Saturday, May 22, 2010

For The Women's House

The following are details from a painting by Faith Ringgold called "For The Women's House" installed at the Women's Facility on Riker's Island in 1972.  Faith talked about the experience of doing this first public commission sponsored by the Creative Artists Public Service Program at her historic discussion with art historian Lisa Farrington at the Museum of Modern Art sponsored by the Friends of Education on Wednesday evening.  

This painting was Faith's first public commission.  It was also her first major feminist work.  It was also done at the end of her series of oil paintings beginning with American People and America Black in the 60s.  By the time she did this work, she had already become committed to Black Feminism and the pursuit of equality and opportunity for women.  She composed this work based upon in depth interviews with the inmates at the prison, which I describe in an interview with her called "For The Women's House" in a chapter of INVISIBILITY BLUES (Verso Books 1990).  The interview, itself, was actually published originally in 1972 in an underground publication called "Women and Art."   

It can be difficult to get a copy of this book although nominally it is available through Verso Books and on Amazon.  From what I gather, Amazon actually publishes the book on demand.  In other words, you order it, and they print up a copy.  Needless to say, its been awhile since I have seen any royalties from this book.  And I am disturbed that the picture that accompanies this article is illegible at this point since it is by now a third or fourth generation black and white copy, but nonetheless, I want as many people as care to have access to this work. 

Based upon the interviews with the women in the prison, Faith decided to use only women in the mural (to have included men in the picture would have been to undercut the importance of the activities they were engaged in in the picture).  The detail below, which is divided into two triangular sections based upon the BaKuba design from the Congo is composed of a section showing a female police person with a female hardhat behind her.  In 1972, these were two jobs in which there were very few women.  In 2010, to see women (especially black women) as police officers or in construction is much more commonplace.  

One of the most interesting images in the painting to me then and now is of the triangle on the left in which a white woman is shown reading to her apparently mixed race daughter with kinky red hair from a book about Rosa Parks and Coretta Scott King.  Of course, such books were pretty much unobtainable in 1971 and 72.  Decades later, Faith herself would be a primary author for children's books of inspiration based upon the lives of courageous black women such as Harriet Tubman and Rosa Parks.  

I thought the inclusion of this white woman with a black daughter was extremely important at the time, especially in the context of a prison in which many of the women who were locked up had come to be so through their association with the men they sometimes had had children with.  Some of these women (most often then it seemed that women were arrested for prostitution) were white women who had mixed race children and black boyfriends (or pimps) or maybe even husbands.  

Of course, even more fraught then as now was the situation for the children of incarcerated women.  I am not sure if they had nurseries then or how long they allowed women who had children while in prison to keep their children but I was always particularly happy about this aspect of this painting because I still think it is a bad idea to ever separate a child from his or her mother, as long as the mother is not trying to harm the child.  

Probably the most tragic thing about a woman being in jail is being separated from her children, if she has children.  Even more tragic is to bear children in jail and then at some point to have to separate mother and child so that the mother can serve the balance of her sentence.  However long that separation may last, there is no possibility for making up for the time lost between mother and child or for undoing the damage thus incurred to the relationship between mother and child.  What in the world could the mother have possibly done that would make it worth while for the society to have to pay the price of damage done to both mother and child?  Meanwhile more likely than not, the mother is there as a result of a plea bargain, which means she may not actually be guilty of any crime, may have pled guilty to a lesser crime when she actually didn't commit any crime at all in order to shorten her sentence.  It's all insanity.    

Detail from For The Women's House, Oil on Canvas, 1971

In this next section of the painting, a white woman bus driver is featured at a time when women still were not driving public buses.  In the other half of this quarter of the painting, we see a woman physician teaching medicine to a black medical student.  At the time still, black women doctors were rare and black women medical students were also rare.  These images were all meant to be projections of career possibilities that women might go into instead of being incarcerated.  At the time, it still seemed very much as though women did not have a full range of opportunities outside of becoming wives and mothers.  If becoming a successful wive and mother wasn't an option because of the lack of opportunities for the men in the community you came from, then prostitution (the oldest profession) and prison were always waiting.  

    In this 60s and 70s it seemed to me as a young women that there were many many women engaged in prostitution.  And that there were always lots of pimps at the bus stations, at local bars and at subway entrances all too eager to ensnare the innocent and unwary young woman of whatever race.  Young women were pursued as easy prey.   In her discussion with Lisa, Faith emphasized her attraction to feminism in her art work being largely a matter of wanting to inspire hope and ambition in her daughters and to hold out for us the possibility of doing more with one's life than reproducing. 

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About Me

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I am a writer and a professor of English at the City College of New York, and the CUNY Graduate Center. My books include Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman (1979), Invisibility Blues (1990), Black Popular Culture (1992), and Dark Designs and Visual Culture (2005). I write cultural criticism frequently and am currently working on a project on creativity and feminism among the women in my family, some of which is posted on the Soul Pictures blog.