Two exhibitions at the Hammer Museum and CAAM in Los Angeles have taught me one important thing: radical women get things done. If you silence them, they find a way to speak, if you hide them, they will be seen, and if you ignore their work, they will make their presence known. History has an uncanny way of catching up to us, despite our futile attempts to hide or re-write it. Hollywood, Washington and the Confederate monuments in between have shown us what happens when we don’t confront the ugliness of the past-it comes back to haunt us. In many ways radical artists are the canaries in the coal mine, using their work to speak up and out against societal, political and economic institutions that have conspired to maintain the status quo. Art history chose to ignore much of the work created by radical female artists of color but the Hammer Museum and CAAM have brought two shows to L.A. to encourage history to catch up. These fearless black and Latinx artists created bold work in collaborative spaces where their art could thrive and their artistic voices could be heard.
In Radical Women: Latin American Art, 1960-1985 at the Hammer Museum, a video by Patricia Restrepo presents a hauntingly simple depiction of silence and visibility. The short film features a couple sitting at a table having breakfast—the husband slowly prepares his coffee with cream and one spoonful of sugar and lights a cigarette while his wife sits plaintively across from him. As the man finishes his coffee and takes a long drag from his cigarette, he slowly gets up from the table to leave without uttering a single word to the woman across from him. His silence is painful–hers is tragic. In the video the man repeats each step of his routine 2-3 times, never looking at his wife, her invisibility by now is so pronounced you want to scream at them both. As the camera shifts its focus to the woman, her eyes speak volumes; she is forlorn and dejected. In her gaze we see her admit the inevitability of her invisibility as she descends into a quiet, palpable desperation.
For a show titled Radical Women, an explosive exhibition of 260 works by 120 Latinx artists, Restrepo’s Por la Mañana (In the Morning) was arguably one of the least “radical” pieces, but its subtlety is an important prelude to the rest of the political works that confronted the social and economic ills that plagued Latin America between the 1960s and 1980’s. Flashing forward to today as women use the courage of their voice to say #metoo while taking to the polls to disrupt the status quo and fight for our rights, this show gives us perspective. We can take a healthy, knowing look at the fearless women of our past who created work that made unflinching critiques of their realities.
Many of the experimental works in Radical Women were metaphorical depictions of childbirth to mimic the process of claiming space. In one video documenting a performance by Lygia Pape, the artist slowly emerges from a polyurethane cube onto a beach with waves crashing behind her. The vast landscape of the horizon punctuated by undulating waves captured the power contained in the first breath; this work also gives us a glimpse at artistic adaptation that shifted work from traditional painting and sculpture to conceptual performance. The contextual ties to the political unrest in Latin America that prompted these artistic shifts are important. When Brazil was under an authoritarian dictatorship in the 1960’s and 1970’s, the military censored the press, art, music and other forms of entertainment. During this time, artistic practices transformed to conceptual works that became coded symbols of resistance in response to the political climate. Among the works created by artists in Radical Women, there’s a juxtaposition between the historical patriarchy and their current political repression. Despite the differences among artists, countries, artistic practices, and message there’s a connection between the past and present, and that connection informs the artists’ creative response. It is a theme that is repeated in We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965-1985 at CAAM, yet the artistic response by black women was directed toward an entirely different set of patriarchal dynamics that surround visibility and voice.
For black women caught in the double bind of racism and sexism in America, maintaining visibility within both the Civil Rights and Women’s Movements presented its own challenges. This unique juxtaposition of race and gender provided fertile ground for artistic expression, and in We Wanted a Revolution we see black women artists asserting their rightful place in the canon while recognizing the representational void left by feminism. The works in the exhibition use voice, visibility, and agency as strong thematic threads throughout the show.
Standing in the center of one gallery within the exhibition, Lorraine O’Grady’s iconic white dress made from white debutante gloves is the symbolic remains of a performance that tackled race, class, gender, and sex in an unflinching rebuke of the institutions and social constructs that kept black women artists out of New York’s avant-garde in the 1970’s. Mlle Bourgeoise Noire was a series of bold guerilla performances debuted by O’Grady in 1980 where the artist would crash museum and gallery events wearing her gloved dress and tiara while holding a cat of nine tails in one hand.
While shouting personalized poems that exposed hidden truths, O’Grady confronted guests with their complicity in maintaining the status quo. In these performances, the artist’s gloves metaphorically came off as she customized her calls to action to her impromptu audiences. To black artists she implored them to take more risks, encouraging them to abandon the ties that kept them firmly tethered to respectability politics. To the New Museum, she shouted “Now it’s time for an INVASION!”, questioning their lack of inclusive programming. While the dress is a rebuke of gender-normative behaviors of servility, silence, and submission, the performance was a demonstrative proclamation of visibility, strength, and self-determination. O’Grady’s multi-layered critique of our society is timeless and its latent effects are deeply constructive to this day.
We Wanted a Revolution extends its critical lens to feminism, exposing the complicated schisms between black and white feminists that continue to perpetuate themselves today. Looking at Lorna Simpson’s 1986 Water Bearer, we see reverberations of the photo’s text ripple into the present.
The message: Black women’s memories cannot be trusted. We saw evidence of this in the news last month when Myeshia Johnson, a military widow in mourning, had her own recollection of events called into question after her infamous phone call with President. When scores of women shared their stories about Harvey Weinstein, it was Lupita Nyongo’s account of her personal experience with harassment that prompted him out of rehab to personally refute her recollection of events. These behaviors uncover deep seeded divisions within movements that, when left unchecked unravel bonds that undermine intersectionality. These nuances are designed to bifurcate a movement that doesn’t need to be divided.
What unravels in silence can only be mended by action, and the elections that took place on November 7th among women from various backgrounds signal important political strides that need to continue throughout the U.S. in the years to come. If we look to history as a roadmap for continued progress, we see how black women have rallied together as the backbone of every political movement between Civil Rights and Black Lives Matter, and within the art world between the 1960s and 1980s, black women created affirming spaces where their work was celebrated and amplified. In We Wanted a Revolution, the rows of ephemera collected from galleries and artist collectives underscored the essential bonds among black women artists from diverse artistic practices and points of view (JAM, Rodeo Caldonia, etc.) The newsletters, critical essays, and advertisements on view added context to the work within the show and provides a rich historical accounting of artists’ collaborative work as well.
L.A. needs both of these shows right now. As a black woman watching the events of the last few weeks unfold, it has been excruciating to bear witness to the unearthing of so much pain, especially when I take pause to consider the countless stories of women that remain untold. The work created by women of color in Radical Women and We Wanted a Revolution was both instructive and cathartic. Not only are they launching points for continued study within art history, but the timelessness and prescience of the work they created give us all important insight for navigating the world today.