Black Orpheus: Jacob Lawrence and the Mbari Club

Published 07 October 2022 in The Work

On the 65th anniversary of the creation of Nigerian-based culture and arts publication Black Orpheus and the 60th anniversary of Jacob Lawrence’s first exhibition in Nigeria, the Chrysler Museum of Art and the New Orleans Museum of Art will present Black Orpheus: Jacob Lawrence & The Mbari Club. The show is the first museum exhibition of Lawrence’s Nigeria series and the international artists featured in the magazine and associated with the Mbari Artists & Writers Club.

In 1965, African American artist Jacob Lawrence presented thirteen tempera and gouache paintings and nine crayon and ink drawings of Lagos and Ibadan marketplaces at the Terry Dintenfass Gallery in New York. These images were the culmination of an eight-month stay in Nigeria hosted by German cultural critic Ulli Beier, one of the Mbari Artists & Writers Club directors. Lawrence’s residency placed him and his practice in conversation with an international consortium of artists, dramatists, and writers in post-Independence Nigeria. The artists and writers included major figures within modern African art and literature: Bruce Onobrakpeya, Vincent Kofi, Wole Soyinka, and Chinua Achebe, who were all founding Mbari members. Their works were featured in Black Orpheus (1957–75), which was published by the Nigerian Ministry of Education.

Black Orpheus: Jacob Lawrence & the Mbari Club will bring Lawrence’s Nigeria series together for the first time in over fifty years ago. His works will be paired with paintings, drawings, and sculptures from the Black Orpheus artists and those exhibited in the Mbari Ibadan gallery.The artists included Uche Okeke, Twins Seven-Seven, Jacob Afolabi, Ibrahim El-Salahi, Skunder Boghossian, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, Susanne Wenger, Naoko Matsubara, Wilson Tiberio, and Genaro de Carvalho, among others.

The exhibition highlights modernist artists working beyond the supposed “centers” of the United States and Europe. In pairing worldwide artists with Lawrence’s imagery, Black Orpheus will reveal the nuances of global modernist art practices during the mid-twentieth century. Nigerian artists Onobrakpeya, Okeke, and Demas Nwoko were highly invested in developing a visually dynamic but politically charged art practice for a changing Nigerian audience. The work was decidedly associated with the artist’s self-identified cultural and national alliances, reflecting Nigeria’s post-colonial era and the broader African continent. Furthermore, the Brazilian artist Tiberio and Japanese artist Matsubara were producing works echoing the sociopolitical issues they were facing in their respective countries. Finally, Lawrence’s Nigeria series represents an ongoing legacy of African-American artists venturing to the African continent for knowledge and inspiration.


The exhibition is curated by Kimberli Gant, PhD, McKinnon Curator of Modern & Contemporary Art, Chrysler Museum of Art, and Ndubuisi Ezeluomba, PhD, Françoise Billon Richardson Curator of African Art, New Orleans Museum of Art.


Approximately 100 works, including paintings, drawings, watercolors, sculpture, textiles, photographs, original letters, and rare publications


5,500–6,500 square feet


Chrysler Museum of Art: October 7, 2022–January 8, 2023 New Orleans Museum of Art: February 10–May 7, 2023 Toledo Museum of Art: June 3–September 3, 2023


Full-color catalogue, including essays by the exhibition curators and leading interdisciplinary scholars, published by Yale University Press



The exhibition begins with Jacob Lawrence’s Nigeria series from 1964-65. The artist first visited Nigeria in 1961 exhibiting paintings of his Migration, War, and Builder’s series in Lagos, as part of the American Society of African Culture (AMSAC) opening celebration. He returned to Nigeria in 1964 with his wife, artist Gwendolyn Knight, for an eight-month sabbatical to learn about the history, art, and culture in that country. He spent several months in Ibadan with the members of the Mbari Artists & Writers Club. This section will include examples of the artist’s War and Builders series and images of Harlem as representations of the works shown in his 1961 exhibition and as stylistic comparisons.

This section will also include contextual photographs of the artist and his wife in Nigeria interacting with Mbari artists and original letters written by Lawrence to his dealer describing his time there. This opening sets the stage for the exhibition’s overarching theme of exchanging ideas and practices between international artists.


The Mbari Artists & Writers Club received its name from member Chinua Achebe, referencing the ancient mbari sculptural, painting, and architectural complex dedicated to Ala, the Igbo earth deity and guardian of creativity and justice. Associated member Duro Ladipo, a musician and playwright, developed a sister gallery called Mbari Mbayo in Oshogbo, Nigeria. Mbari members conducted art workshops with local artists, focusing on local cultural practices and traditions. Exhibitions of the Osogbo artists were also held at the original space in Ibadan. The second section of the exhibition highlights several Osogbo artists who exhibited at the Mbari galleries and had articles published in Black Orpheus. The works range from lithographs, woodcut prints, linocuts, and etchings to paintings and relief sculpture by major international artists such as Susanne Wenger, Twins Seven-Seven, Muraina Oyelami, Asiru Olatunde, Jacob Afolabi, Adebisi Akanji, and Georgina Beier.


While the Mbari Club was programming in southern Nigeria, a group of students at the Nigerian College of Arts, Sciences, and Technology (NCAST) was creating a contemporary art society in the northern part of the country. The Zaria Art Society was originated by undergraduates Uche Okeke, Demas Nwoko, Bruce Onobrakpeya, and Jimo Akolo, who strongly opposed NCAST’s European-only curriculum. They believed that African art courses should complement their Western training and advocated for integrating political content in their work, while also understanding that creating a contemporary art practice required influence from diverse cultures from within Nigeria and other nations. As a result, they developed a theoretical art model called Natural Synthesis, blending Western and local art styles and traditions. The exhibition’s third section will feature paintings and prints by original members of the Zaria Art Society demonstrating this model. Okeke, Nwoko, and Onobrakpeya all exhibited at Mbari Ibadan and authored illustrated short stories published in Black Orpheus. Their etchings and paintings reflect Black Orpheus editor Ulli Beier’s focus on presenting African artists with forceful modernist avant-garde techniques and indigenous styles.


Black Orpheus was published regularly from 1957-67, with additional issues available until 1975. The journal was the nucleus for circulating articles and exhibition reviews about modernist artists from around the world. The Mbari Club members also published dozens of other writings including plays, poetry, and short novels. While most Mbari members and Black Orpheus featured artists were from or based in Nigeria, the group also was comprised of artists and writers from eastern and southern Africa. They include Kenyan artist Hezbon Owiti, Mozambican artist and poet Malangatana Ngwenya, Ghanaian artist Vincent Kofi, Sudanese Khartoum School members Ibrahim El-Salahi and Ahmed Shibrain, and Ethiopian artist Skunder Boghossian. These artists were all featured in Black Orpheus or had work exhibited at Mbari Ibadan or Mbari Mbayo gallery. The fourth section will present drawings, paintings, and sculptures by the aforementioned artists, twenty-five original copies of Black Orpheus, and several Mbari publications. Digital and hardcopies of Black Orpheus will also be available for audiences to review. While the original editions are rare and will be treated as art objects, the articles, poems, short stories, plays, and drawings will be accessible to those who wish to read them. What is written inside the publication is just as important as the object itself.


The primary goal of Black Orpheus was to promote the excellence of modern African literature and art to the larger world. However, the publication and Mbari galleries also drew inspiration from international contributors and artists’ travels. Mbari presented imagery by American artist William H. Johnson; Brazilian artists Agnaldo dos Santos, Wilson Tiberio, and Genaro de Carvalho; German artist Karl Schmidt-Rottluff; Austrian artist Ru Van Rossem; Indian artists Avanish Chandra and Francis Newton Souza; and Japanese artist Naoko Matsubara. These artists worked in painting, printmaking, textile, and sculpture and presented a broad spectrum of artistic practice to Mbari Club members. This final section will display representative works by these artists to emphasize the range of parallel modernist art practices throughout the world during the post-colonial era. Primarily displaying woodblock prints, woodcuts, watercolors, lithographs, and painting and sculpture, this section reinforces the importance of Black Orpheus and the Mbari Artists & Writers Club as a nexus for international artistic knowledge and exchange.

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