Issues

An Exhibition About Revolution that Keeps Faith with Ringgold

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This post was curated by an article written by for Hyperallergic

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.

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