Jeff Donaldson

Victory in the Valley of Eshu

1971

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Not on display

Artist
Jeff Donaldson 1932–2004
Medium
Screenprint on paper
Dimensions
Image: 910 × 685 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition
Purchased with funds provided by the Ford Foundation 2018
Reference
P82525

Summary

Victory in the Valley of Eshu 1971 is a screenprint on paper produced by Jeff Donaldson, a member of the Chicago-based artists’ collective AfriCOBRA (African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists). It depicts an elderly African-American couple, holding an eye framed by the six points of a star. In place of the pupil is a black and white photograph of the couple in their younger days. With the word ‘Victory’ presented across the bottom of the image and a radiance of colours emanating in small dots from the figures, the image celebrates the couple’s life achievements. The print incorporates a number of references to African cultures, a typical feature of Donaldson’s practice in which he employed symbols to represent the shared heritage of the African diaspora. ‘Eshu’ refers to the Yoruba deity and the man in the print holds a wand commonly used in Yoruba ceremonials in his left hand.

Founded in 1968 and still active, the AfriCOBRA collective defined its mission as ‘an approach to image making which would reflect and project the moods, attitudes, and sensibilities of African Americans independent of the technical and aesthetic strictures of Euro-centric modalities.’ (Quoted at https://arts.uchicago.edu/logan-center/logan-center-exhibitions/archive/africobra-philosophy, accessed November 2017.) Its members produced works individually, but based on a common aesthetic language, in the effort to produce a new African American socio-political art movement in response to the growing Black Power movement in the United States. The collective was formed at a meeting held by Jeff Donaldson with fellow founding members, Jae Jarrell, Wadsworth Jarrell, Barbara Jones-Hogu and Gerald Williams to discuss the visual tropes that would innately reflect Black identity and a philosophy that would underpin a new Black art movement. A number of the artists linked with AfriCOBRA were also members of OBAC (Organisation of Black American Culture) that produced the Wall of Respect 1967–71, a historically significant mural on the south side of Chicago that celebrated key figures within Black culture and society. Speaking of the formation of AfriCOBRA, Jones-Hogu has recounted: ‘We had all noted that our work had a message: it was not fantasy or art for art’s sake; it was specific and functional because it expressed statements about our existence as Blacks.’ (Jones-Hogu 2012, p.92.) Joined later by artists Nelson Stevens and Carolyn Lawrence among others, the group produced work according to a series of aesthetic principles, collaboratively established and formally outlined by Donaldson in a manifesto, ‘Ten in Search of a Nation’, published in Black World in 1970, soon after the collective held its first exhibition, in the summer of 1970 at the Studio Museum Harlem in New York.

The new aesthetic was based on ‘rhythm’, ‘shine… the rich lustre of a just-washed ’Fro …’ and ‘Colour colour Colour colour that shines, colour that is free of rules and regulations’ (Donaldson 1970, p.82). Text would often be incorporated into the pictures, anchoring messages that focused on themes ranging from the Black family to Black Nationalism, taking inspiration from the rhythm and movement of African music and using everyday source material, such as the colours of the Kool-Aid branding of cola flavours. Donaldson articulated the inclusive nature of the group’s outlook, stating: ‘We strive for images inspired by African people – experience and images that African people can relate to directly without formal art training and/or experience. Art for people and not for critics whose peopleness is questionable. We try to create images that appeal to the senses – not to the intellect.’ (Ibid., p.81.)

Donaldson’s Victory in the Valley of Eshu is one of a group of silkscreen prints in Tate’s collection produced collaboratively as a way of making affordable renditions of the most popular paintings from the AfriCOBRA exhibition at the Studio Museum in 1970. (See also Barbara Jones-Hogu [1938–2017], Unite 1971 [Tate P82569]; Gerald Williams [born 1941], Wake Up 1971 [Tate P82571]; Carolyn Lawrence [born 1940], Uphold Your Men 1971 [Tate P82572]; Nelson Stevens [born 1938], Uhuru 1971 [Tate P82570]; and Wadsworth Jarrell [born 1929], Revolutionary 1972 [Tate P82573].) Termed ‘poster-prints’ by the collective, they were sold to the public for ten to fifteen dollars each at exhibitions and local street art fairs. The production of the prints began in the summer of 1971 under the guidance of Jones-Hogu in her printmaking studio in Chicago. Donaldson’s Victory in the Vallery of Eshu was printed a year later in Washington D.C. and is based on a mixed media painted collage produced after the 1970 exhibition. Wadsworth Jarrell’s Revolutionary was printed in 1972, and sold and distributed in the same way as the other prints. The editions were often not signed by the individual artists in order to prioritise the collective effort of the group over individual identity. However, some copies were later signed, as is the case with Tate’s versions which are from the original set of impressions and remained in the artists’ possession.

Further reading
Jeff Donaldson, ‘Ten in Search of a Nation’, Black World, October 1970, pp.80–6.
Barbara Jones-Hogu, ‘Inaugurating AfriCOBRA: History, Philosophy and Aesthetics’, NKA: Journal of Contemporary African Art, Spring 2012, pp. 90–7.
Mark Godfrey and Zoe Whitley (eds.), Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power, exhibition catalogue, Tate Modern, London 2017, pp.88–97.

Priyesh Mistry
November 2017

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