at ETA Creative Arts Center Gallery

What’s immediately striking about Jeff Donaldson’s mixed-media works is the intricacy of his vibrantly colored patterns. This is work that is meant to get your attention–and hold it. Donaldson has learned his lessons well over the years (he’s been creating images since he was three), and he knows how to manipulate the viewer’s attention. The immediate appeal of most of his works is their texture. Donaldson takes corrugated cardboard and works it over with paint (watercolor) and whatever else until it’s a newly textured material of its own. Is it the beauty of the three-dimensional, built-up layers that makes the work so effective, or its conceptual qualities? The obvious answer is both.

Donaldson was one of the original members of Africobra, an organization of artists who believed in transferring the art image from the painting to the poster, so that anybody could acquire it and enjoy it as much as rich art collectors or middle-class museumgoers. Equally important to the Africobra artists was disseminating information, conveying a message. At first glance Donaldson’s work looks like a celebration of composition, of line, shape, and color; but each piece has much more to convey. If texture and color at first distract you from the serious subject matter, it becomes apparent soon enough. The titles of most of the works are contained within them, often in obvious block letters, and they usually suggest the sociopolitical context of the work. Donaldson often uses other words and phrases as well, winding them around some image. Medium and message become united, and it’s this fusion that’s ultimately so impressive.

Details in the images also incorporate messages, and their intricacy and subtlety contrast with the bold letters of the words. You begin to think that the messages reflect your subconscious thoughts, ideas you weren’t quite aware you had. Donaldson tends to make you face truths that are more comfortable to ignore.

Seven years ago, in an address to the Midwest Black Theater Alliance, Donaldson delivered a condemnation that applies just as well in 1991 and to the art world in general: “In the climate of political repression, content in the arts is discouraged and, unfortunately, mainstream contemporary theater has succumbed to the financially rewarding lure of the escapist or the irrelevant foolishness of the popular media.” As both social critic and visual artist, Donaldson has a sharp eye. It’s somehow appropriate that this exhibit is at a gallery space housed in a theater complex. Donaldson has always promoted all the art forms, not just the visual arts. In the early 70s he established the Organization of Black American Culture, a multiarts group still influential in the black community to this day. Out of this group and its first Wall of Respect mural, a new self-awareness was born that resulted in nearly 1,000 such murals in the community over the next five years. He also led more than 600 American artists, artisans, and scholars to Lagos, Nigeria, for FESTAC ’77 (a monthlong multiarts festival that included over 16,000 participants from 60 nations). The convergence of diverse elements into one harmonious whole–whether it be people or paintings–is not just his special talent but his raison d’etre.

Donaldson’s work reflects a return to an African aesthetic that holds emotional impact as most important–but with a new American resonance, sort of the visual-arts equivalent of jazz or blues. There’s no mistaking the pride and love he feels for his parents, for example, in the two works dedicated to them. With Respect to My Father is suffused with dignity as the paterfamilias sits up straight, his attention focused on driving some vehicle (his cap and uniform suggest that he’s on a train, but it could just as well be a tractor). Yet his eyes are full of a brooding melancholy–the sadness the artist must feel at losing his father at age four. With Respect to My Mother is full of love and gratitude toward the parent who raised him, an underpaid school principal. (Originally both titles were even more endearingly familiar: With Respect to My Mama and With Respect to My Daddy.) Seen through the same burst of lacy circular patterns as the father, the mother wears a scholarly graduation cap. Her role as educator and family provider is twofold (and in the capacity of both parents), so the portrait is split into a double image with two heads and numerous sets of hands. Being both sole provider and caretaker must have entailed some careful juggling–yet this depiction, like an East Indian statue with a multitude of arms, also suggests that the task empowered her with the qualities of a goddess. While the cap (and implied gown) is an American image, her African roots are symbolized by a sole cowrie shell in the area of the womb. These two pieces don’t have actual words incorporated into them as most of the others do, but the emotional message is as clear as if it were stamped and stenciled into both pieces.

Donaldson makes ideas vibrate as if they were the lingering notes of a plucked guitar string. African Liberation Day radiates beauty and power: the African continent is both an object in its own right and a part of the warrior-soldier’s face and torso. And lest you forget, the words “African Liberation Day” are clearly marked, along with its date: May 27, 1972. His fist–covered with a conglomeration of words for unity in different languages (“unita,” “pac”)–holds a cocked gun. The implicit contradiction needs no explanation.

Angolan Agony (an earlier variant is The Agony of Angola, or Oh, say can you see K?) blames modern-day imperialism for the years of war-torn strife there. At the top of the piece are three flags: British, U.S., and French. Three silver letters superimposed over the flags spell CIA. But it’s the triumphant image of the soldier, fists raised high, touching the lettering as if in defiance, that’s the emotional clincher. A phoenixlike shape rises above his head, Angola rising out of its own ashes despite all the trials foreign powers have put it through (including the civil war that grew out of factionalism).

Donaldson’s anger at injustice is equally powerful in Visit Azania. This work is stylistically similar to a number of others in the exhibit that use newspaper photo clippings; Donaldson enlarges them, embellishes them so that the original image is virtually indistinguishable, and then floats the original small photo somewhere in the middle of the work. In Azania, the clipping shows a high-ranking military man, possibly a general, terrorizing a woman while a man looks on helplessly. Donaldson’s embellishment, however, puts both victims in tribal dress and has the man holding a gun to the militiaman’s head, while the woman’s ornate Masai necklace becomes a sword that she’s unsheathing. The background, blank in the original photo, has become a fitted puzzle of angry, angular shapes. The distortion of reality is a clear call to arms, as is Victory in the Valley of Eshu. Here an elderly couple becomes deified: the man carries the stone ax symbolic of the storm god Shango, whose anger is expressed in lightning and thunder. Yet the other side of his nature is equally clear: his arm is wrapped sweetly around the shoulders of the woman. As long as you don’t cross him, the image seems to say, he won’t harm you. The couple in the original photo are more pedestrian, less lovingly united–and their clothes suggest closer ties to the West.

In So We Too, Donaldson breaks up the name Soweto to implicate each of us for our inactivity in perpetuating apartheid. The banner that reads “STRUGGLE” at the top of the painting also refers to the struggle against racism that African Americans, like their South African counterparts, go through on a daily basis. Patriot also has a degree of ambiguity built into it. The overly decorous “PATRIOT” in huge block letters sits below the saluting subject, whose one closed eye makes it look like he’s winking, as if his patriotism were tongue-in-cheek. But you’re not sure he’s winking; maybe he’s a true patriot. And the overdecorated lacework forming a radiant halo around his head and around his salute could be Donaldson’s salute to freedom fighters.

Donaldson’s most recent work, One 4 Bear Den, a loving memorial to painter Romare Bearden, one of his mentors, harbors no ambiguity. The soft, nostalgic pastel of a woman sitting at a harp–playing in tribute to Bearden and his work–is wholly admiring. None of the other pieces has this gentle, contented quality, perhaps because of their multifaceted, layered textures and their thematic tensions. One 4 Bear Den–made a good ten years later than any of the other pieces in the show–is simply an expression of unabashed love for its subject, a thank-you note. I’m equally unabashed in my gratitude to Bearden for inspiring Donaldson to create these wonderful works.