Faith Ringgold was already an accomplished artist in her forties when she wrote a memoir of her life. Still, no one would publish it. Instead, the painter turned to a new medium, creating quilts that — via images and words — told the narratives not only of her life, but of other black women. “I decided I would write my story on my art,” she told the crowd packed into the atrium of the California African American Museum yesterday at the closing ceremony for the exhibit We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965-85.
One of the earliest figures whom Ringgold depicted was Aunt Jemima. When her daughter questioned her inclusion of the controversial syrup idol, the artist said, “She’s a black feminist hero.”
“She’s not my black feminist hero” replied the daughter, Michele Wallace – an acclaimed scholar and author.
Mother and daughter shared the dais at CAAM Sunday, a formidable pairing at an event packed with powerful personages. Before their panel, three women of the Saar family (the Saarority?) stood together: the legendary Bettye Saar with her daughters Alison and Lezley. If, goddess forbid, the CAAM ceiling had collapsed yesterday, a few generations of important, inventive artists and their acolytes and analysts would have been buried beneath the rubble. Then again, these are women who have already busted through several glass ceilings on their own; maybe they would have just weathered the crash then begun making sculptures out of the debris.
We Wanted a Revolution gathers drawings, paintings, photos, videos, pamphlets, letters and more from a period when Black and female artists were forcibly fighting against their exclusion from museums and the mainstream. There’s Adrian Piper, Lisa Jones, Emma Amos, Lorna Simpson, Carrie Mae Weems, and more. Many of the artists, including Linda Goode Bryant, Maren Hassinger, Dindga McCannon, and Senga Nengudi, were part of the closing symposium.
“Have friends and don’t stop working.” That was Hassinger’s advice to young artists trying to persevere, progress and prosper. “Music can be your friend; art can be your friend,” added another speaker.
The work in We Wanted a Revolution is phenomenal, though the show, which was originated by the Brooklyn Museum, is traveling on. You still have a month to see Salon des Refuses, the intense, imaginative exhibit of works by Lezley Saar also on display at CAAM. Saar’s paintings and assemblages are psychedelic and psychological in their exploration of the unconscious and of alternative states of being. Deconstructing – literally – and then reconstructing books, she breaks down definitions of race and gender. She paints Renaissance portraits of dandies and rebel girls as Edgar Allan Poe might have imagined them, with mushrooms coming out of their heads, or bats for ears.
It was moving to think about how Lezley Saar is carrying on the legacy of her mother, Bettye, and how Wallace has dedicated much of her career to chronicling the life of Ringgold. The ghost of the previous generation was in the room as well, as Faith talked about the influence of her mother, Willie Posey Jones, a fashion designer. Mama Jones, as the family called her, helped her daughter make her quilts. Wallace recalled that in her foremothers’ time, all women knew how to sew. But her mother corrected her. “I refused to sew,” Ringgold said. She repeated the statement a few times, emphasizing refused. So, perhaps the most famous quilter of all time was a storyteller, not a seamstress. Yesterday, she made sure her story got told – and we listened.