Brooklyn Museum’s, We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women1965 -1985, retrospective, which closed on September 17, brings many fascinating pieces of work out from the archives to showcase a more idealistic and hopeful time. The 60s section (much of it really the 70s) features a wider breadth of artists than the 80s rooms, which focus on a few artists more specifically.
In the 1960s and early 70s, black power iconography was inspired by African imagery and philosophy. Lois Mailou Jones traveled to Africa, and her Ode to Kinshasa painting, 1972, utilizes geometric African shapes and a surreal-looking eye placed on a shield. And Ubi Girl from the Tai Region, also 1972, features a silhouette of a woman that looks like an African carving, placed against African prints. Influenced by her grandfather’s work as a tailor, Jae Jerrell created clothing that combines Western modern art and African-influenced prints. Her Urban Wall Suit, 1968, is sewn and painted cotton and silk, with the pattern of a brick wall superimposed over a patchwork of patterns, with “Right On!” painted on the back. Her husband, Wadsworth Jarrell, painted a trippy, pointillist portrait of Angela Davis, with her mythic Afro, called Revolutionary, in 1981, that is psychedelic and captures the spirit of the times.
Much of the loveliest work in this section are the portraits. Those by Emma Amos are particularly evocative. Sandy and her Husband, 1973, depicts an interracial couple dancing in their living room in front of a zebra print rug, while reflected in a mirror is a young girl with an angry look on her face arranging flowers. “Flower Sniffer,” 1966, Is a close-up painting of just this girl with the angry look. So “Flower Sniffer,” was painted first, if the dates are correct? Did Amos come back to this theme and revisit why the girl was upset? “Summer,” 1968, also by Amos, is a joyful painting of a young girl skipping, with blocks of primary color painted around her. Another evocative painting is Dindga McCannon’s Empress Akweke, 1975, an acrylic of a curvy woman in a yellow dress and multitude of ornate jewelry sitting by a window.
The portraits continue with a self-portrait by Faith Ringgold painted in 1965. Named Early Works #25, it is also African-inspired in its use of shapes and colors, and depicts an elegant Ringgold wearing pearls, with her hair in a bun. One of her iconic quilts shown here is Feminist Series #10/20: Of My Two Handicaps, 1972, a colorful forest landscape with a paisley fabric border. This title refers to a quote from Shirley Chisholm, “Of my two handicaps, being female put more obstacles in my path than being black.”
Of the three-dimensional sculptures, Elizabeth Catlett’s Homage to My Young Black Sisters, 1968, is a Henri Moore-like piece constructed from wood, of a woman with her fist in the air, and a hole in her center. More cryptic and looming is Barbara Chase Riboud’s Confessions of Myself, 1972, a huge sculpture that is a flowing black robe of yarn and fabric, with a small, barely visible face.
Within the exhibit were cases of magazine articles and art show announcements. In the early 70s, a rift between black and white feminists began to be debated. Featured is the famous Esquire magazine cover of Gloria Steinem and Dorothy Pittman wearing turtlenecks in identical poses with one fist raised. Also on display is Toni Morrison’s article, What the Black Woman Thinks of Women’s Lib, written for the New York Times Magazine in 1971.
The 80s brings more multi-media work and less two-dimensional painting. In 1980 Ana Mendieta, a Cuban-American artist, presents herself here photographed in different wigs and make-up, reminiscent of Cindy Sherman. Ming Smith’s art also features self-portraits. Hers appear sweet and unguarded. In Self-Portrait Wallflower 1, 1972, she has snapped her picture in a mirror, and looks young and vulnerable, and in 2 she is nude but covered by long hair, with a red flower and other floating detritus superimposed over her.
A powerful film of Howardina Pindell is running, and museum goers can put on headphones to listen, which is a narrative of her life as a gifted young woman moving through the world and coming up against subtle and not-so-subtle discrimination. Alison Saar’s Sapphire,1985, is a rough wooden sculpture of a woman with an open chest that reveals viscera and a pink shining light. And Mlle Bourgeoise Noire Costume, 1980, by Lorraine O’Grady, is a dress made of white gloves. Translated as “Miss Black Middle Class,” the artist wore the dress and a tiara in a Miss America parody to at least one event in the 80s.
In a section of photos, Lorraine O’Grady photographed an art event in Central Park called “The Debauchees Dance,” of people wearing yellow and orange among the greenery and rocks. Carrie Mae Weems shows pictures of the women of her family, all of whom had babies before they turned 16 in, Family Pictures and Stories, 1978 – 1984. And Coreen Simpson, whose work appeared in the Amsterdam News and the Village Voice, photographed drag queens in the night club, entertainment and fashion worlds in Raven Chanticleer with Girlfriend, and The Club.
I would like to have seen some analysis between the more innocent and activist work of the 60s and more culturally reflective work of the 80s, and the larger societal changes they grew out of. Unless I missed it, there wasn’t any mention of the 80s activists The Guerilla Girls, although I know Howardina Pindell was one of them. The 80s section of this exhibit was less fleshed out in general. But the 1960s rooms brought you back to the reality of this vibrant and hopeful moment.