Lorna Simpson, Waterbearer, 1986EXPAND
Lorna Simpson, Waterbearer, 1986
Courtesy of Lorna Simpson. © 1986 Lorna Simpson

It's Time We Listened to These Radical Women Artists

Seamstress. Nanny. Cook. Housekeeper. Maybe teacher, nurse or secretary. Those were the roles women of color were expected to hold in American society during the mid–20th century. To pursue something more ambitious professionally was to push against tightly held, deeply entrenched norms. A white man could be whatever he wanted to be: Scientist. Artist. Doctor. President. But women –– particularly women of color –– were considered radical if they so much as asked for equal treatment in society, let alone pursued a creative or aspirational career.

Painter Emma Amos put it this way: “For me, a black woman artist, to walk into the studio is a political act.”

This Friday at the California African American Museum, the radical, political, bold and daring work of more than 40 black women artists and art collectives will go on display. The show, which debuted over the spring and summer at the Brooklyn Museum in New York, is called “We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965-85.”

In New York, critics raved about “We Wanted a Revolution” and photos of the show spread like wildfire across social media. Thousands of posts on Twitter and Instagram (#wewantedarevolution) were accompanied by some variation of the same message: You have to go see this show.

“We Wanted a Revolution” is a one-two punch of melanin and estrogen that makes a demand: Look at us. Look at black women. Look at what they have made. How they have suffered. What they are worth. Hear their voices. Consider their souls and experiences. See their value. Take the time to learn the histories of their art, of the battles against racism and sexism in which they're still forced to engage.

Betye Saar, Liberation of Aunt Jemima: Cocktail, 1973EXPAND
Betye Saar, Liberation of Aunt Jemima: Cocktail, 1973
Private collection. © Betye Saar, courtesy the artist and Roberts & Tilton, Culver City, California. (Photo: Jonathan Dorado, Brooklyn Museum)

If you do look, what you will see is a thoughtful, inclusive re-examination and reframing of both 20th-century art history and second-wave feminism. The show was curated by Catherine Morris and Rujeko Hockley and exhibited at the Brooklyn Museum as part of the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art’s 10th anniversary “Year of Yes” programming. Morris and Hockley attacked the project with ambitious, scholarly intent, filling the show out with ephemera that helps tell the artists’ stories more completely.

From the beginning, Hockley says that she and Morris were “very much trying to think about the stories we haven’t heard, both in art history and within the history of feminism in the 20th century.”

The timing of this show’s arrival in L.A. feels cosmically aligned, overlapping as it does with the Hammer Museum’s PST: LA/LA exhibit “Radical Women: Latin American Art, 1960-1985.”

That show will travel to the Brooklyn Museum following its run at the Hammer, filling out the Sackler Center’s “Year of Yes.” But here in L.A., for the rest of 2017, we have the chance to see both exhibits simultaneously.

“It’s definitely a moment,” Hockley says. And one that is in part coincidental. Despite the fact that both shows focus on radical art by women of color across the same three decades, the two exhibits were planned independently.

Morris says that as far as she’s concerned, “Both are historical, important, scholarly, ambitious exhibitions that are trained on reframing the canon so that whatever comes next, whatever projects follow these, they will have to take these histories into account. At least that’s the goal.”

Carrie Mae Weems, Mirror Mirror, 1987– 88.EXPAND
Carrie Mae Weems, Mirror Mirror, 1987– 88.
Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York. © Carrie Weems

Neither show is subtle. At the Hammer, Sophie Rivera focuses her camera’s lens on a used, bloody tampon floating inside a toilet bowl. At CAAM, Carrie Mae Weems’ biting photographs from the 1980s confront racism head on. “MIRROR MIRROR ON THE WALL, WHO’S THE FINEST OF THEM ALL,” reads the caption below her photograph of a black woman peering side-eyed into a mirror that does not reflect her image. The mirror’s response is startling: “SNOW WHITE, YOU BLACK BITCH, AND DON’T YOU FORGET IT!!!”

For black and Latina women artists in the 1960s, '70s and '80s, subtlety and apoliticism weren’t viable options. Their existence was radical. And so, it inevitably follows, was their art. What is shocking about viewing both these shows is that despite the fact that they are historical (both brim with the kind of dated, bell-bottom rebellion of their time), their messages are still vitally relevant. Depressingly, we are reminded once again that over the last 50 years everything has changed  yet nothing has changed at all.

Today, young artists of every color and gender are fighting their own radical battles against oppressive social and political forces. If those young artists are looking for inspiration, they should start with these shows. Between the Hammer and CAAM, L.A. museumgoers have more than 160 radical women artists of color to learn from right now, and if we want to see radical change in our society, we should probably start by listening to what they have to say.

"We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965–85," California African American Museum, 600 State Drive, Exposition Park; Fri., Oct. 13-Jan. 14. caamuseum.org/exhibitions/2017/we-wanted-a-revolution.

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