We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965–85
This exhibition presents the work of more than forty artists and activists who built their careers—and committed themselves to political change—during a time of social tumult in the United States. Beginning in the 1960s, a number of movements to combat social injustice emerged, with the Black Power, Civil Rights, and Women’s Movements chief among them. As active participants in the contemporary art world, the artists in this exhibition created their own radical feminist thinking—working broadly, on multiple fronts—to combat sexism, racism, homophobia, and classism, in the art world and within their local communities.
As the second-wave Feminist Movement gained strength in the 1970s, women of color found themselves working with, and at times in opposition to, the largely white, middle-class women primarily responsible for establishing the tone, priorities, and methods of the fight for gender equity in the United States. Whether the term feminism was used or not—and in communities of color, it often was not—black women envisioned a revolution against the systems of oppression they faced in the art world and the culture at large.
The artists of We Wanted a Revolution employed the emerging methods of conceptual art, performance, film, and video, along with more traditional forms, including printmaking, photography, and painting. Whatever the medium, their innovative art-making reflected their own aesthetic, cultural, and political priorities.
Favoring radical transformation over reformist gestures, these activist artists wanted more than just recognition within the existing professional art world. Instead, their aim was to revolutionize the art world itself, making space for the many and varied communities of people it had largely ignored. The art included here captures this urgent imperative, advanced by a group of artists who were politically active, socially engaged, and culturally responsive. Their dynamic work reveals anew just how contested the histories of art and social change in the later twentieth century remain for us today.
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, with Allie Rickard, Curatorial Assistant, Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, Brooklyn Museum.
Lead sponsorship for this exhibition is provided by the Ford Foundation.
Additional support is provided by 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.
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. Leadership support is provided by Elizabeth A. Sackler, the Ford Foundation, the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, Anne Klein, the Calvin Klein Family Foundation, the Institute of Museum and Library Services, Mary Jo and Ted Shen, and an anonymous donor. Generous support is also provided by Annette Blum, the Taylor Foundation, the Antonia and Vladimir Kulaev Cultural Heritage Fund, Beth Dozoretz, The Cowles Charitable Trust, and Almine Rech Gallery.
SPIRAL AND THE BLACK ARTS MOVEMENT
Active between 1963 and 1965, Spiral was a collective of black artists who came together as a creative and professional support network. Sharing a desire to participate in the fight for civil rights, they simultaneously debated the role of art as a significant catalyst for social change.
Led by the influential artists Romare Bearden, Norman Lewis, Charles Alston, and Hale Woodruff, the all-male Spiral group invited Emma Amos, then in her early twenties, to join as the only woman. As Amos later recalled, they “weren’t comfortable with women artists as colleagues.” She thought they likely saw her as less threatening than the “more established (and outspoken) women artists in the community, such as Camille Billops, Vivian Browne, and Faith Ringgold.”
By the mid-1960s, as the Civil Rights Movement gave way to the Black Power Movement, new political strategies and cultural agendas developed. A loose confederation of artists, writers, musicians, and dancers who celebrated black history and culture became known as the Black Arts Movement. Members focused on developing a more popular audience for their work, rather than seeking to influence elite cultural communities as had some earlier generations of black artists.
Emerging in New York City, the Black Arts Movement quickly spread to other urban centers, putting down strong roots in Chicago, where related groups, including AfriCOBRA (African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists), grew. Committed to a socially responsible and community-oriented art, they promoted black pride by developing an identifiable aesthetic inspired by African cultures.
PRINTS AND POSTERS
As an efficient and inexpensive method for widely disseminating information, printmaking has long been associated with protest and freedom of expression. Many artists in the 1960s explored printmaking as a primary means for making art, prioritizing utility and accessibility over preciousness or market value. Their posters, prints, announcements, and other forms of printed ephemera were relatively easy to produce in bulk and distribute, allowing artists to circumvent and undermine an increasingly commercialized art world.
For artists of the Black Arts Movement, screenprints and posters became a primary medium for creative experimentation and sharing political ideas. Displaying a diverse aesthetic vocabulary, this wall of prints and posters samples the activist history of printmaking in this period—a rich and complex collection of creative voices.
“WHERE WE AT” BLACK WOMEN ARTISTS
In early 1971, Kay Brown, Dindga McCannon, and Faith Ringgold gathered a group of black women at McCannon’s Brooklyn home to discuss their common frustrations in trying to build their careers as artists. Excluded from the largely white downtown art world, as well as from the male-dominated black art world, the women found juggling their creative ambitions with their roles as mothers and working heads of households left little time to make and promote their art.
Out of this initial gathering came one of the first exhibitions of professional black women artists. “Where We At”—Black Women Artists, 1971, opened at Acts of Art Gallery in the West Village that June. Adopting the show’s title as their name, the collective began meeting at members’ homes and studios, building support systems for making their work, while assisting each other with personal matters such as childcare.
Influenced by the Black Arts Movement, members worked largely in figurative styles, emphasizing black subjects. While the group engaged politically with racism, their work also spoke to personal experiences of sexism, and members contributed to publications including the Feminist Art Journal and Heresies. Though the group’s mission was not explicitly feminist, Where We At recognized the power of collectivity—empowering black women by creating a network to help attain their professional goals as artists.
From the 1960s to the 1980s, black women were at the forefront of Civil Rights struggles in the United States. However, in the fight against racism, their efforts to address the concerns and oppressions specific to black women were frequently dismissed by their male counterparts as divisive and secondary to the larger struggle. Simultaneously, they were often suspicious of the mainstream Feminist Movement, since its primarily white, middle-class membership was largely blind to its own racial biases and class privilege. Queer, transgender, and disabled women were even further sidelined.
In response, black women developed their own ways of fighting gender inequity and racism, creating organizations like the Combahee River Collective, the National Alliance of Black Feminists, the National Black Feminist Organization, and the Third World Women’s Alliance. Additionally, they differentiated themselves from the mainstream Feminist Movement through language, with some black women identifying as womanists. Coined by Alice Walker in 1983—and defined as “a black feminist or feminist of color...committed to [the] survival and wholeness of entire people, male and female”—the term allowed black women to underscore their own unique priorities for a new social order.
ART WORLD ACTIVISM
The political and social upheavals of the 1960s included the Civil Rights, Ecology, Gay Rights, and Women’s Movements as well as international struggles to end colonialism and the Vietnam War. These movements for equity and progressive change prompted artists to organize, agitating for broader, more inclusive representation in museums, galleries, and alternative spaces. Multiple ad hoc arts groups formed to address specific issues via protests, guerrilla actions, mail art, and group exhibitions. One of the earliest such groups was the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition, organized by artists outraged by the exhibition Harlem on My Mind: Cultural Capital of Black America, 1900–1968, which opened at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1969. Presenting documentary photography of Harlem’s daily life in displays resembling those of a science museum, the exhibition was devoid of contemporary art by African Americans.
Emerging concurrently, the Art Workers’ Coalition sought to pressure museums to instigate progressive reforms. The demands made of art institutions included respect for artists’ intellectual property rights, divestment from funders who profited from the Vietnam War, free admission for artists and students, and greater parity in exhibitions across lines of class, gender, and race. Important splinter groups of the Coalition included Women Students and Artists for Black Art Liberation, Women Artists in Revolution, and Artists Against Racism in the Arts, all of which were committed to more forceful, nimble, and creative actions to combat racism and sexism in the mainstream art world.
DIALECTICS OF ISOLATION
In 1980, artist Ana Mendieta curated Dialectics of Isolation: An Exhibition of Third World Women Artists of the United States at New York’s A.I.R. Gallery. Featuring eight women artists of the Third World—Judith Baca, Beverly Buchanan, Janet Henry, Senga Nengudi, Lydia Okumura, Howardena Pindell, Selena Whitefeather, and Zarina—the exhibition was conceived as a conversation, or “dialectic,” between the artists and the primarily white, middle-class female members of the gallery. As a space for truth-seeking through critical dialogue, Dialectics of Isolation stressed the need to confront the dominant culture with the existence and value of nonwhite experiences, in and out of the art world.
A.I.R. Gallery, the first all-women artists’ cooperative gallery in the United States, was founded in 1972 by second-wave feminist artists who, like other groups including “Where We At” Black Women Artists, believed that female-only spaces were necessary to build a culture of support. While the core membership of A.I.R. lacked racial and economic diversity, limiting their ability to be truly representative, the Cuban American Mendieta became an active member in 1979. She withdrew in 1982, however, concluding that the mainstream Feminist Movement had again “failed to remember” its nonwhite counterparts and their struggle with issues of race, gender, and class.
Founded in 1976, the Heresies Collective set out to write and document a politicized history of female artists to encourage creative collaborations among women. Their most significant project was producing Heresies: A Feminist Publication on Art and Politics from 1977 to 1993, with each issue focused on a single theme related to feminism and the art world. The journal was organized through a unique, nonhierarchical structure in which a group of women composed of Heresies members and interested outsiders would come together to collectively edit each issue.
Charges of racism and exclusion were raised in 1977 after the publication of the third issue, Lesbian Art and Artists. Responding to the complete absence of lesbian artists of color in the issue, the Combahee River Collective, a black feminist organization, took the all-white editorial group to task, demanding that the oversight be addressed. In a gesture of reconciliation and openness, the Heresies Collective published Combahee’s letter in their next issue, noting that future issues, intended to right the imbalance, were already in the works. Charges of tokenism and privilege persisted, and two subsequent volumes devoted to women of color were published: Third World Women—The Politics of Being Other (1979) and Racism Is the Issue (1982).
JUST ABOVE MIDTOWN GALLERY
In 1974, Linda Goode Bryant, an arts professional who had worked at both the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Studio Museum in Harlem, founded Just Above Midtown Gallery (JAM) in the then heart of New York’s commercial art world on West 57th Street. JAM’s mission was to provide a platform for the exhibition and sale of work by black artists equal to the venues available to their white counterparts. The gallery focused on artists working in noncommercial, nonrepresentational styles, including Maren Hassinger, Senga Nengudi, Lorraine O’Grady, and Howardena Pindell.
In 1977, JAM moved to Tribeca. While the relocation was forced by rent increases, it was also motivated by a desire to join a more like-minded part of the art world. On 57th Street, the goal had been to cultivate a black collector base to create financial sustainability for the gallery and its artists, as well as to empower black participation in the mainstream art world. Downtown, JAM continued to operate as a commercial space, but Bryant and her cohorts prioritized live events, including performances, group meals, readings, and lectures, eventually making the transition to a nonprofit gallery.
As part of the downtown alternative space movement until its closing in 1986, JAM championed “new concepts and materials,” eventually showing the work of artists of all races and collaborating with other downtown spaces. Bryant described JAM as a “laboratory” and provided her artists with a monthly stipend to free them from both the financial concerns and the constraints of the market.
While many of the artist-led protests of the 1960s and 1970s unfolded as internal art world matters, these efforts were later drawn into a broad cultural backlash against the progressive gains of the Black Power, Civil Rights, Ecology, Gay Rights, and Women’s Movements. During the 1980s, artists and activists fought on multiple fronts against growing conservatism in what became known as the “culture wars.” Black women led their fellow artists in protest, questioning conservative viewpoints while continuing to struggle against gender- and race-based discrimination.
Living through the cultural shifts of that decade, these artists were increasingly skeptical of power structures and authority. They examined how images and language, whether in art, media, or advertising, shape and often distort the representation of identity. Using their own subjectivity and personal experience, they deconstructed how dominant political and cultural narratives undermine and misrepresent women and communities of color.
Often combining photography and text, Lorraine O’Grady, Lorna Simpson, and Carrie Mae Weems were active participants in this critical discourse, part of what became known across multiple disciplines as postmodernism. Photographers Coreen Simpson and Ming Smith documented the African diaspora, from Harlem to Côte d’Ivoire. Dancers, filmmakers, and theater and performance artists—including Ayoka Chenzira, Blondell Cummings, Julie Dash, and the Rodeo Caldonia High-Fidelity Performance Theater collective—pushed these critiques in new directions.
While the artists of the 1980s used different strategies than some of their predecessors, they were united in their commitment to self-determination for black women and an end to oppression on all fronts.
April 15, 2017
Groundbreaking exhibition featuring more than forty artists opens April 21
A Year of Yes: Reimagining Feminism at the Brooklyn Museum continues with We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965–85. Focusing on the work of more than forty black women artists from an under-recognized generation, the exhibition highlights a remarkable group of artists who committed themselves to activism during a period of profound social change marked by the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements, the Women’s Movement, the Anti-War Movement, and the Gay Liberation Movement, among others. The groundbreaking exhibition reorients conversations around race, feminism, political action, art production, and art history, writing a broader, bolder story of the multiple feminisms that shaped this period.
Curated by Catherine Morris, Sackler Family Senior Curator for the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, and Rujeko Hockley, Assistant Curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art and former Assistant Curator of Contemporary Art at the Brooklyn Museum, We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965–85 is on view April 21 through September 17, 2017.
We Wanted a Revolution features a wide array of work, including conceptual, performance, film, and video art, as well as photography, painting, sculpture, and printmaking, reflecting the aesthetics, politics, cultural priorities, and social imperatives of this period. It begins in the mid-1960s, as younger activists began shifting from the peaceful public disobedience favored by the Civil Rights Movement to the more forceful tactics of the Black Power Movement. It moves through multiple methods of direct action and institutional critique in the 1970s, and concludes with the emergence of a culturally based politics focused on intersecting identities of race,gender, class, and sexuality in the early 1980s.
Artists 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.
Organized in a general chronology around a key group of movements, collectives, actions, and communities, the exhibition builds a narrative based on significant events in the lives of the artists including: Spiral and the Black Arts Movement; the “Where We At” Black Women Artists collective; Art World activism, including the Art Workers’ Coalition (AWC), the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition (BECC), Women, Students and Artists for Black Art Liberation (WSABAL), and the Judson Three; Just Above Midtown Gallery; the Combahee River Collective and Black feminism; Heresies magazine; the A.I.R. Gallery exhibition Dialectics of Isolation: An Exhibition of Third World Women Artists of the United States; and the Rodeo Caldonia High-Fidelity Performance Theater collective.
We Wanted a Revolution presents lesser-known histories alongside iconic works such as Elizabeth Catlett’s Homage to My Young Black Sisters (1968), Jae Jarrell’s Urban Wall Suit (1969), Lorraine O’Grady’s Mlle Bourgeoise Noire (1982), and Barbara Chase-Riboud’s monumental sculpture Confessions for Myself (1972). Other works on view include Faith Ringgold’s rarely seen painting For the Women’s House, which she made for the New York City Correctional Institution for Women at Rikers Island in 1971; Maren Hassinger’s large-scale sculptural installation Leaning (1980), which has only been exhibited once before, in 1980; films by Camille Billops and Julie Dash; and Howardena Pindell’s iconoclastic 1980 video work Free, White and 21. Also on view are early photographs from the mid-1980s by Lorna Simpson documenting the Rodeo Caldonia High-Fidelity Performance Theater, a group of women artists, performers, and filmmakers based in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, of which she was a part; as well as newly unearthed ephemera and documentation relating to the “Where We At” Black Women Artists collective and Linda Goode Bryant’s influential gallery and alternative space, Just Above Midtown.
"Working within tightly knit and often overlapping personal, political, and collaborative creative communities, the artists in this exhibition were committed to self-determination, free expression, and radical liberation. Their lives and careers advance a multidimensional understanding of the histories of art and social change in the United States in the second half of the twentieth century,” said Rujeko Hockley. Catherine Morris added, “This exhibition injects a new conversation into mainstream art histories of feminist art in a way that expands, enriches, and complicates the canon by presenting some of the most creative artists of this period within a political, cultural, and social conversation about art-making, race, class, and gender. The resulting work, sometimes collaborative and other times contentious, continues to resonate today.” The exhibition will travel to the California African American Museum, Los Angeles (fall 2017), and Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston (summer 2018). Two related volumes will be published by the Brooklyn Museum: a sourcebook of writings from the period and a book of new essays by art historians Huey Copeland, Aruna D’Souza, Kellie Jones, and Uri McMillan. D’Souza, Jones, and McMillan will also participate in a related symposium on April 21 at the Museum.
The exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum will be accompanied by an extensive calendar of public programming.
Related Public Programs
Thursday, April 20, 7 pm
Biergarten, Steinberg Family Sculpture Garden
Free with Museum admission.
Get a first look at We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965–85 and join DJ Reborn as we pay tribute to the revolutionary music of black women. Cash bar.
Symposium: We Wanted a Revolution
Friday, April 21, 11:30 am–6 pm
Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Auditorium, 3rd Floor
Free with Museum admission. RSVP required.
A daylong symposium features four panels introducing new scholarship, presentations by artists in the exhibition, and performances. Participants include Catherine Morris and Rujeko Hockley, co-curators of the exhibition; Aruna D’Souza, art historian and critic; Kellie Jones, Associate Professor of Art History and Archaeology and the Institute for Research in African American Studies at Columbia University; Uri McMillan, Associate Professor of English at UCLA; and artists included in the exhibition. RSVP at www.brooklynmuseum.org.
Julie Dash Film Marathon
Saturday, April 22, 1–5 pm
Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Auditorium, 3rd Floor
Tickets are $16 and include Museum admission.
Join a special screening of artist Julie Dash’s acclaimed feature, Daughters of the Dust (1991, 112 min.), and her early short films, followed by a conversation with Dash, Alva Rogers (We Wanted a Revolution artist and star of Daughters of the Dust), and Arthur Jafa (artist and Daughters of the Dust cinematographer). For tickets and more information, visit www.brooklynmuseum.org.
Black Lunch Table
Sunday, April 23, 12 pm
Biergarten, Steinberg Family Sculpture Garden
Free with Museum admission. This event is now at capacity.
Participate in a special iteration of Heather Hart and Jina Valentine’s collaborative art and oral history project, Black Lunch Table, which brings the exhibition We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965–85 into conversation with contemporary concerns. Visual artists of the African diaspora who identify as women are invited to join Hart for lunch and an intergenerational critical conversation among black women artists whose work intersects art and politics. The Black Lunch Table aims to fill holes in the documentation of contemporary art history, and the conversation will be archived as a part of an ongoing oral history project. Lunch will be served.
An Evening with Alice Walker
Thursday, May 25, 7:30 pm
Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Auditorium, 3rd Floor
Tickets start at $25 and include with Museum admission.
Acclaimed poet, novelist, activist, and Pulitzer Prize–winning author Alice Walker leads an intimate lecture inspired by her life’s work and the exhibition We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965–85.
Target First Saturday: We Wanted a Revolution
Saturday, June 3, 5–11 pm
Celebrate Pride Month through the lens of We Wanted a Revolution with performances, talks, art-making, and films that feature queer black artists and activists. Program highlights include the kickoff of our monthlong film series Black Queer Brooklyn on Film; poetry readings with Cave Canem fellows DéLana R.A. Dameron and Alysia Harris; and a special performance by D’hana Perry.
Black Queer Brooklyn on Film
Saturday, June 3, and Thursdays, June 10, 15, 22, and 29
Various locations throughout the Museum
Free with Museum admission.
This film series riffs on the Combahee River Collective, a black lesbian feminist organization formed in 1974, and their Black Feminist Statement. The series features new releases by young, black, queer, female-identified, and gender-nonconforming artists and filmmakers working in Brooklyn today, including Frances Bodomo, Dyani Douze, Ja’Tovia Gary, Reina Gossett, Lindsay Catherine Harris, Carrie Hawks, Taja Lindley, Tiona McClodden, Chanelle Aponte Pearson, D’hana Perry, Naima Ramos-Chapman, Isabelle Reyes, and Stefani Saintonge. The series will kick off at June’s Target First Saturday and continue on subsequent Thursdays throughout the month. Visit www.brooklynmuseum.org for updates.
Saturdays, June 10, July 8, August 12, and September 9, 2 pm
Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art and Stephanie and Tim Ingrassia Gallery of Contemporary Art, 4th Floor
Free with Museum admission.
This series of intimate, in-gallery talks focuses on artists’ practices and their works’ relationship to larger art-historical and political themes. Each talk features either an exhibition artist or an artist of a younger generation.
The Watermelon Woman: 20th Anniversary Screening
Thursday, June 29, 7 pm
Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Auditorium, 3rd Floor
Tickets $16; includes Museum admission.
Watch the remastered version of the classic The Watermelon Woman (Cheryl Dunye, 1996, 90 min.) and join an intergenerational discussion between director Cheryl Dunye and poet-activist Cheryl Clarke.
About A Year of Yes: Reimagining Feminism at the Brooklyn Museum
This exhibition is part of A Year of Yes: Reimagining Feminism at the Brooklyn Museum, which celebrates the 10th anniversary of the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art through a series of diverse exhibitions and an extensive calendar of related public programs. A Year of Yes recognizes feminism as a driving force for progressive change and takes the transformative contributions of feminist art during the last half century as its starting point. The Museum-wide series imagines next steps, expanding feminist thinking from its roots in the struggle for gender parity to embrace broader social-justice issues of tolerance, inclusion, and diversity. A Year of Yes began in October 2016 and continues through early 2018.
Leadership support is provided by Elizabeth A. Sackler, the Ford Foundation, the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, Anne Klein, the Calvin Klein Family Foundation, the Institute of Museum and Library Services, Mary Jo and Ted Shen, and an anonymous donor. Generous support is also provided by Annette Blum, the Taylor Foundation, the Antonia and Vladimer Kulaev Cultural Heritage Fund, Beth Dozoretz, The Cowles Charitable Trust, and Almine Rech Gallery.
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.
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.
We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965–85 publication and the related symposium have been made possible by the Elizabeth A. Sackler Foundation. Additional support has been provided by Mary Jo and Ted Shen.