The Brooklyn Museum’s current, corrective survey, We Wanted A Revolution: Black Radical Women 1965-85, opens with an impressive eight-by-eight-feet mural painting. The work is divided into eight, equal triangular sections , each offering a view of women actively at work: suspended narratives like driving a bus or holding a press conference, extended across differences in age, race, and class.
In recent months when giving tours of this mural at this museum where I work in the Education Department, I most often stand in front of the wall text and encourage visitors to get close to the painting. I ask them to consider the scale of the canvas, to think of when it might have been painted, to imagine who it might be intended for. I ask them to see these women, and to reflect.
This work, For the Women’s House, was painted in 1971 by the artist, author, and activist Faith Ringgold. That year, Ringgold had received a grant from the Creative Artists Public Service program (CAPS), which stipulated the creation of a public work. By this time, Ringgold was already a prominent voice in the Black Arts Movement and the fight for gender and racial equality in the United States. Her artistic practice embodied these activist energies, critiquing US society, as well as art and academic institutions, for their systematic failure to acknowledge the contributions of women and people of color.
For this commission, the artist’s immediate impulse was to make a public installation about and for women. She went first to her alma mater, City College, to see if they would be interested, but was turned away. This response reminded Ringgold of her interactions with museums as a black woman: a feeling of being excluded as both an artist and a black woman, from institutions founded on perpetuating narratives of white, Western-male dominance.
In a 1972 interview with her daughter, the cultural critic and activist, Michele Wallace, Ringgold reflected on the impact of discrimination on the painting’s production: “I asked myself, do you want your work to be somewhere where nobody wants it or do you want it to be somewhere it is needed.” The idea drew her to the thought of mounting the work in a women’s prison. Who would be more in need than society’s unwanted?
She decided on the Correctional Institution for Women on Rikers Island, formerly the Women’s House of Detention. The original Women’s House had been opened in 1932 on Greenwich Avenue and Tenth Street in Manhattan. Hailed by the New York Times in 1931 as, “New York’s Model Prison,” the jail was a site of constant outrage for both activists and local residents alike until its ultimate close in June 1971, the year of Ringgold’s commission.
During its 39-year tenure, the Women’s House of Detention had housed female activists such as Dorothy Day, Andrea Dworkin, and Angela Davis. Davis’s detainment in 1970, helped draw national attention to the corruption of the country’s criminal justice system, only more violently echoed in the Attica uprising the following year. When the Women’s House closed in 1971, the inmates were quietly moved to the then newly finished Correctional Institution for Women on Rikers, which was immediately assailed by opponents as “a huge penal colony” that would only further isolate and endanger women prisoners.
This was the site Ringgold chose for her first public commission, a work meant and made for the women of the Women’s House, in her own words, “the blood guilt of society.” Assisted by the CAPS program, the artist contacted the jail’s warden and, in turn, representatives of the Department of Correction (DOC), who welcomed the idea. Over the next months, Ringgold interviewed the incarcerated women about what they wanted to see. The consensus was something that reflected women of all races holding hands in solidarity with one another. They wanted an image of freedom, justice, equality, but most of all they wanted an image of hope, of a future — in the words of one female prisoner: “a long road leading out of here.”
Ringgold stated in a recent interview with Brooklyn Museum senior curator Catherine Morris, that she incorporated the inmates’ requests, making the work illustrate “different aspects of American life that they [the female inmates] were not privy to.” This illustration, Ringgold felt, offered inspiration for what women could, in an equal world, achieve. For these incarcerated women, this painting must have felt like a window into some unknowable reality. Isolated and unseen, they lived on fragile freedoms, if they had any at all.
In 1988, the inmates would once again be moved to the newly opened Rose M. Singer Center (Rosie’s) on Rikers, now considered one of the country’s 12 worst jails with regard to staff sexual misconduct. Their former facility, which still housed Ringgold’s painting, then became the George Motchan Detention Center (GMDC), a male detention center. Apparently, the aspirational and empowering images of women in Ringgold’s mural spoke less to this new, male audience.
In 1999 Ringgold learned of the extent of this distaste in a call from a jail guard, who recounted the claims of one male inmate, who had bluntly stated that they were “tired of looking at all those bitches.” She was told that her painting had been whitewashed and that a male inmate had been set to paint a new picture on top, but was overwhelmed by its scale. The censored canvas had been moved to the basement, presumably to hide the evidence, and was seemingly steps from complete erasure. Ringgold rushed to Rikers, also calling the superintendent of the DOC at the time, Bernard Kerik. Through some miraculous intervention, Kerik raised thousands to have the painting restored. It was then installed at Rosie’s, where it it still housed today.
We Wanted a Revolution is only the second time the painting has been seen by the general public. The other instance was in American People, Black Light: a 2010 survey show of Ringgold’s paintings from the 1960s at the Neuberger Museum of Art. It is a great irony that the artist’s first public commission was effectively imprisoned for over 40 years, but it raises valuable questions regarding our notions of the public and how that public is served.
“It seems to me that the most important criteria for a successful society is that it meet the needs of its people,” Ringgold stated in her 1972 interview with Wallace. The hope was that the painting might be a step in the right direction, towards racial and gender equality, towards a type of collective empathy. But one need only think on Rikers with its crippling bail system, institutional corruption and violence, which is, for me, representative of the overarching structure of our criminal justice system in the United States, to understand that as a society we are just as far from serving the public as we were in 1972, perhaps even farther.
In addition to being the artist’s first public work, the painting is considered the artist’s first explicitly feminist one too — due to its exclusive, inspirational focus on women. Yet it is important to note that in 1972, the idea of “feminism” was primarily associated with the white, college-educated women of the second wave. And in many ways it remains so. In addition to the context of We Wanted a Revolution, which serves to aptly credit the contributions of black women to feminist art and art history generally, the title and date of production of Ringgold’s mural strikes me as particularly poignant.
In January 1972, the same month “For the Women’s House” was unveiled to the female inmates of Rikers, the infamous Feminist Art Program at California Institute of the Arts opened Womanhouse near the college’s campus. Womanhouse was a large-scale, collaborative project, in which the predominantly white women of the Feminist Art Program, led by the artists and founders Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro, transformed a condemned house into a site-specific installation. The project was meant to mobilize earlier consciousness-raising sessions and push women to work, beyond the confines of domestic labor and craft qualified commonly as “women’s work,” through the renovation and reclaim of the house, a traditional site of female oppression. As noted by artist-participant Faith Wilding: “Womanhouse became the repository of the daydreams woman have as they wash, bake, cook, sew, clean, and iron their lives away.”
While both projects reflected a contemporary interest in society’s systemic oppression of women via the house as a physical and metaphorical site, there is a clear distinction between being imprisoned by traditional gender roles, as is often claimed by women’s movements led primarily by white women, and those abuses suffered by women who are in fact imprisoned.
It is not new to cast incarceration and the populations targeted by the criminal justice system within the context of the violent history of slavery. Yet it is an essential point to reiterate as long as our courts and jails continue to reflect the nation’s foundations on ingrained prejudice, racism and economic inequality. Of the women held at Rosie’s today, 82% are Black or Latina, almost exactly the numbers in 1972, when Ringgold installed her work.
In 2017, there is still much work to be done to break down the barriers to a truly equitable society: some palpable, others invisible. But fighting for freedom often comes with having the freedom to do so in the first place, and not everyone is equally free. This is a point that Faith Ringgold and We Wanted a Revolution both make ardently clear: we cannot continue to whitewash the histories of those women who society has systemically failed. Rather we need to acknowledge those failures and see the long road out, towards a better, more empathetic future. Ringgold’s painting still offers us a window to that world; don’t send it back unseen.
We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965–85 continues at the Brooklyn Museum (200 Eastern Parkway, Prospect Heights, Brooklyn) through September 17.