Art

Revolutionary Sisters: Artwork Forged in the Crucible of Battles Over Feminism

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Dindga McCannon remembers the meeting well. It took place in early 1971 in her studio, a decrepit fifth-floor walkup on 2nd Street just off Avenue B. “I was shocked that people came up the stairs,” McCannon says. “I had one of those walkthrough apartments with the tub in the kitchen. The lights were out in the hallway, water was dripping, and women actually came up. So I said OK, these women are serious about their art.”

McCannon was 23 then, a precocious Harlem-raised artist who made etchings and woodcuts of finely rendered Black figures, worked on murals, and designed dashikis; later, she would become known for her art quilts, fabric works incorporating unusual materials. Since her teens she had belonged to Weusi, a “Black Aesthetic” artists’ collective in Harlem. But the group was almost all male. “There’s another kind of connection that we as women have, and I wanted that,” McCannon says. “And I found there were other women who wanted the same thing.”

How to locate other Black women artists wasn’t obvious at the time. McCannon knew one in person: Kay Brown, the other woman in Weusi and her elder by fifteen years, who was working with etchings and collage, often addressing political themes such as the Vietnam War. They contacted Faith Ringgold, their most visible peer: A prolific and imaginative painter in mid-career (her sculptures and narrative quilts would come later), she was also a committed activist in support of the Black Panthers and helped lead protests against shows, like the 1970 Whitney Biennial, that made little room for female and Black artists.

In all, McCannon says, about ten women gathered in her studio that day. It would lead to what, as far as they knew, was the first-ever group show of Black women artists, an exhibition titled “Where We At,” held at the Acts of Art gallery on Charles Street in Greenwich Village. The women went on to form a collective by the same name, organizing traveling exhibitions and doing work with the elderly and incarcerated for more than a decade. Over that time the cultural landscape changed dramatically — in particular, the Black Power movement, with its patriarchal tendencies, receded. But left unresolved was the relationship of Black women — and their art — to feminism.

“Feminism is civilization-changing, but there are places where it hasn’t lived up to its promise,” says Rujeko Hockley, assistant curator of contemporary art at the Brooklyn Museum until early this year. Hockley and Catherine Morris, senior curator of the museum’s Sackler Center for Feminist Art, have organized a show that fills in the story of that crucial time. “We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965–85,” which opens on April 21, traces the work of Black women artists during the heyday of second-wave feminism. It includes some forty visual, film, and performance artists, plus a wealth of ephemera — pamphlets, magazines, letters, photographs — documenting their lives and concerns.

Many of these artists have only recently gotten their due, notes Brooklyn Museum director Anne Pasternak, who became the first woman to head the institution in late 2015 after 21 years leading Creative Time. “The exhibition shines light on the often overlooked contributions Black women made to a period of profound social and cultural change,” she says. “Their work lies beyond mainstream feminism, and they were as much activists as they were artists, committed to their communities.”

Communities are the show’s organizing principle. Morris and Hockley (now an assistant curator at the Whitney Museum) structured it around a series of groups, shared spaces, or moments that artists initiated. It opens with the mid-1960s Black Arts Movement and the prestigious collective Spiral, which included the likes of Romare Bearden and Norman Lewis but only one woman, figurative painter Emma Amos. Where We At is another hub, as is the wave of protests and counterprogramming that artists like Ringgold held in museums and public spaces under the banner of groups like the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition, formed in 1969, and Women Students and Artists for Black Art Liberation, organized in 1970.

The show reveals how the ferment of the 1970s played out in places where race and gender intersected. One was Just Above Midtown, a nonprofit founded by filmmaker Linda Goode Bryant in 1974, which served as creative nexus for a host of Black artists, male and female. The Artists in Residence cooperative gallery, founded in 1972, and Heresies magazine, launched in 1977, were feminist projects, their leadership largely white women; efforts to wrestle with race in their programming and ideas, and the contributions of Black women, form another of the show’s nodes. Groups limited to Black women, meanwhile, had their own range of politics: While many in Where We At rejected the term “feminist” — McCannon still prefers “womanist” — the Combahee River Collective, formed in Boston in 1974, asserted itself as a group of “Black feminists and Lesbians.”

“We Wanted a Revolution” will stretch from the Sackler galleries (where, aptly, it will surround the permanent display of Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Table, made in 1979 and likely the best-known work of second-wave, implicitly white, feminist art) and extend to the adjacent galleries, the first time a show has crossed this boundary. That’s partly for space, but it fits the idea of multiple, overlapping conceptions of feminism. For Morris, it’s more productive to think of feminist art as an approach than as a category. “There’s no fairy godmother of feminism who touches everybody with a wand, saying, ‘You’re in and you’re not,’?” Morris says. “We’re trying to think expansively about feminism as a methodology for looking.”

“It’s an argument for a broader conception of American art history,” adds Hockley. “Yes, they are all women of color, but you see the emergence of social art, of film and video, works on paper, screenprinting, the intersection of art and politics, alternative spaces — so many things where you can use this work just as well as the ‘standard.’?”

Ringgold, now 86 and still active, appears in several contexts: Her large-scale painting for the women’s facility at Rikers Island, For the Woman’s House, is here, along with political posters, collage, and an early oil self-portrait. There is a silkscreen of the poster she designed, based on the American flag, for a protest exhibition in 1970: black stripes of text on a red background reading, in part, “A flag which does not belong to the people to do with as they see fit should be burned and forgotten.” (This earned her a conviction for desecration of the flag, an offense at the time, and a $100 fine.) There is also Target, a 1970 bronze bust of a Black male fixed in crosshairs, by Elizabeth Catlett, a grande dame of African-American art who at the time could not re-enter the U.S. from her adopted home of Mexico, as she had renounced her citizenship and the government looked askance at her ties with Mexican communists.

Around 1970, cultural nationalism was in high gear. In Chicago, Barbara Jones-Hogu of the collective AfriCOBRA (African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists) made large screenprints in vivid colors of Black women in Afros or ornate headgear, set off by decorative lettering with a blunt message, such as Black Men We Need You or I’m Better Than These Motherfuckers. Another AfriCOBRA member, Jae Jarrell, originally from Cleveland, made wearable art: Urban Wall Suit (1969) is a two-piece outfit of fabric swatches sewn like a quilt, to which she added a brickwork motif along with slogans, musicians’ names, and other text; Jarrell appears here in a photograph wearing it, with a child by her side and a baby in a shoulder sling. McCannon’s wood-and-metal Revolutionary Sister depicts a martial woman in red, brown, and green, wearing a bullet belt. McCannon got her materials from hardware stores, a political point in itself, she says: “Back in the day, a woman wasn’t all that welcome there.”

Later, the politics grew more oblique, personal. Senga Nengudi made flexible sculptures using nylon from pantyhose as well as sand and other materials, sometimes activating them in performances that suggested gender distortion and fluidity. While working as a curator at the Museum of Modern Art, Howardena Pindell devised her own style of large, abstract canvases; in 1980 she made a video piece, titled Free, White, and 21, that related, in a matter-of-fact tone laced with quiet distress, racist (and sexist) incidents she’d endured in her professional life. That same year, Lorraine O’Grady debuted her performance persona Mlle. Bourgeoise Noire, who would show up in a dress sewn out of white gloves, brandishing a whip, to disrupt museums and Black art spaces alike — prefiguring the Guerrilla Girls by five years.

Vigilance remained necessary. In a notorious 1979 incident, a white artist, Donald Newman, held an exhibition at the downtown Artists Space of abstract charcoal works he titled the “Nigger Drawings,” offering a contorted justification for the title. Just Above Midtown’s Bryant and her colleague Janet Henry were the first to raise the alarm, mobilizing Black artists to protest. (A number of liberal art-world figures sided with Newman, on free-speech grounds.) Letters among artists and to the gallery, and the cassette tape recording of the discussion when the reconstituted Black Emergency Cultural Coalition showed up at Artists Space, figure among the period documents in “We Wanted a Revolution.”

By the show’s end, some names familiar today come into view. Carrie Mae Weems completed “Family Pictures and Stories,” her first photographic series, in 1984. In Fort Greene, where a new wave of Black bohemia was gathering, playwright (and frequent Voice contributor) Lisa Jones co-founded Rodeo Caldonia, a women’s collective centered on theater performance. One member was Lorna Simpson, the photography and video artist, who was developing her practice of conceptual studio portraits with sometimes cryptic texts; for this show, Simpson shared marked-up test prints she took of her friends in the group.

Even the most famous artists featured at the Brooklyn Museum are insufficiently known. But some are receiving belated acclaim: The remarkable sculptor and land artist Beverly Buchanan, who died in 2015, was recently honored in a powerful Sackler Center show and has work in the new exhibit as well; the undersung photographer Ming Smith had a major gallery show this year in Chelsea; Julie Dash, whose early shorts appear in the new show, recently saw her groundbreaking 1991 film, Daughters of the Dust, restored for a new theatrical release.

The promise of “We Wanted a Revolution” is to restore a collective history. “To put them all together makes an argument that none of them was the only one,” says Hockley. This assemblage of art and documentation, from a time when liberation was in the air but not always in reach, contains insights for living and creating today. “People have so many ideas about what feminism might be,” she says. “But on some profound level, it’s women being together.”

We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965–85

Brooklyn Museum, April 21–September 17

718-638-5000, brooklynmuseum.org

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