This fall, we’re taking a look at how artists in the Brooklyn Museum collection have promoted civic engagement through their work.
In 1968, artist Wadsworth Jarrell co-founded COBRA (Coalition of Black Revolutionary Artists) with his spouse, fashion designer Jae Jarrell, and artists Barbara Jones-Hogu, Jeff Donaldson, and Gerald Williams. Not only did women play central roles in the prominent Black Arts Movement collective—which would later be renamed AfriCOBRA (African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists)—but they were also iconic leaders in the Black Power Movement.
Revolutionary (Angela Davis) depicts the radical activist and revolutionary intellectual, Angela Davis, who, when this was painted, was fighting for her freedom from wrongful imprisonment. The portrait illustrates the intensity and power of Davis’ activism as Wadsworth Jarrell utilizes her words, slogans from the Black Power movement, and AfriCOBRA’s signature aesthetic––self-described as “Kool-Aid colors.”
The year 1971 was significant for both Jarell and Davis. As Jarrell completed this vibrant artwork, Angela Davis wrote her truth-uncovering piece, “Reflections on the Black Woman’s Role in the Community of Slaves.” In this piece, Davis “illuminates the historical matrix of Black women’s oppression" as enslaved Black Women were expected “to promote the consciousness and practice of resistance” (1971:84) while also “ministering to the needs of [all] men and children around her” (1971:87).
The core of Davis’ words remain true today, as highlighted in entertainer and philanthropist Megan Thee Stallion’s October 2020 piece in the New York Times. Megan discusses society’s negligence in acknowledging the labor of Black women throughout American history, echoing Davis’ thoughts on the political expectations and lack of care for Black Women in America, she states, “In the weeks leading up to the  election, Black women are expected once again to deliver victory for Democratic candidates … [Black Women] march for everyone else, riot for everyone else, die for everyone else, love for everyone else, but when it comes down to her, there ain’t a [person] in sight.” (New York Times: 2020)
Wadsworth Jarrell’s “Revolutionary (Angela Davis)” serves as an example of how art can be used to acknowledge and celebrate the often overlooked social and political contributions of Black women.
Fifty years later, Angela Yvonne Davis continues to be a leader in the fight for global intersectional justice.
Posted by Christian Reeder
Wadsworth A. Jarrell (American, born 1929). Revolutionary (Angela Davis), 1971. Acrylic and mixed media on canvas. 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, 2012.80.18. © artist or artist’s estate