The first exhibition featuring the work of exclusively black women artists took place in New York in 1971 ― it was titled “Where We At.”
Artists Vivian E. Browne, Dindga McCannon and Faith Ringgold organized the grassroots show, which featured the work of 14 artists at a Greenwich Village gallery run by artist and dealer Nigel Jackson. The exhibition’s success inspired the participating artists to form a collective, called WWA for short, who together went on to orchestrate other exhibitions, panel discussions, seminars and art workshops for local youth and incarcerated individuals. The cooperative went on to coordinate shows, publications and community events well into the 1980s.
While the WWA artists adhered to many of the dominant ideologies of second-wave feminism ― equal pay for women, equal representation for women artists, equal respect for women’s work ― they aligned themselves with the black arts movement above the women’s liberation movement, which was led, for the most part, by white middle-class women.
Almost 50 years later, an exhibition devoted to the revolutionary impact of black female artists is now on view at The Brooklyn Museum. Titled “We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965–85” the exhibition picks up six years before WWA and concludes 14 years after, including the work of 40 artists who grappled with the political, social and aesthetic implications of making art as a woman of color.
The show guides viewers through the black women artists who, without artistic antecedent or support from white male-dominated artistic institutions, went on to create work that is avant-garde, fearless, joyful, radical, angry and invigorating ― and often all at once. The exhibition is radically diverse in terms of the techniques and media included, which include performance, film, video art, conceptual art, photography, painting, sculpture and printmaking. The styles too run the gamut, from Barbara Chase-Riboud’s abstract sculpture ― which resembles an inky ballgown as much as an impenetrable shield ― to Emma Amos’ earth-toned painting of a couple slow dancing in their living room.
The discrimination women artists of color face is not something of the past. In a climate where it is still difficult for most people to name five women artists, black women continue to be under-represented on museum walls, auction blocks and in history books. Today collectives like Black Women Artists for Black Lives Matter and Black Art Incubator rigorously hold the art world accountable for its prejudices and blind spots.
This exhibition honors the black women who laid the groundwork for such contemporary artists, activists and artist-activists, whose influence on contemporary feminism and contemporary art is nothing less than cosmic.
1. Senga Nengudi (American, b. 1943)
2. Jae Jarrell (American, b. 1935)
3. Dindga McCannon (American, b. 1947)
4. Faith Ringgold (American, b. 1930)
5. Beverly Buchanan (American, 1940–2015)
6. Emma Amos (American, b. 1938)
7. Barbara Chase-Riboud (American, b. 1939)
8. Maren Hassinger (American, b. 1947)
9. Lorraine O’Grady (American, b. 1934)
10. Howardena Pindell (American, b. 1930)
11. Betye Saar (American, b. 1926)
12. Carrie Mae Weems (American, b. 1953)
13. Lona Foote (American, 1948–1993)
14. Lorna Simpson (American, b. 1960)
“We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965–85” runs until Sept. 17 at The Brooklyn Museum as part of the institution’s “Year of Yes.”