AN EARLY MEMBER of the Chicago collective AfriCOBRA has passed away. Artist Nelson Stevens (1938-2022), died July 22. He was 84 years old. His death was first reported by Diverse Issues in Higher Education. The news was confirmed to Culture Type by its gallery, Myrtis Gallery in Baltimore, MD.
In a statement, the gallery said: “Stevens was a prominent painter and printmaker known for the fluidity and vibrancy of his compositions. During his six-decade career, he helped shape a radical black aesthetic that asserted black empowerment, self-determination, and unity among people of the African diaspora. He was a proud member of AfriCOBRA (African Commune for Bad Relevant Artists).”
Artist Nelson Stevens describes his introduction to the art and the foundations of his practice. | Video by Harvey B. Gantt Center
An artist, educator, and activist, Stevens has spent most of his career teaching at the University of Massachusetts Amherst in the WEB Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies. From 1972 to 2003 he was a professor of art.
Before landing at UMass Amherst, Stevens taught in Ohio and Illinois. In Cleveland, he was a junior high school art teacher and also a lecturer at the Cleveland Museum of Art. After earning an MFA, Stevens met AfricCOBRA co-founder Jeff Donaldson (1932-2004) at a College Art Association conference in Boston in 1969. . Donaldson encouraged the artist to move to Chicago. Stevens got his first collegiate-level position at Northern Illinois University, where he taught from 1969-1971.
He joined AfriCOBRA in 1969, a year after the collective was co-founded in Chicago by Donaldson, Wadsworth Jarrell, Jae Jarrell, Barbara Jones-Hogu (1938-2017) and Gerald Williams. AfriCOBRA promoted unity and aimed to uplift the spirit, thought and political will of the black community. In the wake of the Civil Rights Movement and at the height of the Black Power and Black Arts movements, the collective began to communicate in a language of bold imagery that combined graphic elements with figuration.
The like-minded artists came together for a common purpose and pursued their goals with a unified approach to their visual expression. Her work was defined by bright “cool” colors, rhythmic text, and positive depictions of Black people, elements that dominated Stevens’ work.
In a 2015 interview with the Harvey B. Gantt Center in Charlotte, NC, the artist described his art. “At my best, I am the hope and dream of the enslaved who follow my calling to create visions of a liberated self,” Stevens said. “It’s based on race. It’s based on excellence and joining a group of people who are going in the same direction as you to help you get there.”
Nelson Stevens said his art is based on race, excellence and “joining a group of people who are going in the same direction you are going to help you get there”.
NELSON STEVENS, “Uhuru”, 1970 (acrylic on poster board, 37 1/2 x 27 1/2 in / 95 x 70 cm). | Collection of Tina and Larry Jones, photo courtesy of Kavi Gupta
The collective’s first museum show, AFRICOBRA I: Ten in Search of a Nation, was shown at the Studio Museum in Harlem in 1970. AFRICOBRA II was on view at the Studio Museum in 1971.
In 1973, the Howard University Gallery of Art presented AFRICOBRA III.
In recent years, increased interest in Black contemporary art has drawn attention to its historical foundations, including the collective’s contributions. Stevens and AfriCOBRA were featured in Soul of a Nation, the landmark international touring exhibition that opened at Tate Modern in London in 2017.
In 2018, AfriCOBRA celebrated the 50th anniversary of the collective’s founding and marked the occasion with exhibitions, programs and new releases. Exhibitions included AFRICOBRA: Messages to the People (November 27, 2018 to March 24, 2019) curated by Jeffreen M. Hayes at the Museum of Contemporary Art North Miami, resulting in an international opportunity.
Haynes organized AFRICOBRA: Nation Time (May 11 to Nov 24, 2019), an official side event of the 58th Venice Biennale. The show at Ca’ Faccanon was the first major exhibition of AfriCOBRA’s work in Europe.
NELSON STEVENS, “Yes, We Will”, 1972 (mixed media on cream wove paper, 1972. 953 x 759 mm / 37 1/2 x 29 7/8 in.) was featured on the cover of the Swann Auction Galleries catalog African American Art Auction at April 22, 2021. The lot sold for $30,000 inclusive of fees ($24,000 hammer price), setting a new auction record for Stevens.
NELSON LOWELL STEVENS JR. was born in 1938 in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York. He said he was a lifelong artist because he was exposed to art at an early age and attended Saturday classes at the Museum of Modern Art in New York when he was in elementary school.
He earned a BFA in painting from Ohio University in Athens, Ohio (1962) and an MFA from Kent State University in Kent, Ohio (1969). In 2003, after more than 30 years, he retired from the University of Massachusetts Amherst and moved to Owings Mills, Md.
His work is represented in the collections of major institutions, including the Brooklyn Museum, the Art Institute of Chicago, Fisk University, the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, and Tate Modern.
Gallery Myrtis is a black-owned gallery founded in 2006 by Myrtis Bedolla. She said Stevens was surrounded by his daughter, son-in-law and son as he “made a peaceful transition.”
The gallery provided the following statement from Nadya Stevens: “My father was a giant. I am so deeply proud of him and his achievements and feel lucky to have been his daughter,” she said. “I find solace in the love we have shared. But right now I’m absolutely shattered into a hundred tiny pieces.”
A retrospective of Stevens will appear this fall. Nelson Stevens’ Color Rapping opens on September 25th. The exhibition is presented by the arts program at the University of Maryland Global Campus (UMGC) in Adelphi, MD. CT
FIND MORE about Nelson Stevens at Gallery Myrtis’ website
FIND MORE In Spring 2012, NKA: Journal of African Art published “African Manifesto? Ten in Search of a Nation by Jeff Donaldson
AFRICOBRA: Messages to the People documents the exhibition at Contemporary Art, North Miami and the 58th Venice Biennale. Wadsworth Jarrell, co-founder of the collective, is the author of AFRICOBRA: Experimental Art Towards a School of Thought. The exhibition catalog Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power and The Soul of a Nation Reader: Writings by and about Black American Artists, 1960-1980, a collection of essays, were produced to mark the landmark International Touring Exhibition .
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