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'We Wanted a Revolution' paints complex portrait of black women artists

Feb. 16 was a busy day in Buffalo. The city saw the opening of Marvel’s blockbuster movie "Black Panther" and the Albright-Knox Art Gallery's exhibition, "We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965-1985," showcasing some 40 black women artists.

These events could not be more timely, coming months after white nationalists held a visible and violent gathering in Charlottesville, Va.

"Black Panther," as a cultural text, would be impossible without the work done by the artists represented in "We Wanted a Revolution." Curators Catherine Morris, of the Brooklyn Museum, and Rujeko Hockley, of the Whitney Museum of American Art, have succeeded in compiling an eclectic array of art, archival material and performances capturing the diversity of black women’s aesthetic production.

By emphasizing intersectionality -- or the idea of a collective struggle across lines of race, class, gender, sexuality and ability -- the exhibit avoids the trap of suggesting a single, illusory black womanhood. Instead, it shows these artists to be a diverse group with different agendas and multiple strategies.

It achieves this by being roughly organized around very different black art collectives and political groups such as the New York-based Spiral (which had only one female member, painter Emma Amos) and the female collective Where We At, in which artists shared childcare and community service duties.

By not smoothing over the messiness of how black women organized and thought of themselves, the show skillfully demonstrates the many strategies black women have used to navigate systems of oppression. Instead of emancipatory narratives where superheroes of royal blood save the day, "We Wanted a Revolution" documents the struggles of black women to use art to represent and benefit the communities from which it arises. Revolution, the exhibit suggests, resides in everyday acts.

At first glance, the exhibit's 30-year time frame, represented by the timeline drawn on the gallery wall, appears too traditional. Yet this timeline is undone by the works themselves. Betye Saar’s "Liberation of Aunt Jemima: Cocktail" from 1973, or Lorna Simpson’s 1986 photograph "Waterbearer," for example, evoke the time of slavery, showing how that institution reverberates into the 1970s and '80s.

The exhibit also reaches past its presumed end date of 1985 into the present: Faith Ringgold’s 1971 mural dedicated to the women on Rikers Island is a case in point. Her attempt to imagine positive role models among incarcerated women has never been more relevant, as incarceration rates for black women have risen approximately 700 percent from 1980 to 2014, according to The Sentencing Project, a prison reform advocacy group.

Thus, as critics like Holland Cotter have remarked, the past tense of the exhibit’s title needs to be revised: We still want the revolution that emancipation promised.

Particularly compelling is dancer Blondell Cummings’ performance "Chicken Soup." The decision by Albright-Knox organizers to screen the performance on a different floor separate from the rest of the exhibit seems to be an oversight. Cummings’ piece is absolutely stunning.

Thinking through how identity is inscribed not just on the body’s surface but in its very gestures, Cummings moves through domestic acts such as scrubbing a floor and talking animatedly as she sits in a rocking chair. These domestic gestures, rooted in her childhood memories of her grandmother, are intertwined with convulsive movements in which the body is sped up, painfully contorted and denaturalized.

Cummings' choreography demonstrates what the exhibit is ultimately about: the warmth, beauty and diverse strength of black women forged in the crucible of a violent American history that continues to threaten our very existence.

Art review

"We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965-85" runs through May 27 in the Albright-Knox Art Gallery (1285 Elmwood Ave.). Admission is $6 to $12. Call 882-8700 or visit albrightknox.org.

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