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We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965–85

April 21–September 17, 2017

Jan van Raay (American, born 1942). Faith Ringgold (right) and Michele Wallace (middle) at Art Workers Coalition Protest, Whitney Museum, 1971. Digital C-print. Courtesy of Jan van Raay, Portland, OR, 305–37. © Jan van Raay

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Here are some questions visitors asked us during their visit to this exhibition.

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Can you tell me who the Chuck referred to in this artwork is?
Chuck could be a reference to a Chuck who copied and popularized the "Revolutionary Suit" style that Davis is wearing in the painting. Jarrell included a note at the bottom of this painting that reads: "This is a replica of a revolutionary suit designed by Jae Jarrell in early 1969 for AfriCOBRA. 1. This suit is designed to reflect the present struggle of black people in the U.S.A. When Chuck jumps on and bastardize it as he does everything else we do, I want you to know he stole it from black giants - Africobra. Everytime one of our sisters wear one of Chucks stolen designs, they are helping to advertise Africobra. This suit is not for hunkies, strickly for black people in the present revolution, with a show of force for liberation."
Thank you.
What is happening here?
That painting depicts Angela Davis, a scholar and activist who was in the midst of fighting for civil rights at the time this was painted. She is shown wearing the a replica of the Revolutionary Suit designed by Jarrell's wife and fellow artist Jae Jarrell. "Revolutionary (Angela Davis)" encapsulates Jarrell's and AfriCOBRA's tenets of positive role models, text, and bright colors. She's surrounded by quotes from her public speaking and Black Power slogans. 
In 1968, Wadsworth Jarrell co-founded COBRA (Coalition of Black Revolutionary Artists) with Jae Jarrell and artists Barbara Jones-Hogu, Jeff Donaldson, and Gerald Williams.
This is interesting! The slogan on it is weird, can you tell me more?
I agree! A big part of We Wanted A Revolution explores black women feeling excluded from the mainstream feminist movement. The exhibition looks at how these women oftentimes aligned themselves with black men in the fight against racial discrimination. This poster which reads "Black Men We Need You" and "Preserve Our Race, Leave White Bitches Alone" is calling on men to focus on creating black families. At the time, black women experiencing oppression based both on gender and race viewed white feminists as rivals rather than allies. What do you think of the colors? Coupled with the style, they are so bold, graphic, and eye-catching.
Oui, right, they are very eye catching. As is the use of white for one part of the message.
Yes, the part in white is, coincidentally, about white women. This "Cool Ade" color palette was used quite a lot and was a hallmark of the AfriCOBRA collective. The color palette was chosen to help make their art and messaging more accessible and appealing to general black audiences.
Yes, right! They are beautiful colors and very attractive!
I agree. The prints were also relatively cheap to make and easy to distribute. This made them both affordable mediums through which to create art and efficient for spreading political messages.
Tell me more about Faith Ringgold's 1965 piece.
This self portrait coincided with her figurative American People Series (1963-65). As a black artist establishing her career during the Civil Rights Movement, Ringgold embraced her image and explored what it meant to represent one's inner and outer self through art.
What is this cross?
This cross-like symbol is called an ankh and it originated in ancient Egypt where it was a symbol of life. It was adopted by the Black Power Movement mostly as a sign of their connection to Africa.
Thank you!
What is this supposed to denote?
This is a photo of a performance art piece by Senga Nengudi that took place under a bridge. The work, titled "Freeway Fets," was a symbolic vehicle for healing divisions between black men and women. It included elements of African masquerade combined with Nengudi's nylon sculpture.
Another work of hers, a sculptural piece titled "Inside/Outside," also incorporates the nylon element she favored. Nengudi has said, "I am working with nylon mesh because it relates to the elasticity of the human body."
Thank you!
Can you tell me more about this work?
Posters were embraced by the Black Arts Movement because they were affordable and quick to produce in multiples, making them easy to distribute.
The bright colors are what artists at the time called "Cool Ade" colors - very saturated and appealing to look at (making the political message appealing too).       
If you look at the front of Jarrell's "Urban Wall Suit", you will see the poster imagery repeated there. Most of these artists were not embraced by the traditional art community of galleries and museums, so the street became their gallery!
Right on! Thank you!
Why is the light on these artworks so much darker than the light on other art in this gallery?
You're very perceptive. Works on paper, like these prints (watercolors would also fall into this category) are very sensitive to light and fade very easily. The light is kept low to help preserve the artworks. Works on paper cannot be exposed to light for long periods of time either. After this exhibition they will be returned to dark storage to "rest."
Okay. Thank you. I noticed the dresses are displayed nearby. Does fabric have the same light issues?
Textiles do share a lot of the same concerns. Temperature and humidity are also major considerations.
What aspect of this piece would you say make it profound?
A few factors. The first is that Ringgold was working in a figurative style at a time when abstraction was the favored style. She was also aware of the tradition of artists' self-portraits in Western art and thinking about the absence of black women (and artists) in Western Art History. In light of this, she made herself the subject, effectively making herself a part of the story both as a black woman and as an up and coming artist.
Faith Ringgold herself has said: "I wanted my painting to express this moment I knew was history. I wanted to give my woman’s point of view to this period.”
Thank you!
Tell me more!
Senga Nengudi was inspired to work with pantyhose after her first pregnancy, when she looked back on how her body had changed. The material's ability to stretch and adapt to new forms, as well as it's status as so much a part of women's dress, inspired her. She said, “from tender, tight beginnings to sagging. . . . The body can only stand so much push and pull until it gives way, never to resume its original shape.”
So true! Thank you.
What art movement does this belong to? 
Buchanan's work can be considered in conversation with Minimalism, but instead of the pristine cubes other Minimalists are known for, many of Buchanan’s works are intended to be irregular and rough-hewn. This work was displayed in an outdoor location before it entered the Museum’s collection, and you can still see traces of the wear and weathering it experienced, which was also part of Buchanan’s intent.
Just beautiful!
This is a great work that not many people in the exhibition talk about. It's actually a self portrait of Ringgold made at the beginning of her career.
She was establishing herself as an artist during the civil rights era and even though abstraction was the most popular style of the time, she decided to portray her own image and inner and outer self through her art.
When she painted this portrait, it was her largest work to date. The was she dominated the composition and extends beyond the canvas suggests resilience and strenth.
The colors and style are captivating. Ringgold said "I still painted figures, but without the use of chiaroscuro—realistic but flat—to lend a high degree of visibility to the image of the American black person"
So striking. I especially like the position of her arms, so nurturing.
Definitely! When Ringgold painted this work, she was a mother of two daughters. Her gesture is both gentle and guarded. Perhaps reflecting her struggle to garner a reputation and representation in the art world.
What is the message that the artist is looking to communicate with the phrases painted here?
The painting pictures Angela Davis, an influential speaker, scholar and activist who advocated for civil rights at the time. She's surrounded by quotes from her public speaking and Black Power slogans as she holds a microphone to her mouth.
You could imagine the way the text and image are integrated here that they’re meant to convey Davis speaking and more broadly her activism and what she stood for. The composition communicates her message, and the political message of the Black Arts Movement, of equity.
You're welcome! The graphic, bold nature of this painting, along with the content, really encapsulates the aesthetic of AfriCOBRA, the African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists: positive role models, text, and bright colors.
Thank you. That's very informative.
What does this piece depict and what is the history behind it?
This print is by Barbara Jones-Hogu and is titled "Black Men We Need You." Like Elizabeth Catlett's "Madonna" print, the focus is on the black family. These prints were intended to showcase positive ideas of black families and black communities. The artists were using prints as a vehicle for their ideas, which meant that they could be sold at affordable prices and more people could see them.
Thank you very much.
Can I get more information on this picture from Dindga McCannon?
Sure! This is a portrait of McCannon's fellow artist Akweke Singho, who was also a member of the "Where We At" collective.
These bright, saturated hues were referred to by many artists in the period as "Cool Ade" colors, whose vibrancy was intended to make artwork appealing and accessible. Dindga McCannon became known later for her art quilts. Here, we can see that she was interested in textiles and mixing mediums early in her career. If you look closely, you can see the careful placement of fabric floral appliqués on the yellow dress.
McCannon was really intent on creating a sense of community through her art. She said that she wanted to "show black faces... to reflect what was going on [in her] life."
Tell me more.
The Aunt Jemima character, seen here, was recurring in Betye Saar's work. She was a metaphor for the traditional and racist view of black women that Saar was speaking out against.
Thanks so much!
I'm curious as to the angle for the title "Wives of Shango." I understand the visual aspect of women dressed in combat or warrior gear and its relation to Shango's legacy and deity, but am curious about how Donaldson may have approached this work politically. I think there are multiple approaches and readings, some of which read as more or less in line with Black feminism (which I understand may not encompass everything in the exhibit, but which I have some personal interest in as a Black woman and Black feminist).
I think the artist is speaking to the solidarity between black men and women in the fight for racial and gender equality. As the legend goes, Shango was a powerful Yoruba ruler. He had three wives who were described as strong women. They both taught the king how to fight and went into battle themselves. This idea of women being equally capable and important to a battle, physical or political, is what I believed the artist meant to highlight in the context of the Civil Rights Movement.
Visually, the depiction of the women wearing bandolier belts and guns draped over their shoulders is a reference to the Black Panther Party. All members of the Party, male AND female, were trained in weapons use. There were no gendered barriers in this area.
Finally, I believe the painting seeks to highlight the idea of the strength of the black family, a particular focus of the Black Arts Movement and AfriCOBRA group.
I'm interested to hear your thoughts.
Word. I think that's a useful angle that can be used differently. Your last comment about the strength of the Black family makes me think about the connection to Black Nationalism, the radical politics of which only go so far.
I really like this sculpture. What does it represent?
Senga Nengudi fills nylon pantyhose with sand or other materials to evoke parts of the body. She has said, "I am working with nylon mesh because it relates to the elasticity of the human body. From tender, tight beginnings to sagging. . . . The body can only stand so much push and pull until it gives way, never to resume its original shape.”
Her inspiration for using nylon and thinking about its relationship to the human body began in the early 1970s during her first pregnancy.
Marvelous, I have never seen art that way before.
It's really fascinating! I love the way she takes something that is so common, especially nylons, which are such a typical part of women's work dress, and uses it to send a multilayered message.
Thank you for explaining that to me.
Hi! I'm a student from PSC and I would like to know more about this painting.
This poster is actually an etching by Kay Brown, and is called "First Kick of Life." It depicts a pregnant black woman. One of the main focuses of these popular posters from the time of the Black Arts Movement was to portray black people and especially black families in a positive light.
Oh great thanks!!!
What is this about? 
McCannon's inspiration for this piece arose from her frustration that roles for women were limited. She believed they could do anything, even lead a revolution!
If you look closely on the left-hand side, you can see the bandolier belt with bullets. This was a potent symbol of political resistance during the Black Power Movement and had its origins in the first media images of the Black Panther Party.
I'd love to know more about this piece. Was it influence by the time it was made?
Senga Nengudi was inspired to start working with nylons after her first pregnancy after she saw how her body stretched and transformed. She thought the elasticity of the nylons mirrored that of her body and liked to explore the limitations of the material by stretching them to their breaking point and seeing how much they could withstand.
Here she has filled the nylons with sand to pull their weight down and employs a deflated rubber ring to create this slightly anthropomorphic sculpture. She would often wear her sculptures as headpieces.
What was the belt made of?
The belt is made from leather and painted wooden dowels (rounded wooden sticks) cut into shorter pieces.
Bandolier belts with bullets were popular symbols of revolutionary thought, particularly associated with members of the Black Panthers. You may spot some other examples in this show. A real bandolier would hold actual bullet cartridges (ammunition).
What was the inspiration for this work?
Dindga McCannon's inspiration for this piece arose from her frustration that roles were limited for women. She believed that they should be able to do everything, even lead a revolution.
The flag-poles on the headpiece relate to the Statue of Liberty and represent how even while immigrants often entered the US by way of Ellis Island, a large segment of the United States population couldn't see the Statue of Liberty as a symbol of opportunity. McCannon says of her "Revolutionary Sister," "We were born here and we don't have those same rights...she is our Statue of Liberty".
Also, if you look closely, on the left-hand side, you can see the bandolier belt with bullets. The bandolier belt was a potent symbol of political resistance during the Civil Rights Movement, and had its origins in the first media images of the Black Panther Party. It was then popularized by Blaxploitation films of the 70s.
Hi, I'm a student from PSC and I would like to know more about this work!
Hi! McCannon was part of a group of women that gathered together to create a supportive artistic community. In addition to making art, they addressed really practical concerns, such as watching one another's children so that individual artists could produce work.
Like any work of art, this is open to interpretation. We could view the nudity of the two lovers as relevant to the social changes that were happening in the 1970s, during the Sexual Revolution. Take a look at the different textures she is evoking through her technique...the hair, skin, and background all have different looks.
In this section of the show, you'll see a lot of art that depicts the bodies of black Americans and gets us to think about identity and relationships.
Do you know what the title "Wives of Shango" refers to?
Yes. Shango was a powerful ruler in the Oyo Empire during the 15th century in what is present-day Western Nigeria. His wives' names were Oshun, Oba and Oya. They were said to have been strong women who went into battle. Here we see them in 1960s dress and wearing the bandolier bullet belts worn by many Black Liberation Movement members.
What does this mean?
Like any work of art, this is open to interpretation. I see the nudity of two lovers as speaking to the changes that were happening in the 1970s, during the Sexual Revolution.
McCannon was part of a group of women that gathered together to create a supportive community. They addressed really practical concerns, such as watching one another's children so that individual artists could produce work.
What did she do?
Angela Davis is a political activist and civil rights leader known for her work in the 1960s. She is also the author of such books as "If They Come Morning," "Lectures on Liberation," and "Women, Culture, and Politics"
She is also a powerful public speaker. Parts of some of her speeches are included in this work.
Can you help me to grasp the intention of Buchanan here?
Yes, of course. Buchanan was interested in the relationship between memory (personal, historical and geological) and place. She focuses on walls, houses, memorials and burial sites–formal structures. Her work questions methods and repercussions of history by asking who is commemorated and how.
Why is the rubber semicircle deflated? Was that intentional? I'm asking because it reminds me of a floating device.       
I'm not sure exactly why the rubber semicircle is deflated but Nengudi's work was meant to be somewhat anthropomorphic. The bulging and sagging forms are meant to evoke body parts. I think that the rubber piece is also playing into her idea of pushing a material to its limits--stretched and deflated. 
She also challenged the viewer to draw their own conclusions from her work. This was part of a series she called "R.S.V.P." because she wanted people to respond. 
Why is Senga Nengudi so important?
Senga Nengudi is best known for her dance performances and sculpture. Her work explores the boundaries and preconceptions of race and identity in the arts.
As you can see in her work, Inside/Outside, she frequently uses weighted pantyhose in her work as a reference to her background as a dancer and as a facsimile for flesh.
Thanks so much       
How did Faith Ringgold use her influence?
At the time of this painting, "Early Works #25: Self-Portrait" Ringgold was just starting out and trying to establish herself in the art world. It was understandably difficult, not just as a new artist but as a black woman artist. She would go on to be one of the most well-known artists in the We Wanted A Revolution show.
She certainly used her influence to elevate other black women artists at the time. She collaborated with Kay Brown and Dindga McCannon in the founding of a collective of black women artists called "Where We At."
Thank you!
What was the inspiration for this piece?
Ringgolds' self portraiture coincided with the development of her American People Series. As a black artist establishing her career in the Civil Right's Movement, she explored what it meant to represent one's self through art. Faith Ringgold has said about her work, “I wanted my painting to express this moment I knew was history. I wanted to give my woman’s point of view to this period.”
Does this piece relate to the ideals of the Harlem Renaissance?
Much the same vein as the Harlem Renaissance, the Black Arts Movement was in part about trying to create identity and reflect pride in black arts and culture. The Black Arts Movement could be described as the cultural arm of the Black Power Movement.
This painting shows Angela Davis, a leader in the fight for racial, gender, and economic justice. This image and others from our collection, show women both past and present who fought and continue to fight for justice for African Americans. The artists use art to create a sense of unity, collectiveness, and pride among the black community, a tenant of both the Harlem Renaissance and the Black Arts Movement.
Thank you, Rachel.
My 11-year-old son would like to know why these women are armed?
These are the wives of Shango, a ruler of the Oyo Empire in Nigeria in the 15th century. As the story goes, they were strong women who went into battle with their husband and even taught him a few tricks on how to fight!
Of course, they are not equipped with 15th century weapons but rather 20th century bandoliers: belts with bullets. These were worn by revolutionary fighters in the early 20th century and then became fashionable among members of the Black Liberation Movement.
Can you tell me about this?
This work and the one next to it were designed by Jae Jarrell. Jarrell wore these works, sometimes for art-related events and sometimes as everyday wear.
There is a sense of the personal and the public in the way she wore them, but also in the inspiration for the work. Jarrell was inspired by the way that her community in Chicago used walls as a way to communicate.
It's such a stunning piece!
Can you share anything on this one?
Of course. These are the wives of Shango, who was the ruler of the Oyo Empire in Nigeria in the 15th century. As the story goes, the two women at his sides, two of his wives, were strong women who went into battle with their husband and also taught him fighting techniques.
In the context of the show, this work exemplifies the idea of black women joining black men to fight against racial injustice and holding equivalent status to men. You can see that they are wearing bandolier or bullet belts which were originally popularized by the Black Panther Movement and adopted within the Black Arts Movement as a symbol of active resistance. The belt appears again in "Revolutionary (Angela Davis)" and "Revolutionary Sister," both in the same section of the exhibition.
Wow. I'm so glad I asked!
Self-portraits seem rare in We Wanted a Revolution. 
Although abstraction was the most popular style of painting at the time, Ringgold decided to explore her inner and outer self through her art and, in this case specifically, through self-portraiture. She wanted to communicate a message about identity in a changing political and social climate.
I don't get it.
The way I see it, much of Nengudi's work has to do with material. She was inspired after her first pregnancy to start working with nylons, seeing the parallels between the way her body changed and the elasticity of that material.
She was interested in testing the limits of the material, stretching it to its very limits, manipulating them with sand, experimenting with the way they hang and sag. In this piece, that practice has been extended to the rubber semi circle as well.
The whole piece together evokes a vaguely anthropomorphic form. This was part of her R.S.V.P series, so named because she wanted people to respond. The meaning perhaps is not as important as your reaction to it. What did it make you think of at first?
To be honest and a bit crass... I thought the hanging nylons look remarkably like ballsacks.
Completely fair. I've always thought that it looked like a headdress of some sort. The circular part, framing the head with the extended pieces evoking horns and the pieces hanging down resembling hair of some kind.
But I'm probably biased because of the photo of her wearing it in the label on the wall next to the piece. Nengudi often donned her nylon sculptures for performances. 
Yeah, I did think it also looked kind of like a headpiece.
What do you think this piece is about?
This work by Senga Nengudi references the human body. You can see how she uses nylon pantyhose filled with sand and other materials, to evoke the sagging of a human body. She was especially inspired by her first pregnancy, and the changes her body underwent, to use these materials, and I certainly see that in the work!
I can definitely see the sagging body. Very interesting. Any idea why an inner tube was used?
The inner tube is another material that can be stretched, inflated, and deflated into organic bodily forms. It's likely that Nengudi was attracted to it for the same reasons she was attracted to the pantyhose.
Wow! Yeah that makes sense.
What does this say?
There is a strong relationship between text and image in this print. Jones-Hogu has formed the background out of the repeated word "UNITE." The image conveys the sense of energy and community within the  AfriCOBRA coalition. 
The Black Power fist was a popular image with artist of the group. It communicates volumes with a single gesture. If you look closely, you'll see a woman wearing an ankh earring, which was a popular symbol for its connection to Africa.
Do you know what the bullets are?
They are made from leather and painted wooden dowels.
Bandolier belts were popular symbols of revolutionary thought. There are other examples of their use in the later sections of the exhibition.
Thank you!
These women look powerful.
I think so! Shango was a ruler of the Oyo Empire in Nigeria in the 15th century. As the story goes, they were strong women who went into battle with their husband, and even taught him how to fight!
What does this say?
This screen print reads, principally, "Black Men We Need You," which is the title of the work. The bottom text reads, "Preserve Our Race, Leave White Bitches Alone."
The poster is calling on black men to focus on creating black families, an institution that was prohibited under slavery. For black women at the time experiencing gender AND racial oppression, white feminists were often viewed as rivals.
What might the artist have been influenced by?
Visually she was influenced by the bright colors that her fellow artists were using as well as those featured in African textiles. She was also interested in portraying her friend as an empress which I think influenced the amount of jewelry she has on. It also speaks to the mission in the Black Arts Movement to portray black Americans in a positive light.
Can you give me some information on the Angela Davis painting?
Davis was a powerful speaker for the Black Liberation Movement. Here we see the energy of her words vibrating around her body. Davis is wearing the bandolier belt of bullets worn by several members of her circle.
The "Revolutionary Suit," including the bandolier detail, was an actual garment designed by Jae Jarrell, who also designed the clothing nearby. It was a symbol of the armed resistance to oppression that black women could act on in the pursuit of revolution.
Are these real bullets?
I believe so! Bandolier belts were popular accessories among members of the Black Liberation Movement.
I'm intrigued by this work from Betye Saar! I would love to know more about it and the history behind its creation.
Aunt Jemima cocktail combines a mammy figure on one side and Black Power fist on the other of a handmade label. The label is attached to a California wine jug with a rag on the top, transforming it into a weapon against oppression the racist stereotypes of black femininity.
It was likely made by found objects and recycled material, which was typical of Betye Saar's work. By doing this she challenged the dominance of "fine" or "high" art and the dominance of painting.
This work was actually a part of a series of work by Saar which utilized the mammy or Aunt Jemima imagery. Saar has said: "It's like they abolished slavery but they kept black people in the kitchen as mammy jars...I had this Aunt Jemima, and I wanted to put a rifle and a grenade under her skirts. I wanted to empower her. I wanted to make her a warrior."
Wow, that's amazing! Thank you so much.
What is shango?
Shango was a powerful ruler of the Oyo Empire during the 15th century in Western Nigeria. The women he is pictured with are his wives. They were said to be strong women who went into battle with him. Here we see them in 1960s dresses wearing the bandolier belts that were popular among members of the Black Power Movement.
Who is the artist behind this piece?
The artist behind this piece is Barbara Jones-Hogu. Jones-Hogu was part of the AfriCOBRA coalition, a group who used bright colors and accessible printmaking techniques in their work, which focused, among other things, on concepts of community.
I really am enjoying this one.
Here we see Angela Davis, who was a powerful public speaker in the Black Liberation Movement, surrounded by words taken from her speeches. 
Interestingly, the jacket that Davis is shown wearing is from the "Revolutionary Suit," which was designed by Jae Jarrell, Wadsworth's wife and another AfriCOBRA artist included in the show!
I'd like to know more about this work of art and the printmaking-as-protest movement.
As a part of the new aesthetic of the Black Arts Movement, artists incorporated African cultural imagery using "Cool Ade" colors, named after the popular drink, to attract and relate to audiences comprised of community members and everyday people. Coupled with a social message, printmaking became a fast and relatively inexpensive way to disseminate political messaging. As these artist weren't necessarily institutionally supported at the time they found other means of exposure.
Posters were not only easy to mass produce, but also easy to consume. This was affordable art that was available at exhibitions, book stores, galleries, and art fairs for $10 leading to a quick and wide distribution of the images.
How do you justify including Jeff Donaldson in this show of women artists?
Many of the black women artists at the time aligned more closely with their male counterparts based on racial discrimination. They often felt ignored by the mainstream, mostly white, female, middle-class feminist movement and instead created collectives and fostered relationships with not only other black women but also black artists in general.
In that same spirit of collectivity, this is a depiction of Shango, a ruler of the Oyo empire in the 15th century in what is today Nigeria. His wives, Oshun, Oba, and Oya, were said to be strong women who went into battle with him. Both Jeff Donaldson and Wadsworth Jarrell were founding members of AfriCOBRA along with Jae Jarrell and the work of theirs included pays direct tribute to women.