Middle School Student Artists Honor Black History Month Through Learning About AFRICOBRA
New Paltz Middle School Grade 6 students in MaryJane Nusbaum and Kim Abrahamsen’s art classes honored Black History Month by learning about AFRICOBRA an art movement created by a Chicago-based group of black artists whose shared aim was to develop their own aesthetic in the visual arts in order to empower and uplift black communities. Founded in 1968 by Jeff Donaldson, Jae Jarrell, Wadsworth Jarrell, Barbara Jones-Hogu, and Gerald Williams, AFRICOBRA–which stands for the African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists–created images that defined the visual aesthetic of the Black Arts Movement and brought about change through the artistic use of black identity, style, attitude and worldview to foster solidarity and self-confidence throughout the African diaspora.
Students studied the AFRICOBRA style which uses bright, intense colors to convey the image, a reflection of the colors typically used in African Art and clothing of the 1960s. Students were able to work in groups or individually to select an influential black person from the past or present whose portrait they would design in the AFRICOBRA style. They were given the option to project the picture and trace it onto a large paper to be painted, or could do their design work digitally in Google Canvas and print on a color printer. They also included words or inspiring quotes by their subjects on the canvas. At the conclusion of their project, the portraits were hung on the school’s own “Wall of Respect” to emulate the original outdoor mural first painted in 1967 by the Visual Arts Workshop of the Organization of Black American Culture.
Students could be overheard discussing and debating aspects of racism while engaged in their work. The student artists’ reasons for selecting their subjects were as impressive as the subjects they portrayed. Waverly Swan chose black author, anthropologist, and filmmaker Zora Hurston as her subject. “I chose her because she was a powerful woman and deserves to be acknowledged.” Saskia Winograd said she chose civil rights activist Ella Baker because she found her work inspiring. “She is not as known,” said Saskia. “I hadn’t heard of her and it was nice to learn about what she did.” Fiona MacDonald said she chose a young Oprah Winfrey to portray because she felt Oprah would be “fun to draw” and adding inspirational quotes would come easily. “Oprah had good things to say.”
Nusbaum said connection is key for students to internalize the project. “I wanted to be sure the students spent time with the person they were painting or designing,” she said. “I wanted students to look at their faces, trace their faces, research them, and establish a close connection with their subjects.”
Middle School Principal Ann Sheldon said she was thrilled to have such meaningful life work memorialized and displayed in the school for other students to learn from. “Our students get to learn about black history through their academic classes but also through various mediums like this.” Sheldon said Black History initiatives occur throughout the school building and appreciates the unique nature of the multidisciplinary assignment.