Topless women, superheroes, ‘afronauts’ and mutants: these are just some of the characters featured in the work of Pedro Bell, an artist and illustrator who described himself on Funkadelic’s 1978 album, One Nation Under a Groove, as an ‘electric marker heathen of speedomatic dabblings’. The Chicago-born artist, who died last week aged 69, was best known for his album-cover artwork that imagined a universe in which blackness, science fiction, sex and mythology collided. His charged imagery transported musical protagonists, including Funkadelic and singer George Clinton, to utopian worlds where cosmology and hypersexuality reigned supreme.
Clinton thought of Bell as an ‘urban Hieronymus Bosch’ who ‘inverted psychedelia through the ghetto’. Bell’s work was key in drawing audiences to Funkadelic music: his Technicolor packaging combined pop-cultural references and comic book-style narratives with quirky slogans and Afrocentric imagery. During his lifetime, Bell received some institutional recognition: his work was featured in the 2010 exhibition ‘What Makes Us Smile?’ at Baltimore’s American Visionary Art Museum; in the 2007 touring show ‘Sympathy for the Devil: Art and Rock ‘n’ Roll since 1967’, curated by Dominic Molon at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago; and as part of ‘Funkaesthetics’ at the Justina M. Barnicke Gallery in 2009.
Bell’s work defied, too. While studying at Bradley University, he donated artwork to the Black Panther Party, which, alongside his protesting activities, led to his expulsion from college. His cover art for Funkadelic’s 1981 album, The Electric Spanking of War Babies, was censored by Warner Brothers Music because it originally featured a phallic spaceship and naked women. ‘When people talk about Cosmic Slop , for example, they talk as much about the cover art as anything else: the way that the screaming face is inset into the woman’s Afro, her vampire fangs, the map on one nipple and the stereo dial on the other, the strange yellow bug off to the right of the woman with Pedro’s signature along its body,’ said Clinton in his memoir Brothas Be, Yo Like George, Ain’t That Funkin’ Kinda Hard on You? (2014).
In 2009, a feature in The Chicago Sun-Times sadly reported that Bell was suffering from serious health issues, had become blind and, no longer able to work, was living in poverty. Yet, it was his risqué artworks that had helped create the defining aesthetic of the Afro-punk movement. While album covers no longer hold the same sway in the age of digital streaming, Bell’s wildly elaborate renderings generated an anarchic energy that allowed fans to connect to the music they were listening to on a visual, as well as an aural, level.
Main image: Funkadelic, Tales of Kidd Funkadelic, 1976. Courtesy: Pedro Bell and Westbound