Lorraine O’Grady smiles and struts down a dimly lit hallway in a long white evening gown, tiara, and silken sash reading “MLLE BOURGEOISE NOIRE” across her torso. The year is 1980, and O’Grady is enacting her first and arguably most famous performance piece, named after the titular character. With her pageantry, pleasant manner, and seemingly elegant dress, Mlle Bourgeoise Noire appears to be a beacon of congeniality and beauty – an effect used to mask her true critique.
Wearing a costume made of 180 pairs of white gloves, procured from various Manhattan thrift shops, and carrying a white cat o’ nine tails made of sailing rope from a seaport store and studded with white chrysanthemums, Mlle Bourgeoise Noire (Miss Black Middle-Class) invaded art openings, both literally and figuratively disrupting the segregation of the art world. With its layers of long white gloves, O’Grady’s dress resembles a kind of medieval armor and perhaps functioned in a similar way. With one component of her costume being used to make the ensemble whole, O’Grady created something like a physical synecdoche.
The construction of Ms. O’Grady’s dress and the relationship between her materials and her message represents one part of the larger narrative of black womanhood, a narrative that is comprised of both shared and individualized experiences.
Focusing on the interwoven narratives of more than forty artists and activists, We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965–85 at the Brooklyn Museum explores the political, social, cultural, and aesthetic priorities of women of color during the emergence of second-wave feminism. The first exhibition of its kind, We Wanted a Revolution brings to light the intersectional experiences of women of color, experiences that often subvert the primarily white, mainstream feminist movement of the 1960s in order to reorient conversations around race, feminism, political action, art production, and history in this crucial period.
We Wanted a Revolution opened in April and runs for another month as part of A Year of Yes: Reimagining Feminism at the Brooklyn Museum, a yearlong series of exhibitions – beginning last October with Beverly Buchanan—Ruins and Rituals – celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art. The artists represented in the exhibition include Emma Amos, Elizabeth Catlett, Blondell Cummings, Dindga McCannon, Senga Nengudi, Lorraine O’Grady, Faith Ringgold, Lorna Simpson, and Carrie Mae Weems.
The exhibition is noticeable and exceptionally diverse, including conceptual work, performance, video, photography, painting, sculpture, and print. Portraits of elegantly dressed black families and historical figures, crowd shots of civil rights protests, boldly colored textiles and mixed media canvases, and striking abstractions come together in a sort of archival presentation. Faith Ringgold’s For the Women’s House (1971) and Maren Hassinger’s large sculpture Leaning (1980) are adjacent to one another in direct visual opposition. Ringgold’s brightly colored mural, dedicated to the women incarcerated in the Correctional Institution for Women on Rikers Island, imagines the first female president and professional women basketball players among other positive female role models suggested Ringgold by incarcerated women. Hassinger’s sculpture, on the other hand, is a cold, yet beautifully precise installation of bush-like forms made from twisted, welded, and bent wire rope. These resolute fixtures evoke an artificial landscape, but oddly enough also possess a human-like quality that allows the viewer to reflect back on themselves, and even on the Rinngold’s neighboring painting. This dynamic does not end here but persists throughout the rest of the exhibit.
Walking through the exhibit, anyone who has heard about the controversy surrounding Dana Schutz’s portrait of Emmett Till in the 2017 Whitney Biennial should be keenly aware of the significance of a show where the narrative of blackness is articulated by black artists. The artists presented here create figures with dignity, even when cast as radical or victimized because of the color of their skin. Dindga McCannon’s striking mixed media painting Revolutionary Sister (1971) is one such example, featuring a figure who resembles a cross between an African warrior and a comic-book superhero. McCannon wrote about her inspiration for making Revolutionary Sister: “In the 60’s and 70’s we didn’t have many women warriors (that we were aware of) so I created my own.” Inspired by the Statue of Liberty, the figure bears a headpiece made from recycled mini flagpoles, and a belt made from bullets, validating her warrior status and inspired by Blaxploitation films of the time, which featured prominent elements of black pop culture for black audiences.
Another artist in the exhibit, Elizabeth Catlett (1915 – 2012), began her career in the 1930s, but her work was not regularly exhibited until the 1960s when the Civil Rights Movement drew new attention to her prints of revolutionary figures like Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks, and Malcolm X. Like many of her contemporaries, Catlett employed print for its ability to be widely disseminated, and for its historic association with protest and freedom of expression.
Her sculpture Target (1970) features the bronze bust of a man on a wooden block framed by a rifle sight. The stoic expression of the sculpture – made in response to the killing of prominent Black Panther figures Fred Hampton and Mark Clark by the Chicago police in the winter of 1969 – signifies a kind of passive resistance. The work is emotionally charged by the sociopolitical climate in which it was made, as well as the one we find ourselves in today with the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Freddie Gray among many others at the hands of the police. By using a riflescope as a framing device, Catlett forces the viewer to stand witness to this act of injustice. Another sculpture by Catlett, Homage to My Young Black Sisters (1968), while less daunting in its tone, conveys the same sympathy the artist shows towards all her figures, once stating, “I have always wanted my art to service my people—to reflect us, to relate to us, to stimulate us, to make us aware of our potential.”
Others, like renowned dancer Blondell Cummings (1944 – 2015), question the boundaries of race and gender through performance. In Cummings’ performance piece Chicken Soup, the dancer oscillates between re-enactments of kitchen work and convulsively choreographed movements, (1961) painting a portrait of a woman as a drudging housewife in an ironic pas de deux with a cast-iron skillet. Cummings’ movement is graceful yet violent, like an automaton designed to follow a predetermined sequence of operations. As she moves about the stage occupying the space surrounding her, she remains beholden to her task. If O’Grady’s performance of Mlle Bourgeoise Noire is an implicit act of defiance, Cummings’ is explicit, but both women effectively evoke the rage and resentment of being told to “stay in their place.”
For many women of color, the word “feminism” has long carried the pangs of inequity and psychological segregation. We Wanted a Revolution not only manages to reclaim some of the meaning of this word for black women; it also manages to do so in our current sociopolitical climate when such narratives are being actively pushed aside. In his review of the exhibit for the New York Times, art critic Holland Cotter noted “The only change I would make, apart from adding more artists, would be to tweak its title: I’d edit it down to its opening phrase and put that in the present tense.” I am inclined to agree with Mr. Cotter – we do want a revolution.
We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965–85 will be on view until September 17, 2017, at the Brooklyn Museum.
Writing by Re’al Christian, photos courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum.