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A Must-See Exhibit Honors Black Women’s Resistance Art

by Muna Mire

May 3, 2017

In 1970, the artist Faith Ringgold, alongside her daughter, writer Michele Wallace, and a New York-based artist-activist group successfully pressured the Whitney Museum of American Art to include Betye Saar and Barbara Chase-Riboud in that year’s Sculpture Annual—the first two black women artists to ever show at the prestigious institution. How did they do it? With well-placed cracked egg traps and tampons inscribed with “50%” scattered around the museum, a perfectly irritating reminder to curators of their demand: that half of the artists at the show be women. “The Whitney Museum became the focus of our attention. We went there often to deposit eggs. Unsuspecting male curatorial staff would pick up the eggs and experience the shock of having raw egg slide down the pants of their fine tailor-made suits,” Ringgold wrote in her 2005 memoir, recalling their performative tactics.

A new show at the Brooklyn Museum, “We Wanted A Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965-85” offers a rare glimpse of this moment in time, when the Black Arts Movement dovetailed with the women’s liberation movement. One of the exhibition’s anchor images, a photograph taken by artist Jan van Raay of one of their protests, shows a fresh-faced Wallace mid-chant, holding a sign that reads “50% Black Women Artists” and marching alongside her mother outside of the Whitney. It’s a striking record, not only of the artmaking of the time, but of the struggle for creative self-determination that black women artists were challenged with, an issue they still face today.

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

Curators Catherine Morris and Rujeko Hockley painstakingly assembled “We Wanted A Revolution” over the course of three years, resulting in a timely collection that centers radical resistance and pays particular attention to intersections of the personal and political, private, and public that black feminists and allies were forced to navigate during the second wave of feminism. The collection is incredibly expansive, spanning many mediums, two decades, and the work of 40 artists. It’s a rare compendium of black women artists, including the work of Ringgold, Saar, and Chase-Riboud, as well as that of Dindga McCannon, Emma Amos, and Lorna Simpson—names which now signify greatness, but belong to women who had to fight their way into the room, sometimes using eggs as weapons.

Carrie Mae Weems seminal photo series “Family Pictures and Stories,1978-1984” illustrates these tensions in a neat microcosm of the entire exhibition. The photo series, a depiction of the artist’s home life in Portland, Oregon, was conceived as a direct response to the Moynihan Report, a controversial 1965 policy paper that suggested black American families were dysfunctional and unable to contribute to wider society because black women were deviant in the home.

Faith Ringgold (American, born 1930). For the Women’s House, 1971. Oil on canvas, 96 x 96 inches (243.8 x 243.8 cm). Courtesy of Rose M. Singer Center, Rikers Island Correctional Center. © 2017 Faith Ringgold / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Other memorable pieces include Ringgold’s rarely seen “For the Women’s House,” a work which the artist dedicated to women incarcerated on Rikers Island. The painting was truly made for the women, as Ringgold had asked them what they would like to see—what would sustain their spirits behind bars and what they would like to do once they were freed. The result is a dreamy collage of women in powerful stances, occupying roles that were rare for women to hold then: a doctor, a police officer, a construction worker, an athlete. Here, Ringgold’s idea of “freedom” extends beyond the prison which restrained her subjects, reaching out to all women seeking liberation from confines far less tangible than prison walls. Another particularly affecting piece is Howardena Pindell’s experimental video work, “Free, White, and 21.” In it, the artist details racism she has experienced and has overcome throughout her life. She then dons a blonde wig, assuming the position of an unsympathetic white woman listening to her complaints. The video functions as both confessional and critique; at one point, the artist wraps her head in white gauze suggesting the strictures of the white gaze.

Howardena Pindell (American, born 1930). Still from “Free, White and 21,” 1980. Video, 12 min.,15 sec. Courtesy of the artist and Garth Greenan Gallery, New York. © Howardena Pindell

That artmaking was necessarily political in a time of such tumult should not come as a surprise, and neither should the fact that the artists were successful against all odds. The lesson contained here: If there was not a way, these women would make one.

We Wanted A Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965-85” is on view at the Brooklyn Museum through September 17, 2017. 

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A Must-See Exhibit Honors Black Women’s Resistance Art