Black Artists Group gets new attention as art and protest once again combine
In the past year, St. Louis has been saturated by a groundswell of art related to social justice concerns, specifically issues of the region’s racial inequalities. For scholars, fans and former members of St. Louis’ Black Artists Group (BAG), the trend is remarkably familiar.
Part of the Black Artists Group’s mission was the assertion that black writers, musicians, dancers, poets and visual artists deserved the same attention as their white counterparts.
“Part of it was the artists saying I am a human being. We are human beings. And not only are we human beings, we are all good,” said poet former BAG member Eugene Redmond. He is an emeritus professor of English at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville.
Against this backdrop, St. Louis is finding renewed interest in the Black Artists Group’s work. Early examples of Redmond’s writing are part of The Luminary gallery show "The Marvelous is Free." The exhibit positions such things as poetry chapbooks, posters and interviews from the Black Artists Group against other art from The Black Arts Movement, Gay Rights Movement and the fight for Latino rights during the late 1960s and early ’70s.
Original members of the group’s musical wing will appear at Jazz at the Bistro later in the season. The program will feature renowned saxophonist Oliver Lake and drummers Charles “Bobo” Shaw and Jerome "Scrooge" Harris.
Anthony Romero is one of the artists behind The Marvelous is Free. He says the materials in the show aren’t supposed to tell a whole story but to situate different protest and creative moments alongside each other. For him, the project seemed particularly relevant against the backdrop of the creative expression and protests in the wake of Michael Brown’s death in August 2014. The project is not intended as a direct response to the activism that’s spread throughout the city and the country but offers a chance to re-evaluate current affairs.
“I also acknowledge that it has a particular kind of resonance now, and I think that for us researching this material is certainly about discovering strategies and tactics for responding to what feels like a particularly urgent contemporary climate,” said Romero.
Romero’s project and the Bistro’s event highlight the city’s renewed interest in the group that made its initial stamp on socially conscious art more than 40 years ago.
Poet Redmond encountered the group after serving in the Marines. He became familiar with the group through BAG’s Sunday jam sessions on Art Hill. These concerts drew Redmond to the group through a shared interest in social justice and the creative arts.
“It was common purpose. Common cause. Revolution. The Black Arts Movement. Black Power Movement,” he said.
As the late '60s progressed, BAG established itself as unique creative collective in St. Louis through these sessions and a significant presence in the mixed-income housing area LaClede Town. Musicians Julius Hemphill, Oliver Lake and Hamiet Bluiett, and theater organizer Malinké Elliott were often focal points of these gatherings. The loosely defined group of musicians, poets, theater performers and visual artists would gather to experiment, rehearse and perform sets that incorporated each discipline.
Redmond says performances drew some fans but alienated people who weren’t prepared for the group’s experimental approach. He described one performance at the Sheldon.
“I remember seeing Vincent Terrell dancing across the stage. He had a shield and a necktie on and that was all and he was dancing like he was in a chorus line. ... When you didn’t have a shield, you saw what we in the Marine Corps call ‘the family jewels.’ "
Redmond said every kind of instrument you could think of was on that stage. A performer, he said, might even "blow those kinds of whistles where the paper rolls out." The memory brought forth a laugh: "They were hearing some things the natural ear, the average ear, doesn’t hear.”
Saint Louis Professor Ben Looker wrote the definitive book on the group’s history. He said this interdisciplinary approach distinguished the group from many similar groups operating throughout the country at the time.
“One of BAG's achievements was finding a way to allow artists in all those different mediums to work together on productions that merged all those art forms and to find a way to put the resulting products at the service of the vision of social change in the community,” said Looker.
Eventually the group raised enough funds to develop their own space at 2665 Washington Blvd. According to scholars, BAG cultivated donors from groups interested in “civilizing” urban areas and redirected the funding to local musicians and artists from those communities. However the group’s experimental nature and charged politics failed to find a larger audience in St. Louis and many of the group members left for New York, Paris, Denmark and the Netherlands.
Julius Hemphill, for example, was offered commissions for music outside the city and several musicians were becoming integrated into the New York “Loft Scene,” which would have a significant effect on jazz to come.
It was just before this dissolution that Redmond feels the group fully “arrived.” Redmond is one of the few Black Artist Group members who remain in the area. Shirley LeFlore and Charles “Bobo” Shaw still live in the St. Louis. Many of the original members have died or retired from performing.
Yet despite the collective’s dispersal from the area and aging membership, its legacy of experimental, challenging, and socially conscious art continues throughout the city. Ephemera from the group is on view at "The Marvelous is Free," and a performance featuring original Black Artists Group musicians will take place this spring at Jazz at the Bistro.