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Exhibit explores black women artists' fight for representation 

This week we're shining a rare spotlight on an exhibit showing outside of Rochester. On view for a few more days at Buffalo's Albright-Knox Art Gallery is "We Wanted a Revolution," a massive exhibit on black women artists and their efforts to shift the racist and misogynist art world during the age of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements. The show title alludes to the desire to force change but also subtly indicates how much more work there is to be done.

Think fast: Off the top of your head, how many American black women artists can you name? How many of them are household names? Hyperallergic in 2014 reported that only 30 percent of artists represented in commercial galleries in the US are women. It's not easy to find much data specifically on black women artists. This year the same publication reported that a survey of the top 100 US artists by volume from the last 30 years included only four women of color: Julie Mehretu, Kara Walker, Ellen Gallagher, and Mickalene Thomas.

Through artwork by dozens of artists (performance, film, and video art, as well as photography, painting, sculpture, and printmaking), curatorial information, and archival materials, "We Wanted a Revolution" forms a survey show that illustrates a wide view of the struggle black women artists were engaged in to gain representation in the art world.

The show features pointed political work, like that of Betye Saar, including her 1971 derogatory language- and imagery-filled video "Colored Spade" and her 1973 "Liberation of Aunt Jemima: Cocktail," an assemblage that converts a jug of wine with a racist label and Jemima's red kerchief into a bottle bomb.

Betye Saar's 1973 mixed-media assemblage "Liberation of Aunt Jemima: Cocktail." - PHOTO COURTESY JONATHAN DORADO / BROOKLYN MUSEUM
  • PHOTO COURTESY JONATHAN DORADO / BROOKLYN MUSEUM
  • Betye Saar's 1973 mixed-media assemblage "Liberation of Aunt Jemima: Cocktail."

It includes Lorraine O'Grady's gelatin silver prints documenting her audacious performance of presence as "Mlle Bourgeoise Noire" (Miss Black Middle Class), a gender, race, and class critique in which she arrived uninvited to art openings at New Museum of Contemporary Art and Just Above Midtown Gallery in a gown made of white gloves, smiling as she demanded attention for black women artists. "We Wanted a Revolution" also includes work by black women artists who were not engaged in social and political work, but were overlooked by representation their white and male contemporaries enjoyed.

The show is an exhaustive survey of a lot of work done in a short space of time — artist Amanda Chestnut and I spent nearly three hours at the gallery exploring just this exhibit, and we still weren't able to examine every bit of work, let alone the many stations of archival material.

Included in the stations of archives were the bylaws and newsletters of grassroots black art organizations, importantly revealing organizational tactics and spotlighting even more artists than the ones whose work is on the walls. There were letters of eloquent outrage sent to the heads of a gallery that chose in 1979 to show white male artist Donald Newman's suite of abstract charcoal works titled "The N***** Drawings," (my asterisks added) and the gallery's weak response that it didn't want to censor his work (the artist also offered the tired defense that the root of the slur refers to the dark of the
charcoal).

The volume of the show sets up any enthusiastic viewer for return visits, which isn't necessarily possible for non-locals or those on strict budgets. My friend's answer was to buy the sourcebook offered for sale at the gallery store.While this show is worth spending hours on and is an admirable start to reintroducing — or, for real, introducing — the public to these artists' work and these important movements, our main critique was that it's just too big. It tries to make what was a series of diverse artists and protest actions into a monolithic exhibit, compressing a rich few decades of artistic expression and political action into a shallow glance.

And while the exhibit opens with a timeline of important events, from Brown v. Board of Education to the 1985 police bombing of a black family in West Philadelphia, there are many missed opportunities within the exhibit itself to explore more deeply and concretely that art made as social and political protest during such a contentious era was deliberately closed out of wider art discussions and institutions — not to mention the ongoingness of this issue.

Jan van Raay's 1971 image "Faith Ringgold (right) and Michele Wallace (middle) at Art Workers Coalition Protest, Whitney Museum." - COURTESY JAN VAN RAAY
  • COURTESY JAN VAN RAAY
  • Jan van Raay's 1971 image "Faith Ringgold (right) and Michele Wallace (middle) at Art Workers Coalition Protest, Whitney Museum."

In a dream scenario, my friend and I decided, we would turn this big show into many smaller, deeper exhibits that would be exhibited more frequently and widely. Our conversation shifted to a devil's advocate defense of the show's curators, Catherine Morris and Rujeko Hockley, who both work at Brooklyn Museum (which organized this exhibit). Perhaps their aim, in following the blockbuster exhibit model, was to draw a wider audience than a series of smaller shows would? We volleyed the problems of funding and the need for galleries and museums to come up with new models for engaging wider audiences, and enabling more people to see the shows — something that art houses are well aware of but haven't yet assuaged.

As we hit the road toward Rochester in time to make it to Saturday afternoon's most recent edition of the "At the Crossroads: Activating the Intersection of Art and Justice" series (more on that event coming online), the irony wasn't lost on us that this local series is specifically geared toward addressing the ongoing issue of representation and funding in the arts.

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