A groundbreaking new exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum celebrates not just the power, but the wit and magnificence of sisterhood.
“We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965-85” showcases the work of black female artists from the days of political posters (which not only helped to mobilize communities but served as a source of affordable art for black families) to the haunting photos of MacArthur “genius grant” recipient Carrie Mae Weems.
“We Wanted a Revolution” includes hundreds of works -- paintings, sculptures, lithographs, etchings, photos, collages and woodcuts -- by more than 40 artists. In this case, the revolution is televised, courtesy of films and videos by artists such as Julie Dash and Ayoka Chenzira. The massive exhibition also abounds in revealing archival materials and apocrypha. One of the more journalistically interesting bibelots is a copy of a Los Angeles Times review of a Maren Hassinger show in 1981 that the artist marked up in red.
“I resent being compared to Betye (Saar, an African-American artist known for her assemblages) on the basis of race and sex. It’s a way to keep us ‘in our place,’” Hassinger scribbled.
While artists from California, Chicago and elsewhere are represented, “this is a very, very New York-centric show,” noted co-curator Rujeko Hockley. NYC historically had a substantial black population, and was also a mecca for visual artists between 1965 and 1985. So naturally most of the nation’s greatest artists were working here in New York. “It’s sort of self-selecting,” Hockley said.
The show is at once intensely personal and provocatively political. There are several works, including a self-portrait, by Faith Ringgold, an artist best known for her narrative quilts. Distressed by the tactics used by J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI to suppress the Black Panthers, Ringgold created a poster for The Committee to Defend the Panthers, though it went unused.
Plenty of works are frankly Afro-centric: “Ode to Kinshasa,” for example, is a boldly graphic and richly colored painting of an eye on a shield by Lois Mailou Jones that evokes both Cubism and the time Jones spent in Africa.
Betye Saar’s works range from the sweet (“Black Girl’s Window”) to the punch-in-the-gut (“Colored Spade” is a video including some of the most painfully offensive stereotypes of black people).
Ringgold was one of the members of the Black Arts Movement collective, “Where We At.” Members exhibited their work in what is believed to be the first group show of black women artists in NYC in 1971 at a West Village gallery. Members not only helped each other to get their work made and recognized, but helped each other with child care. The collective also had a strong commitment to community service, believing that art needed to be taught to and shared with people in marginalized communities.
Ringgold’s aspirational oil painting “For the Woman’s House,” depicting women in a rainbow of different professions, was made-to-order for female inmates at Rikers Island. It hung there for years until the jail became entirely male and someone “whitewashed” it, Morris recounted. Luckily, Ringgold was able to reverse the painting’s damage. “It’s still in the collection of the prison system, but we got it out,” to use in the show, Morris said.
The Museum’s massive exhibition “is a sign of a changed world: large institutions are interested in these stories,” noted Hockley.
Does that mean the struggle of so many black female artists to be recognized, represented and rewarded as equals was successful? Did they achieve the revolution?
“There is no end,” Hockley said. “We’re still in it! It’s an ongoing conversation – not a zero sum game.”