For educator, artist, and scholar Richard Allen May III, writing the Foreword to the 2020 book AFRICOBRA: Experimental Art Toward a School of Thought by founding member Wadsworth A. Jarrell culminated close to two decades of original, independent research on the seminal African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists art movement founded in 1968 in Chicago.
“Fast forward to 21st Century,” and May points out that the AFRICOBRA Movement was a key part of the internationally acclaimed exhibition Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power organized by the Tate Modern, in London. The exhibition then traveled to Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas; Brooklyn Museum; The Broad, Los Angeles; the de Young Museum, San Francisco; and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.
Ironically, May’s initial AFRICOBRA research was ignited by an absence.
“I was baffled by books that got published that didn’t have the history right,” he says. “Or articles and publications that would ignore AFRICOBRA. I couldn’t find anything in the books about them. Maybe a paragraph. And that’s the chord that struck Mr. Jarrell, who would tell me, ‘All they had to do was call us up and talk to us!’
“AFRICOBRA is an Art Movement because they developed a School of Thought, a non-western approach to making art. These were a group of artists who intentionally came together. They named themselves. Other movements were named by critics. Or from the work of a poet, as in the case of Surrealism. The AFRICOBRA members were driven by a self-determination impulse within the Black Freedom Struggle. That impressed me.”
May’s quest “began to intensify” when his growing knowledge of the artists inspired a thought: “It would be really great if they could feel a resurgence — while they’re alive!”
The literal start of May’s “quest to set record straight” on AFRICOBRA, began in 2000, when he attended a gathering in Los Angeles, and encountered a print of Jarrell’s painting of Malcolm X called Black Prince.
“When I saw the work, it jumped off the paper!” says May. Black Prince was the first piece that grabbed me. Who did that? I asked myself. I’d never seen anything like it! The colors! I was impressed with how he was able to get, not just a likeness, but you could almost hear Malcolm talking. This represented high discipline, refined technique!”
Months later, during a visit at a local library, May was struck by the front cover of an early edition of American Visions magazine, which featured Jarrell’s Black Prince.
May was so inspired by Jarrell’s painting, that he found the artist’s number in the phone book, and cold-called him.
“I guess I’m a different kind of dude,” May laughs. “I want to talk to you over the phone. I don’t want to just look you up in books.”
And Jarrell did more than answer the phone!
“First he mailed me everything he had on AFRICOBRA. He hadn’t even seen me at all. Just trusted me. From him, I was able to meet by phone another founding member; Wadsworth Jarrell facilitated me meeting Barbara Jones-Hogu.”
May’s quest – undertaken “all on my dime, because I loved the art” – grew into close collaborations with founding members of AFRICOBRA: Jae Jarrell, Wadsworth A. Jarrell’s spouse and Gerald Williams. He also developed mentor relationships with Carolyn Lawrence and Nelson Stevens, who became members in 1969.
After almost three years of phone calls with Wadsworth Jarrell, May went to New York to meet his mentor. “We met in Sylvia’s…. It was like he stepped out of a time capsule. How he walked. His facial expressions. The wrinkles in his face. His eyes … all told me he had lived, and seen a lot. His hands looked like he’d been making art for a long time. So we went to his studio.”
There, May first actually saw Jarrell’s Black Prince! “I had seen photos but I hadn’t actually seen the canvas!” and it took his breath away while inspiring deeper critical introspection.
May’s experiences on that trip – which included sketching with Jarrell at a NY Jazz club – imprinted and instructed the hungry younger artist.
Fully ignited, Richard May’s persistent focus on AFRICOBRA led to him making conference presentations at the San Jose State Art History Symposium; Association of African American Museum’s Conference; Western States Communication Association Annual Conference; New Critical Perspectives on African American Art History at the David C. Driskell Center; and the College Art Association’s annual conference held in Chicago.
Originally from Chicago, Richard Allen May III is Professor of public speaking, interpersonal communication & small group communication at Chaffey College, and composition and writing at California Baptist University. He taught African American literature and Speech Communication at San Bernardino Valley College. May also teaches drawing and painting to men and women who are incarcerated at California Rehabilitation Center for Men (CRC) and California Institution for Women (CIW) sponsored by the William James Association. He’s written art exhibition reviews, curator profiles and book reviews for Los Angeles-based magazine, Artillery.
As an artist, May’s creative voice is multilingual.
His mastery of mixed media collage on canvas and wood using text and images of vinyl 45 records reflects his rigorous training in drawing, painting and design at some of the best institutions on the West Coast. [Art Center College of Design; Otis School of Art & Design; and California State University, Fullerton.]
Among May’s current research interests: the history of Black artists in California’s Inland Empire and a refined focus on the women of AFRICOBRA.
“These women were equals and co-contributors in a movement,” says May, who says he feels honored that he was welcomed by these cultural pioneers and trusted to tell their stories with cultural competence and critical insights. He humbly recalls being called the “AFRICOBRA Angel” by Barbara Jones-Hogu, whom he met in 2004.
May recalls Ms. Jones-Hogu telling him: ‘When nobody was giving us attention in this current day, you were writing about us!’
May’s dedication to this line of research also grows out of his respect for his earliest scholarly mentor from his first classes at San Bernardino Valley College in 1987.
“I want to credit Mrs. Diana Anderson, who inspired me to really learn about African American History. In my first class with her on African American literature, she handed out a blank sheet of paper and asked us to ‘list the names of Black writers that you know about.’ That was the shortest list I ever wrote! I came up with a big goose egg! I was in my 20s. Learning about all those writers really sparked me. And I was taking art classes also. I asked myself: What about Black artists?
“That was an important phase of my life. Mrs. Anderson taught me how to be the initial editor of my own work. She taught me a hunger for the history of the culture. An aggressive hunger. Especially for the art. Not just to take it in, but to share it. To educate folks about it. My first presentations were in her class. She taught me to make my own doors. That’s how I decided to call Mr. Jarrell.
Mays’ perseverance as a Cultural Worker dedicated to the history and contributions of African American artists is also reflected in his commitment as a Black Father. He proudly says:
“Ultimately, my best work of art is my son. My presence in his life is more important than my presents. He will inherit and curate the aesthetic legacy that I am creating and pass it on to those who will be able to teach others.”