lasted for about a decade. The decline of the movement started in 1974 when the Black Power Movement was infiltrated by government programs such as Cointelpro. Disrupted by “external and internal problems, commercialization and capitalist co-option,” the movement faced an uphill battle to stay active. Black capitalism mainstreamed the movement by propagating independent efforts of the most important artists of that period. This resulted in a considerable economic downfall that ultimately made it difficult for the movement to recover. 

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great and inspiring post Maurice!
03.12.11 •
Mo, this is tremendous. Good knowledge, good inspiration, terrific design. You put it together beautifully.
03.12.11 •
i could not agree more with you-i have been touched-saddened-awakened and revived
09.19.11 •
How can or where can I find some of this artwork? I'd like to frame some of this stuff.....
03.13.11 •
Not sure where to buy this work, or prints of this. Emory told me years ago, that most of his original artwork is gone. He probably lost and misplaced some. I am sure during the time this artwork was made, he was not thinking of collecting the work. He was producing it for the Black Panther newsletter and probably never thought of saving anything. As far as the AfriCOBRA work goes, I am not sure about this.
03.21.11 •
Phenomenal Mo...didn't know about this movement until I read your post. And the artwork is beautifully stunning!
05.25.11 •
Thanks! I have a lot more to post. I wrote a bunch on this. I will post some more in your zine.
05.25.11 •
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