Oh Freedom! Barbara Jones–Hogu

Oh Freedom! Teaching African American Civil Rights Through American Art
Barbara Jones-Hogu's painting of figures with their hands raised.

Barbara Jones–Hogu (b. 1938), Unite, 1971, screen print, 22 1/2 x 30 in., © Barbara Jones-Hogu, Collection of National Museum of African American History and Culture, Museum purchase, TR2008-24

Looking Questions

1. How are people in this artwork standing and gesturing? Can you guess what the gesture means?

2. What do the words say, and how do they relate to the action shown in the print?

3. Look at the forms and colors. Which ones are repeated? Why?

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About This Artwork

By combining strong silhouettes, limited colors, and bold lettering, Barbara Jones-Hogu not only prints her message, "UNITE," but also makes its meaning palpable. As the word repeats in vivid colors and angular forms above a series of figures, it seems to echo and grow loud. The figures below enact the message. Their rows of similarly raised fists and solemn faces, many in profile, form a rhythmic pattern atop a single, undifferentiated black mass—their unified body.

This print conveys the purpose, intensity, and energy of the African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists (AfriCOBRA), a coalition of artists who formed in the late 1960s with the express purpose of defining and modeling a uniquely black aesthetic in the visual arts. AfriCOBRA coalesced within the broader Black Power movement, which gained popularity among many African American activists in the 1960s and early 1970s. Advocates of Black Power argued that racial pride, political resolve, and militant unity were the best means for upturning the status quo—the situation as it currently exists. The raised, clenched fists in Jones-Hogu's print, which many considered the Black Power salute, and the Afro hairdos, which many of the figures sport, signify these ideals. Consciously defiant, they symbolize the group's self-determinism and their insistence on radical change.

Black Power drew some inspiration from many of the ideas that emerged in the 1920s with the New Negro movement and the long struggle for black solidarity and equal rights. Both insisted on economic empowerment and the value of black history and culture. Black Power was, however, also a self-conscious break from these predecessors. Having witnessed the promise and then disappointments of the struggle for civil rights in the 1950s and 1960s, many were angry and impatient for change. In particular, Black Power activists felt they should neither have to compromise nor adopt white cultural standards, and so they rejected what they saw as the conformity of earlier generations. Once considered fringe ideas, the notions of the Black Power movement inspired some of the more radical strains of the Civil Rights movement, which emerged forcefully in the mid-1960s.

AfriCOBRA was one group that gave visibility and drew increasing attention to Black Power. The group's 1970 manifesto, which was written by the artist Jeff Donaldson, espoused the principles of social responsibility, grass-roots artistic involvement, and the promotion of black pride. Artists assimilated these values by using high energy colors, experimenting with innovative approaches to rhythm that were drawn from African art and black music, and adopting symbols that represented African roots. In this print, African elements include the Afros and the ankh, an ancient Egyptian symbol, which one woman wears. These symbols provided a shared source of identity that compelled many to dedicate themselves to the freedom struggle, or as Jones-Hogu urges, to unite.

About This Artist

Barbara Jones-Hogu (born Chicago, IL 1938)

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 visually expressed the central ideas of the Black Power movement—self-determination, unity, and black pride. The group shared the idea that their art should be uplifting, highlighting the beautiful and heroic aspects of African American experience, and should be easy for ordinary people to understand. As a result, AfriCOBRA produced a unique aesthetic, characterized by simplified forms, vivid colors, and strong, often competing, patterns. One of Jones-Hogu’s most important contributions to AfriCOBRA’s style was the incorporation of words into her images to make their meaning perfectly clear. Prior to her involvement with AfriCOBRA, Jones-Hogu studied art at Howard University, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Illinois Institute of Technology. Though best known for the screen prints she created and exhibited while a member of AfriCOBRA, Jones-Hogu was originally a painter, and in 1967 she contributed to the mural Wall of Respect on Chicago’s South Side. Jones-Hogu continues to work in Chicago as an artist and has started using digital imagery and making documentary films.

An abstract painting in red, pink, orange, and purple

Wadsworth A. Jarrell Jr., Revolutionary, 1972. Screen print. National Museum of African American History and Culture, Photo courtesy of Swann Auction Galleries

A founding member of the African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists (AfriCOBRA) along with Barabara Jones-Hogu, Wadsworth Jarrell created bright, eye-catching paintings like Revolutionary and reproduced them as posters, seen here, in order to spread the group’s message. Exhibited first at the Studio Museum in Harlem in 1971 and screenprinted the following year, Revolutionary displays a figure composed by the words of the passionate speech she is giving. Radiating out from her head and iconic afro are words like "sister," "resist," and "revolution," while her skin comprises a series of Bs, which repeat and bear out the message, "Black is beautiful."

Two images each with a picture of individuals

Stephen Shames (photographer), Angela Davis, 1969. Gelatin Silver print, 8 13/16 x 7 1/16 in. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, © 1972 Stephen Shames, NPG.2001.55

Anthony Barboza (photographer), Amiri Baraka, 1976. Gelatin silver print, 19 7/8 x 16 in. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, © Anthony Barboza, NPG.2005.126

Black Power was a widespread cultural and political ethos that had neither an official ideology nor a set of standard beliefs. Two controversial icons of the movement, Angela Davis and Amiri Baraka, were central to its development and reflect its diversity. Davis became nationally known in 1969 for her impassioned activism on behalf of civil rights as well as for her connection to a gunfight outside of a California courthouse. Incarcerated and ultimately acquitted, Davis has continued to champion a variety of social causes, especially prison reform. A poet, playwright and activist, Baraka changed his name in the late 1960s and spearheaded the black arts movement, which held values and aesthetics similar to that of AfriCOBRA.

Two black power pins

Black Power buttons, 1960s. National Museum of African American History and Culture

African Americans used personal signage like buttons, patches, and decals to announce their political views. With their simple yet bold white-on-black designs, these buttons signaled the wearer’s racial pride and a belief in creating black political and cultural institutions—ideas central to the Black Power movement. Buttons also appealed to others to join the cause.