Group photo of COBRA members sitting together in SITE gallery space for exhibition program


COBRA Brings Black Graduate Students Together

When Visual and Critical Studies students Saida Blair (MA 2024) and Jordan Barrant (MA 2024) enrolled in the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC), one of their primary goals was to build community. After arriving at the School, they discovered that there was not an affinity group specifically for Black graduate students, so they decided to start their own: the Coalition of Black Restorative Artists (COBRA).

Founded in Spring 2023, COBRA is a student-run organization that strives to cultivate and create community amongst Black graduate students at SAIC and the larger Black Chicago community. It is a club for artists to share resources and promote each other’s work. More importantly, COBRA gives Black students a place to form meaningful friendships through their art.

The club’s name may sound familiar. Blair and Barrant were inspired by the famous Chicago-based artist collective AfriCOBRA, founded in 1968 by five Black artists, the majority of which were SAIC alums, living in the South Side of Chicago. Their goal was to unite all members of the African Diaspora and create art that celebrated Black culture and cemented Black presence in the art world. With similar goals of community-building in mind, Blair and Barrant wanted to honor AfriCOBRA’s legacy.

“[AfriCOBRA’s] initials are African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists. We wanted ours to be the Coalition of Black Restorative Artists, because we wanted to honor and restore the lineage of past Black graduate students at SAIC who have forged community with one another,” Blair said.

To foster community, COBRA hosts numerous social events throughout the year. Their first event was the Black Grad Mixer held in conjunction with the Incubator exhibition curated by chris reeder (MA 2023) in celebration of Black History Month. After this introduction, Blair and Barrant organized a series of studio visits to facilitate conversations between visual artists and arts researchers and administrators.

“That was really wonderful,” Barrant said. “Having studio visits and having that event, we met Black grad students in Writing and other departments who had interest in being in a community with the Black grad students but didn’t have physical work to exhibit at that juncture.”

Through these informal interactions, more formal programming was born. Working in conjunction with the School’s student-run SITE Galleries, COBRA organized their first exhibition, The Black Domestic. This exhibition was co-curated by Blair and Barrant and featured the work of five COBRA members. The Black Domestic focused on the importance of the familial archives in Black communities imagined through the recreation of a comfortable living room space.

“I think our goal with our programming is for it not to be a high-pressure space or a networking type of thing, rather it be a space for people to be in community with one another and to know what other students are doing because there is so much overlap in themes, especially amongst black grad students,” said Barrant. “Our dream is for those students to become collaborators and co-conspirators.”

SAIC students Saida Blair and Jordan Barrant pose with visitor at Cry of Jazz event at Gene Siskal Film Center.

COBRA is extending their roots beyond SAIC by working with the Chicago community at large. Their most recent program, “The Cry of Jazz,” was held at the Gene Siskel Film Center in conjunction with the Black Harvest Film Festival. They worked alongside Jada-Amina (BFA 2020) to connect and work with Black alumni as well as past and present Black faculty members from SAIC in creating and facilitating events for current Black graduate students. “I think Chicago has such a rich history, especially for Black artists. And so, putting Black graduate students in conversation with that lineage is also a way to build community across Chicago at large,” Barrant said.

As Blair and Barrant prepare to graduate in the spring, the two founders hope that COBRA will continue to be a part of the fabric of SAIC. “COBRA has allowed us to start building those relationships and start working with artists who I hope to continue working with over the years,” said Barrant. “[I’ll] be able to look back on what we did in this organization as the roots and groundwork of our future endeavors.”