‘Black Radical Women’ Revolutionize Art at Brooklyn Museum

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Faith Ringgold, For the Women's House, 1971 (detail). A prominent image in "We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965-85".
All photos by Beck Feibelman.

Is Faith Ringgold the most important artist of the second half of the 20th century?

That’s rhetorical—ranking artists like that is nearly always, if not actually always, silly. The question, though, is helpful for thinking about what’s involved in acknowledging an artist’s reputation, fame, success, legacy. Ringgold, rightly, finds herself prominently represented in the new Brooklyn Museum show, “We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965-85,” which is currently on view through Sept. 17. Featuring the work of more than 40 artists and collectives, the exhibition presents the exciting and dynamic history of these African-American women, engaging with the artworld during the fraught period when (second-wave) feminism and the civil rights movement were not aligned.

“For me, a black woman artist, to walk into the studio, is a political act.”

Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term “Intersectionality” in 1989, a few years after the focus of the Brooklyn show, but the concept gets precisely at many of these artists’ concerns and practices. These women had to push back against the mainstream feminist movement for concentrating too exclusively on white and middle-class women’s issues; they had to push back against the African-American Civil Rights movement for its failure to acknowledge women as equals for the cause; they had to push back against the artworld for its dismissal of women and people of color across the board. Despite this hostility and erasure, though, these artists created, innovated, thrived. “Black Radical Women” shows us, brilliantly, how they did.

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Dindga McCannon,
Revolutionary Sister, 1971
McCannon on her inspiration: “In the ’60s and ’70s we didn’t have many women warriors (that we were aware of) so I created my own.”

When I raise the rhetorical question of Ringgold being the most important artist of her time, the less dramatic point is that there is very little artistically or politically that she wasn’t involved in and didn’t do superlatively well—and with results that still very directly speak to and inspire other artists today. Ringgold paints, expertly, in a remarkable array of styles; her subjects range from portraits to rich and profound narrative cycles to conceptual canvases about feminism. In 1970, she organized political actions as well as art shows—she was one of the curators of “The People’s Flag Show,” which displayed 150 largely disrespectful artistic interpretations of the American flag at Judson Memorial Church and which saw Ringgold and two colleagues arrested for flag desecration. She then designed and printed protest posters about the legal struggle. The image at the top of this page is a detail of a mural she painted for a women’s prison depicting aspirational careers for the incarcerated women’s futures, incorporating some of those women’s suggestions.

But in “Black Radical Women,” Ringgold is one among equals. The exhibition emphasizes the artistic and intellectual communities among these artists, looking at their work, their shows, their publications, their struggles, their provocations. The show, 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, is part of the Brooklyn Museum’s A Year of Yes: Reimagining Feminism, a series exhibitions and events this year highlighting the centrality of feminism and feminist art as forces vital to social justice across the culture.

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Black Radical Women @ Brooklyn 2017 - Elizabeth Catlett Target
Elizabeth Catlett, Target, 1970

Given the disrespectful (or worse) treatment so many of these artists endured, it is no surprise that “Black Radical Women” includes a strong selection of work directly and frankly addressing these Black women’s struggles. The exhibition tends to focus on empowerment and progress rather than on the persecution of women and Black people, but a 1970 bronze sculpture by Elizabeth Catlett makes a powerful exception. Target places the over-sized crosshairs of a rifle scope dead center in front of a man’s head. Catlett created the work after Chicago police officers killed two Black Panther activists in 1969. Nearby, Betye Saar’s Liberation of Aunt Jemima: Cocktail, 1973, reverses the implicit violence and adds an element of pointed playfulness. Saar’s Liberation of Aunt Jemima series includes numerous interventions in and reappropriations of the racist and misogynistic Mammy figure. Here, the “cocktail” in question is a Molotov—fashioned out of a bottle showing Aunt Jemima’s smiling face and with a handkerchief as the wick.

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Lorraine O’Grady, Mlle Bourgeoise Noire costume, 1980

Artifacts and documentation from a performance by Lorraine O’Grady, Mlle Bourgeoise Noire (1980-83), present another type of fearless provocation. O’Grady wore a dress made from 180 pairs of ladies’ white gloves—plus a sash, a tiara and a white rope whip—and showed up, uninvited, at art openings looking like a hybrid debutante-pageant contestant-disciplinarian. Her persona embodying “Miss Black Middle Class,” looked the white art establishment in the eye and challenged them to know how to behave around her, deal with her and respond to her art.

I never miss an opportunity to point out often-ignored diversity among abstract painters, so it is a welcome surprise to see the curators have included a couple of them among their Black Radical Women. There are two large, elegantly austere canvases by Virginia Jaramillo that make the ubiquity of Brice Marden and Robert Mangold in other museums feel like a missed opportunity. In the same gallery, three diverse all-over compositions by Howardena Pindell reward close looking with their ravishing-yet-playful surfaces. Elsewhere in the show, Pindell also has a video work called Free, White and 21—in contrast to her formalist paintings, this video is searingly political.

Howardena Pindell, Untitled, 1972

A wall label in the show provides a quotation from the bold painter Emma Amos, the only female member of the African-American art collective Spiral: “For me, a black woman artist, to walk into the studio, is a political act.” That is poignant and empowering, but also, lately, it feels sad because it has come to seem too true again. “Black Radical Women” shows us that this was basically a literal statement in the 1960s, but that the idea began to transform into a more metaphorical sentiment as more and more of these artists made their work, collaborated, mounted exhibitions, became activists and curators and scholars, and found allies in the artworld outside their immediate communities. The art world was in no way fixed, but I think it’s fair to say that movement, while slow and erratic, was in the right direction—there was still plenty small-mindedness and discrimination, but it wasn’t official, as it had been previously. Reading Amos’ words in 2017, I have grave concerns that the meaning will become literal again.

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Women, as well as transgender and gender nonconforming people, people of color, queer people, people living in poverty, people with pre-existing medical conditions—nearly all of us are witnessing a troubling cultural regression. We need to see “Black Radical Women” as a warning. These brave and ingenious artists confronted a hostile world decades ago and did it well—I’m sorry that some of them are going to have to go through it again. All of us need to learn from these sage, formidable and relentless women so we can fight back against the reactionary, exclusionary political environment with something like the grace and creativity with which they were able to do it.