Chicago, Ringgold, MendietaEssay

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¶ … Abundant Evidence: Black Women Artists of the 1960s and 1970s" makes a case that female artists of color forced white feminist artists to be more flexible in their approach toward what constituted feminist art. What is most interesting about the situation that Smith describes in this time period is that the artists she describes, African-American women like Faith Ringgold, Betye Saar, and Howardena Pindell, were forced to assert a kind of independent feminism when they found that they were "marginalized by both the predominantly male Black Arts Movement…and the largely white feminist (and feminist art) organizations" (Smith XX). Although Smith does not use the term "intersectionality" in the essay, it is crucial to her approach -- she essentially concedes this point when noting that "black feminists had long been among the first theorists and activists to recognize that gender and race are mutually constitutive and interlocking modes of experience and social construction" (Smith 401). Thus, for Smith, understanding how Faith Ringgold's experiences as an African-American and her experiences (considered independently of race) as a woman means understanding the way in which these two experiences interact with each other, and frequently but do not always reinforce each other. The art that Smith is describing demonstrates this intersectionality precisely, but it is worth first considering whether Smith downplays the way in which the separate identities lead to dissonance rather than reinforcement.

We might begin by noting that Smith's approach to the subject is somewhat cautious, as witnessed by her handling of the precise historical context in which she notes that while "figures such as Elaine Brown, Kathleen Cleaver, Angela Davis, and Assata Shakur led Black Nationalist organizations; nevertheless…the Civil Rights and Black Nationalist movements privileged the powerful presence and voices of charismatic male leaders" (Smith 401). It may be beyond the purview of Smith's study to point out that Kathleen Cleaver was indeed married to one of those "charismatic male leaders," the Black Panther Minister of Information Eldridge Cleaver, and author of Soul on Ice, a 1968 book of essays written while Cleaver was imprisoned after being convicted for serial rape. Although endemic racism in America's justice system then and now should incline us to give the benefit of the doubt to any African-American male convicted of a crime like that, the book actually offers Cleaver's full confession regarding his career as a rapist, wherein he explains that his career as a rapist began by raping black women "for practice" before he began serially raping white women as "an insurrectionary act" (Cleaver 33). It may be beyond Smith's purview to rehearse this history, or Kathleen Cleaver's questionably feminist role as an apologist for serial rape, but it is clear that Smith's version of intersectionality is one that focuses on the specific contributions of African-American women to the feminist movement, while substantially downplaying precisely how anti-feminist the overall African-American political context of these artists was in the 1960s and 1970s. Eldridge Cleaver's apologies for rape strike the reader in 2015 as being belligerently reactionary: it is perhaps apropos to mention that, by the time he died in 1986, he had converted to Mormonism and ran as a Republican primary candidate in the 1986 California Senate Race, as though he were a strange marriage of Kanye West and George Deukmeijian. This perfectly illustrates the insight offered by feminist theorist of rape Susan Brownmiller in Against Our Will, where she described "a strain of thinking among Black male intellectuals and writers that became quite fashionable in the late nineteen sixties and was taken on with astonishing enthusiasm by white male radicals and parts of the white intellectual establishment as a perfectly acceptable excuse of rape committed by black men" (quoted in Davis 198)

As a result, when we consider the themes expressed by feminist artists of color, we must acknowledge what Smith is really saying when she notes that the 1971 "Where We At" Black Women Artists (WWA) "original[ly]…comprised painters and photographers who worked in a figurative style that romanticized black subjects" (Smith 403). With her 1973 publication of The Last of the Nuba, female photographer Leni Riefensthal was all working in a figurative style that romanticized her black subjects too: in other words, the specific style employed by the WWA artists was one that sounds utterly politically retrograde. Artist Kay Brown is quoted by Smith as saying, in terms of the goals of the original WWA group, that "our struggle was primarily against racial discrimination -- not singularly against sexism. We were not prepared to alienate ourselves from our artist brothers. Nonetheless, it is important to note that some of the artist (a few quite well established ones) chose to align themselves with the militant feminists" (Smith 403). Again, this emphasizes the reinforcements of intersectionality while downplaying the difference: when the main current of Black Nationalism appoints a Minister of Information who has confessed to, if not boasted of, a career as a serial rapist, it is no surprise that a number of the WWA artists did align themselves with militant feminism, because there is no alternative when one has made political common cause with a man who is militant about rape, and sees it as an "insurrectionary act."

This outlines what was perhaps the biggest single problem that feminist artists of color faced in pursuing their vision: the necessity of their political allegiance to a newly assertive Black Nationalism that, in many cases, espoused the most horrifically anti-feminist politics that can be imagined. The other problems feminist artists of color faced are more familiar as they tend to affect white feminists too: the lack of resources, the difficulties they faced in trying to exhibit their work, and the fact that, as Kay Brown stated, "they were conditioned to think that they could not really achieve the status of a professional artist" (Smith 402). The experience of black women of color was presumably substantially worse in degree but not in kind from that of their white counterparts like Judy Chicago herself. Yet we can see the complicated political situation experienced by a black artist of color in a painting like Ringgold's 1964 The American Dream: here a woman who is half black and half white, divided down the middle, while the most arresting color in the actual canvas comes from the red nail-polish that the woman wears, which combines on the far left of the canvas with an arrow pointing downward, which seems to suggest dripping blood. This is the woman's right hand but features a massive diamond ring on the fourth finger: thus it is specifically not a wedding ring (traditionally worn on the left) but a display of privilege that seems to be rising up out of a metaphorical invocation of blood. Smith interprets this ambiguous image as "a fear that integration may lead to the fortification of capitalism instead of a means to profound social and political transformation" but utterly fails to notice that it is a visual pun on Ringgold's own name, and thus an indication that the painting is a metaphorical mixed-race self-portrait rather than Lorraine Hansberry-inflected sociological allegory that Smith detects in the canvas (Smith 406). Yet this work is painted in 1964 and predates the revolutionary ferment of the late 1960s, when the deferred dream was no longer a raisin in the sun but instead seemed poised to explode: it might seem just as accurate, if a bit fanciful, to suggest that Ringgold's work is a harbinger of bloodshed, but how else are we to establish the downward pointing blood-red arrow? Smith also fails to note that, in 1964, Ringgold is copying a recognizable cinematic image of Norma Shearer and Rosalind Russell in the final scene of Claire Booth Luce's 1939 Hollywood hit The Women -- it is hardly a feminist film otherwise: indeed it is, rarely, a screenplay by a female writer that nevertheless flunks the Bechdel Test one hundred percent. In the film, women indicate their willingness to fight with other women over a man by having their nails manicured in a color called "jungle red." This famous cinematic image of red fingernails as a sign of female aggression combines with the weaponized red arrow as a backdrop for the gold ring that symbolizes the artist's name, Ringgold. It seems to be the self-portrait of a divided consciousness dreaming of future bloodshed, but in the middle of that bloodshed is encoded the artist's own name. It could easily be read as a harbinger of revolutionary ferment, one which led to reactionary anti-feminist sentiment in the name of consolidating the common cause of Black Nationalism.

But the question remains, in this time period almost a half-century ago, did women artists of color like Ringgold stimulate white feminist artists to more fully consider the issues that are crucial to an appreciation of intersectionality? Of course they did. Judy Chicago concedes as much in her essay in Entering the Picture, when she reveals the sort of manifesto underlying the work, which declares a world where "all… [END OF PREVIEW]

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