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Jeff Donaldson: Militant Artist and Critic who Supported Malcolm X

By Shola Adenekan

In 1967, the African American artist and critic Jeff Donaldson, who has died aged 71, was one of the creators of Chicago's Wall Of Respect. A montage of more than 50 African American leaders and heroes, it was a work that heralded an outdoor mural movement that reached inner cities across the US and beyond.

 

The following year, Donaldson became a co-founder of the Organisation of Black American Culture (Obac) and the African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists (Afri-Cobra). Donaldson and his contemporaries, looking to Africa for their influences, focused on bright colours, symmetry, improvisation and images and patterns derived from that continent.

 

Always outspoken, always militant, he celebrated the roots of black culture during an era when "black is beautiful" and "black power" were echoing throughout the African diaspora. It was entirely appropriate that in Haskell Wexler's cult countercultural movie, Medium Cool (1969), set during the street battles that accompanied the 1968 Democrat party Chicago convention, Donaldson played a black radical.

 

Donaldson represented the visual arts tributary of that era's black arts movement. That loose coalition of intellectuals produced work aimed at raising awareness of black rights and promoting the struggle against racism. His counterparts in literature and music include the writer Amiri Baraka (formerly LeRoi Jones), the poets Gwendolyn Brooks and Haki Madhubuti, the tenor saxophonist Archie Shepp and the percussionist Max Roach.

 

For E Ethelbert Miller, of the leading black college, Washington DC's Howard University, Donaldson was to 1960s African American visual arts what Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker had been to jazz in the 1940s and 1950s. "What I respected Donaldson for," Miller observed, "was his desire to work with artists outside the painting world."

 

Born and educated in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, Donaldson was enthralled when, at the age of three, he saw his older brother drawing.

 

He began drawing cartoons and comic books. Later, at the University of Arkansas he studied studio arts, and his interest in Afrocentric arts was nurtured under the tutelage of John Howard, a former student of Hale Woodruff, an artist of the 1920s Harlem Renaissance. In 1973, Donaldson took a PhD in African and African American art history from Chicago's Northwestern University.

 

After lecturing at Northwestern (1968-1970), Donaldson became the chairman of Howard University's art department. He would also serve as associate dean (1985) and dean of the college of fine arts (1990-1998). During this period he moved the college towards a more Afrocentric approach to African American culture.

 

Donaldson participated in more than 200 group and solo exhibitions in galleries and museums worldwide. His mixed media on linen, JamPact/Jelli Tite (1988), was a paean to jazz. Another work, the critically acclaimed Wives Of Shango (1998), paid homage to the god of thunder of Nigeria's Yoruba people. He also produced book cover artwork.

 

Donaldson was a regular presence at the National Conference of African American Writers during the 1970s and early 1980s. He published numerous critical essays and was a trustee of Philadelphia's Barnes Foundation and a board member of the US National Centre for Afro-American Artists.

 

For Donaldson, Malcolm X was of crucial relevance to black empowerment. The increase in opportunities for African Americans, he argued, happened "more as a consequence of the threat of revolution than by all the praying by Martin Luther King."

 

He is survived by a son and a daughter.

 

Jeff Donaldson, artist and critic, born December 15 1932; died February 29 2004

 

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