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Exhibition Spotlight: Jae Jarell and the Black Arts Movement in We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965–85

April 10, 2018

In foreground, Jae Jarell’s Ebony Family, ca. 1968 (left) and Urban Wall Suit, ca. 1969 (right) on view in We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965–85 (Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York, February 17–May 27, 2018). Photo by MK Photo.

With the emergence of the Black Power Movement in the mid-1960s, new political strategies and cultural agendas developed. A loose confederation of artists, writers, musicians, and dancers came together as the Black Arts Movement to celebrate black history and culture. Rather than seeking to influence elite cultural communities—a priority of some earlier generations of black artists—members oriented their work toward a more popular audience.

Emerging in New York City, the Black Arts Movement quickly spread to other urban centers, putting down strong roots in Chicago, where AfriCOBRA (African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists) and other related groups grew. Committed to a socially responsible and community-oriented art, they promoted black pride by developing an identifiable aesthetic inspired by African cultures.

Jae Jarrell (American, born 1935). Ebony Family, ca. 1968. Velvet dress with velvet collage, 38 1/2 x 38 x 1/2 inches (97.8 x 96.5 x 1.3 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Gift of R.M. Atwater, Anna Wolfrom Dove, Alice Fiebiger, Joseph Fiebiger, Belle Campbell Harriss, and Emma L. Hyde, by exchange, Designated Purchase Fund, Mary Smith Dorward Fund, Dick S. Ramsay Fund, and Carll H. de Silver Fund, 2012.80.15. © Jae Jarrell. (Photo: Sarah DeSantis, Brooklyn Museum).

As one of the co-founders of AfriCOBRA, fashion designer Jae Jarrell made one-of-a-kind, brightly colored clothing. The collective called these hues “Coolade” colors, a wordplay on the popular children’s beverage. Jarrell’s vibrant garments celebrate black families and culture and were worn by the artist in her daily life. She wrote that her Ebony Family dress “always got good vibes from our [AfriCOBRA] members, no doubt, because my political stance on nurturing the strong loving Black family is real and personally experienced. We regarded the members as extended family.”