The mural For the Women’s House was dedicated to the women incarcerated in the Correctional Institution for Women on Rikers Island, New York City, in January 1972. The mural remained on view until the facility became a male prison in 1988. Deemed inappropriate for the incoming male prisoners, the painting was whitewashed, but it was later saved by a guard, restored, and reinstalled in the new women’s prison, the Rose M. Singer Center, where it remains on view.
Imagining the first female president and professional women basketball players among other positive female role models, For the Women’s House incorporates suggestions offered to Faith Ringgold by incarcerated women. The play on words in the imaginary route and destination of the bus in the upper quadrant—“2A Sojourner Truth Square”—speaks to the “long road leading out of here” that the women had asked to see depicted.
In an April 1972 interview with her daughter, writer Michele Wallace, Ringgold described her goals for the piece:
If I hadn’t done it for the Women’s House then it probably would have been more political; but these women have been rejected by society; they are the blood guilt of society, so if this is what I give them, then maybe that is what we should all have. Maybe all that other stuff we’re talking about is jive because these women are real. They don’t have anything to be unreal about.
Dindga McCannon wrote about her inspiration for making Revolutionary Sister:
In the 60’s and 70’s we didn’t have many women warriors (that we were aware of) so I created my own. Her headpiece is made from recycled mini flag poles. The shape was inspired by my thoughts on the statue of liberty; she represents freedom for so many but what about us (African Americans)? My warrior is made from pieces from the hardware store—another place women were not welcomed back then. My thoughts were my warrior is hard as nails. I used a lot of the liberation colors: red—for the blood we shed; green—for the Motherland—Africa; and black—for the people. The bullet belt validates her warrior status. She doesn’t need a gun; the power of change exists within her. The belt was mine. In the early 70’s bullet belts were a fashion statement, I think inspired by the blaxploitation movies of the time. I couldn’t afford the metal belts, probably purchased at army navy surplus stores, so I made do with a plastic one.
I had faced de facto censorship issues throughout my life as part of the system of apartheid in the United States. In the tape I was bristling at the women’s movement as well as at the artworld and some of the usual offensive encounters that were heaped on top of the racism of my profession.
So wrote Howardena Pindell in 1992 about Free, White and 21. This intensely personal and political film, whose title comes from a rebellious catchphrase often heard in Hollywood movies of the 1930s and ’40s, was a stark departure from the abstract works on paper for which she was primarily known.
The film was first shown in Dialectics of Isolation: An Exhibition of Third World Women Artists of the United States, curated by Ana Mendieta at A.I.R. Gallery in 1980.
Having settled in Paris in 1960, Barbara Chase-Riboud was physically removed from the Black Arts Movement. However, her works—monumental abstract sculptures that combine metal and fiber, such as Confessions for Myself—speak to larger social issues resonant with the movement.
Women Students and Artists for Black Art Liberation, founded by Faith Ringgold and her daughters Michele Wallace and Barbara Wallace, protested the lack of women and people of color in the Whitney Museum’s influential Annual Exhibition in 1970. As a direct result of their activism, Chase-Riboud and Betye Saar became the first African American women to show at the Whitney.
In 1972, the Where We At collective used the Weusi collective’s Nyumba Ya Sanaa gallery in Harlem to hold their exhibition Cookin’ and Smokin’. Weusi was composed almost entirely of men and conceived as a “brotherhood.” Where We At’s collaboration with them demonstrates the women’s closer relationship with their male counterparts in the Black Arts Movement than with their female ones in the Feminist Movement.
In a personal gesture of solidarity, Faith Ringgold designed a poster in support of the Black Panther Party unbidden by the group. When she presented her work at the Panther offices, it was rejected, as members pointed out that it would be imprudent to distribute a poster advertising the group’s office address and phone number.
Founded in 1966 as the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, the group had reached the height of its membership in 1970, when Ringgold conceived her poster. It was also being actively undermined and harassed by the FBI, with then Director J. Edgar Hoover calling the Panthers “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country.” Just the year before, the Panther leader Fred Hampton had been assassinated by the Chicago police and the FBI.
Emma Amos’s wry work on paper mimics several tropes of fashion magazines, transferring the advice column model of self-improvement to her experience as a black woman trying to make it in the art world. Here she scrutinizes the physical toll of racism and sexism and the tyranny of cultural expectations for women’s beauty.
Betye Saar’s The Liberation of Aunt Jemima: Cocktail combines the iconography of the Black Power Movement, political violence, and aspirational middle-class American culture. It uses them to critique the racist stereotypes of black femininity and speak to the revolutionary aims of Black Liberation movements. Featuring a handmade label with a “mammy” figure on the front and a Black Power fist on the back, the ubiquitous California wine jug turned Molotov cocktail wryly comments on the potential and promise of armed resistance to oppression.
A supporter of the growing Ecology Movement, sculptor and performance artist Maren Hassinger evokes an artificial landscape within the elegantly minimal sculptural environment of Leaning. Bush-like forms made from twisted, welded, and bent wire rope build a complex site for group interaction and personal reflection. Transforming industrial detritus into an abstract and formally rigorous garden, Hassinger creates a contemplative experience that is charged with different meanings—about natural versus artificial, and personal versus communal.
In 1965, Assistant Secretary of Labor Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote a highly controversial report, titled The Negro Family: The Case for National Action, that blamed “the deterioration of the fabric of Negro society” on a weak family structure. Carrie Mae Weems’s Family Pictures and Stories, featuring her own Portland, Oregon, family, was intended to refute the Moynihan Report. Incorporating candid photographs of her family with written text and audio recordings that document her family’s history, Weems creates a deeply felt and realistic account of black family life in the United States.
Lorna Simpson is simply the most beautiful woman west of Dakar and north of Papeete. Her photographs, with their silences and whispers, inspire us to bring our own secrets to the art.
That is how Lisa Jones described Simpson, who was a member of the Rodeo Caldonia High-Fidelity Performance Theater collective. Her photographs of Rodeo members capture their stylish and triumphant originality. In this group portrait we see, left to right: Alva Rogers, Sandye Wilson, Candace Hamilton, Derin Young, and Lisa Jones.
We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965–85
April 21–September 17, 2017
Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art and Stephanie and Tim Ingrassia Gallery of Contemporary Art, 4th Floor
Focusing on the work of black women artists, We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965–85 examines the political, social, cultural, and aesthetic priorities of women of color during the emergence of second-wave feminism. It is the first exhibition to highlight the voices and experiences of women of color—distinct from the primarily white, middle-class mainstream feminist movement—in order to reorient conversations around race, feminism, political action, art production, and art history in this significant historical period.
Presenting a diverse group of artists and activists who lived and worked at the intersections of avant-garde art worlds, radical political movements, and profound social change, the exhibition features a wide array of work, including conceptual, performance, film, and video art, as well as photography, painting, sculpture, and printmaking.
The artists represented in the exhibition include Emma Amos, Camille Billops, Kay Brown, Vivian E. Browne, Linda Goode Bryant, Beverly Buchanan, Carole Byard, Elizabeth Catlett, Barbara Chase-Riboud, Ayoka Chenzira, Christine Choy and Susan Robeson, Blondell Cummings, Julie Dash, Pat Davis, Jeff Donaldson, Maren Hassinger, Janet Henry, Virginia Jaramillo, Jae Jarrell, Wadsworth Jarrell, Lisa Jones, Loïs Mailou Jones, Barbara Jones-Hogu, Carolyn Lawrence, Samella Lewis, Dindga McCannon, Barbara McCullough, Ana Mendieta, Senga Nengudi, Lorraine O’Grady, Howardena Pindell, Faith Ringgold, Alva Rogers, Alison Saar, Betye Saar, Coreen Simpson, Lorna Simpson, Ming Smith, and Carrie Mae Weems.
We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965–85 is organized by Catherine Morris, Sackler Family Senior Curator for the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, and Rujeko Hockley, former Assistant Curator of Contemporary Art, Brooklyn Museum.
Generous support for this exhibition is provided by the Ford Foundation, the Elizabeth A. Sackler Foundation, the Brooklyn Museum’s Contemporary Art Acquisitions Committee, The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, The Shelley & Donald Rubin Foundation, and The Barbara Lee Family Foundation.
The publication of We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965-85 / A Sourcebook has been made possible by the Elizabeth A. Sackler Foundation. Additional support has been provided by Mary Jo and Ted Shen.
A public symposium held under the auspices of the exhibition, and a published volume of new essays growing out of the symposium, have been made possible by the Elizabeth A. Sackler Foundation. Additional support has been provided by Mary Jo and Ted Shen.
We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965–85 is part of A Year of Yes: Reimagining Feminism at the Brooklyn Museum, a yearlong series of exhibitions celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art.