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Work / Art

Curator Catherine Morris runs us through Brooklyn Museum’s show, We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women

As women across the US proudly proclaim their politics more loudly than ever, a new exhibition looking back the radical work of the black women artists of second wave feminism is preparing to open at New York’s Brooklyn Museum.

The show is billed as part of A Year of Yes: Reimagining Feminism at the Brooklyn Museum, a blockbuster programme which plays out at the Brooklyn Museum through 2017 into 2018 with ten exhibitions (among the artists Georgia O’Keeffe and Marilyn Minter). We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965–85 reconsiders the black female artists and activists who harnessed the art world and radical political movements to ignite social change during feminism’s so-called “second wave”. “It is the first exhibition to highlight the voices and experiences of women of colour – 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,” the museum says.

Mixed media, spanning performance, film, photograph, painting, sculpture and printmaking are included in work from artists 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.

As the Brooklyn Museum gears up for the opening on 21 April 2017, we asked curator Catherine Morris to talk us through five of the show’s most important artworks.

Dindga McCannon, Revolutionary Sister, 1971

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Dindga McCannon (American, born 1947). Revolutionary Sister, 1971. Mixed media construction on wood, 62 × 27 in. (157.5 × 68.6 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Gift of R. M. Atwater, Anna Wolfrom Dove, Alice Fiebiger, Joseph Fiebiger, Belle Campbell Harriss, and Emma L. Hyde, by exchange, Designated Purchase Fund, Mary Smith Dorward Fund, Dick S. Ramsay Fund, and Carll H. de Silver Fund, 2012.80.32. © Dindga McCannon. (Photo: Jonathan Dorado, Brooklyn Museum).

In response to race and gender discrimination in the art world and beyond, women of colour artists formed collectives and organisations to support one another’s work and fight back against these dual oppressions. Many of these radical groups are highlighted in the exhibition including the Where We At collective, founded in early 1971 by Kay Brown, Dindga McCannon, and Faith Ringgold. Out of an initial gathering of women at McCannon’s Brooklyn home came one of the first exhibitions of professional black women artists, Where We At – Black Women Artists, 1971 at Acts of Art Gallery in the West Village. McCannon was motivated to make her vibrant and bold Revolutionary Sister due to the lack of representations of black women warriors and her thoughts on the Statue of Liberty. As she wrote, “[The State of Liberty] represented freedom for so many but what about us?”

McCannon provided a great quote about making her piece. Here it is: “In the 60s and 70s 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 colours: 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.”

Faith Ringgold, For the Women’s House, 1971

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

From organising protests against race and gender discrimination at the Whitney Museum to burning the American flag as part of the Judson Three, Faith Ringgold appears throughout the exhibition as one of the main figures leading art world activism in the 1960s–80s.

For the Women’s House was an early and poignant gesture toward activism, one in which Ringgold made an important statement of support for a truly overlooked group. She dedicated the mural to the women incarcerated in the Women’s House of Detention on Rikers Island, New York City, in January 1972, and it has been on intermittent display in different women’s prisons on Rikers since then. Ringgold incorporated suggestions offered by some of the women about what they wanted to see depicted, including positive female role models and aspirational occupations. In many ways, the painting’s vision of a self-determined future for a group of incarcerated women represents a revolutionary impulse.

Howardena Pindell, Free, White and 21, 1980

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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

We Wanted a Revolution privileges the voices and experiences of black women during second wave feminism and Howardena Pindell’s powerful video, Free, White and 21, is emblematic of the contentious relationships many women of colour had with the predominantly white, middle-class feminist movement.

As Pindell wrote in 1992, “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 art world and some of the usual offensive encounters that were heaped on top of the racism of my profession.”

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. In the film, Pindell recounts some of her experiences of racism and sexism throughout her life and also plays a white female character who refuses to validate her experiences, instead responding with anger toward Pindell. It 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.

Lorna Simpson, Rodeo Caldonia, 1986

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Lorna Simpson (American, born 1960). Rodeo Caldonia (Left to Right: A lva Rogers, Sandye W ilson, Candace Hamilton, Derin Young, Lisa Jones), 1986. Photographic print, 8 × 10 in. (20.3 × 25.4 cm). Courtesy of Lorna Simpson. © 1986 Lorna Simpson.

Formed by Lisa Jones and Alva Rogers in the mid 1980s, the Rodeo Caldonia High-Fidelity Performance Theater collective was a loose confederation of twelve or so black women artists, writers, actors, and musicians who are key figures in the shift from the feminism of the 1960-70s to that of the 1980s.

Combining the blues term “caldonia”, meaning “a hard-headed and independent women,” with rodeo for its athletic and social meanings, the Rodeo Caldonias wanted to “get out in public and act up; to toss off the expectations laid by our genitals, our melanin count, and our college degrees.” Unconcerned with propriety or respectability politics, they sought to “stare down the same questions that artists who share [their] gender and race have faced since Phyllis Wheatley: What does it mean to be both black and a woman in America? What is our language, who are our allies, and what would freedom mean?”

Lorna Simpson was one of the members of the collective and her photograph of fellow Caldonia members captures their stylish and triumphant originality. In this image we see, left to right: Alva Rogers, Sandye Wilson, Candace Hamilton, Derin Young, and Lisa Jones.

Emma Amos, Preparing for a Face Lift, 1981

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Emma Amos (American, born 1938). Preparing for a Face Lift, 1981. Etching and crayon, 8 ¼ × 7 ¾ in. (21 × 19.7 cm). Courtesy of Emma Amos. © Emma Amos; courtesy of the artist and RYAN LEE, New York. Licensed by VAGA, New York

Emma Amos was involved with multiple groups working at the intersection of art and activism throughout her career that are featured in the exhibition. She was the youngest member – and only woman – of the New York collective Spiral which was active in the mid 1960s and assembled as a support and networking group for black artists interested in social change.

In the late 1970s, she was involved with the Heresies Collective and Preparing for a Face Lift was included in the Racism is the Issue edition of their publication. Her 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 scrutinises the physical toll of racism and sexism – the tyranny of cultural expectations for women’s beauty.