“Four Sheep” by Jacob Lawrence, 1964 (The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society, New York)

Jacob Lawrence was a renowned Black American artist whose work chronicled the lives and experiences of Black Americans.  In 1964, Lawrence spent nine months in Nigeria where he worked alongside African artists in the Mbari Artists and Writers Club. He produced more than two dozen paintings focused on Nigerian culture and community

Lawrence’s “Nigeria” series and the work of other Mbari club members are featured in an exhibition at the New Orleans Museum of Art. “Black Orpheus: Jacob Lawrence and the Mbari Club showcases the creative exchange of modernism between Lawrence and members of the Mbari Artists and Writers Club during the 1960s. 

The artwork featured in the exhibit highlights the simultaneous movements of Black Americans and Africans, who exchanged ideas on liberation and identity. Black Americans fought for equality in their own country via the civil rights movement, while Africans in countries such as Nigeria and Rwanda were establishing their identities as they gained independence from European colonial rule. 

Founded in Ibadan, Nigeria in 1961 by writers Ulli Beier, Wole Soyinka, and Chinua Achebe, the Mbari Club was created as a hub for African writers, artists, and musicians to gather. The club’s influence reached around the world with its cultural magazine, Black Orpheus. 

The magazine featured poetry, fiction writing, literary criticism, and social commentary and was one of the first artistic publications written in English in Nigeria. Artists such as Muraina Oyelami, Twins Seven-Seven, and Lawrence found community within the club. In addition to the Mbari Club, groups such as the Zaria Art Society and the Mbari Mbayo club established themselves across the country. 

“At the time, even though everyone was excited that independence was imminent,” said the exhibition’s co-curator Ndubuisi Ezeluomba. “Artists understood what it [meant] to use their art to express that even more powerfully.” 

Similarly in America, the Black Arts Movement gained traction during the 60s, and Black artist collectives began popping up across the country. Spiral came onto the scene in New York in 1963, hosting weekly meetings where artists discussed their role in the civil rights movement. 

Also in New York at the time was Umbra, a poet’s society that produced two editions of its magazine before its disbandment. Members included Lennox Raphael, Calvin C. Hernton, and New Orleans’ own Steve Cannon. 

Later in the 60s came the Black Artists’ Group of St. Louis which was founded in 1968, and primarily made of musicians.

Sadly, many of the artist collectives established in this era didn’t last for more than a handful of years — by 1975 the movement was essentially over. Causes for disbandment ranged from artists pursuing individual endeavors, changing political ideas, and the overcommercialization of what was supposed to be resistance art. 

This image gallery contains artwork done by Jacob Lawrence and other members of the Mbari club in the “Black Orpheus” exhibit at NOMA through May 7.

Join Verite’s Mailing List | Get the news that matters to you

Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

Help inform our coverage as we build a newsroom for and by the people of New Orleans:

Please take a few minutes to share your thoughts with us by answering each question.

Karli Winfrey graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Public Relations from Loyola University. With a background in the New Orleans hospitality industry, Winfrey has first-hand experience with grassroots...