Drawn to Barbara Jones-Hogu

Celebrating the renowned artist with a comic about her life and work

February 8, 2024
A woman with a raised fist surrounded by other raised fists and the block letters that spell Unite.

Cover of the comic "Barbara Jones-Hogu: Unite." Illustration by Zahra Merchant

Painter and printmaker Barbara Jones-Hogu was a founding member of the African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists (AfriCOBRA), an artist collective formed in Chicago in 1968. Members of AfriCOBRA used art to express the central ideas of the Black Power movement—self-determination, unity, and black pride. Jones-Hogu's colorful prints combined art and social justice and became part of the political conversations of the 1960s and 1970s. Her use of text was groundbreaking. Screenprinted posters were used for social critique and to raise awareness by many civil rights activists because they are inexpensive to produce and easy to distribute. The prints were sold in Black-owned bookstores and record shops at affordable prices. “The people we were making art for looked like us,” Jones-Hogu said.

Illustrations of Barbara engaging in the Black arts scene and making work for AfriCOBRA with written description.

The comic, “Barbara Jones-Hogu: Unite,” by Zahra Merchant, a student-illustrator at the Ringling College of Art and Design, is striking from the word go. The cover captures the energy and urgency of Jones-Hogu's work, and features graphics and a color palette that echos Jones-Hogu's own. The comic is rich in purples, oranges, greens and yellows. It bursts with color and energy and has the heart and DNA of a screenprint that Jones-Hogu might have created, including the vivid use of text that the artist was known for. The comic shows Jones-Hogu creating a screenprint and depicts a lovely balance of the artist working alone as well as with her colleagues in the collective.  

Merchant beautifully captures the artist’s life and the social and political struggles of her time, including colorful replies from AfricCOBRA that addressed the world of power and protest. The comic concludes the way it began, with the image of a fist in protest raised in the air. It is a visual homage to Jones-Hogu's iconic print, Unite, inspired by a sculpture by her friend and fellow artist, Elizabeth Catlett. (Check out the comic to learn more about the “Olympic” roots of Catlett’s work.) 

Illustrations and descriptions of Barbara meeting with OBAC members, and painting the Wall of Respect in Chicago.

This comic is part of a series Drawn to Art: Tales of Inspiring Women Artists that illuminates the stories of women artists whose work is represented in the collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Inspired by graphic novels, these short takes on artists’ lives were each drawn by a student-illustrator from the Ringling College of Art and Design.

We invite you to read the comic and share it with your friends and young people in your life.

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