In the early 1970’s Outerbridge worked with the city officials to develop an arts education program at the already existing Compton Communicative Art Academy (CCAA) which received state and local funding to teach community classes in across all art disciplines. The Academy collapsed in 1975 due to inadequate funding after white flight from the area created an economic vacuum which made many public projects in Watts and Compton impossible.
In 1975 Outterbridge succeeded Noah Purifoy as art director of the Watts Towers Art Center. The Watts Towers Art Center held enormous sway in the black community in L.A. as an alternative form of self-governance and self-determination. Community involvement meant that Outterbridge was not far removed from black radicalism. Education was a contested arena as proven by the shooting of Southern California Black Panther Party president Alprentice Carter at UCLA by another black radical organization when he was helping coordinate leadership for a new Black Studies Program. When asked about his involvement in arts education programs in Compton and Watts, Outterbridge has said, “‘in a way, we were all panthers,’” which demonstrates his sympathy for revolutionary black nationalism as well as the general attitude among peers like Noah Purifoy towards art as a means of social change.
On one hand, Outterbridge’s work as an educator fit neatly within revolutionary black nationalist constructs of community organizing and empowerment. Revolutionary nationalists like the Black Panther Party focused on separatism in the form of black social and economic independence from white Americans, and they attempted to maintain a somewhat uniform internal identity (at some point denigrating symbols of Africa) to achieve their goals. On the other hand, Outterbridge's actual work makes use of African motifs and references to reconstructed black cultural mythology as well as black spiritual practice which is often seen in his dolls and fetishes (many alluding to Gullah culture). His work aligns more closely with black cultural nationalism which was active in seeking social change but contrasted with radical nationalism, because it emphasized the importance of reconstructing some cultural and historic lineage which had been stripped of black people during slavery. The division between revolutionary and cultural nationalism was a source of significant conflict and debate within the black community in L.A. (see Alprentice Carter) and nationwide; however, the distinction between the two which put them at odds was somewhat artificial. John Outterbridge assumes a unique place at the junction of revolutionary and cultural nationalism. His career and work reveal a symbiosis between these two branches of black activism during the Civil Rights era.
Outterbridge continues to live and work in L.A. and recently showed his exhibition called Rag Man at the gallery Art + Practice in Leimert Park. Several of his works also were shown for four months from 2011-2012 at the Hammer Museum as part of the exhibition Now Dig This!: Art and Black Los Angeles 1960-1980.
This page created by Vanessa Todd and Allison Wendt in December 2016.