PHOTO OF MICHELE (MYSELF) IN FASHION SHOW IN 1970. DRESS MADE BY MME. WILLI POSEY, MY GRANDMOTHER THE FASHION DESIGNER. PHOTOGRAPHER TBA. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
PHOTO OF MICHELE (MYSELF) PROTESTING IN FRONT OF THE MUSEUM OF MODERN ART IN SAME DRESS BY MME. WILLI
POSEY WITH MATCHING PANTS. WE ALMOST ALWAYS WORE CLOTHES MADE BY MY GRANDMOTHER IN THE 60s. DETAIL FROM PHOTOGRAPH BY JAN VAN RAAY, 1970.
SINGER CENTER ON RIKER'S ISLAND BY FAITH RINGGOLD. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
SINGER CENTER ON RIKER'S ISLAND BY FAITH RINGGOLD. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
Of course, I haven't actually seen the painting "For The Women's House" since it was originally dedicated at the Women's facility on Riker's Island in 1971, 39 years ago. After that the story of the painting does not end.
At some point subsequent to 1971, the building became a men's prison as the complex of prisons on Riker's Island expanded to hold the incarcerated many, and the men became tired of looking at the women in the main mezzanine and the painting (which Faith had been told could under no circumstances be moved or removed) was relocated to the wall of the cafeteria. Then it was painted over with white house paint in preparation for a new painting by an unknown prison artist.
However, his ambitions (or his sentence) were not equal to the 8 by 8 feet blank white canvas (with images of the women surely insinuating themselves through the house paint, no match for oil paint in the scheme of things). Thus, the canvases (a diptych) were moved again, this time to the basement.
A woman guard who remembered the painting's former glory and Faith on her own intiative found Faith and told her what was happening and that the canvases were soon slated for disposal. This was sometime in the 90s. Faith went to the Commissioner of Prisons.
As it turns out, the prisons (along with every other institution of the City of New York) have extensive and longstanding art collections given to them over the years. The Commissioner rescued the painting from the basement on Riker's Island, brought it to his headquarters, raised the $25,000 needed to remove the white house paint and restore the original oil paint. By the by, if it had been acrylic paint, all would have been lost.
And then the painting was ceremoniously reinstalled at the new women's facility (the Singer Center) on Riker's Island at a great height and safeguarded in all sorts of new and novel ways. Except that the Neuberger Museum at Purchase promises to remove it from its perch one more time to include it in Faith's exhibition of her 60s works in the fall. I am thrilled that I will have a chance to see this object of my youth once again. Will it be as I remembered it. There will be another chance to photograph it under the best of conditions since I doubt the present jpgs for all their glory really capture anything like the actual colors, not to mention oil paint changes and deepens over time.
Faith told the story of "For The Women's House" with much more colorful embellishments and laughs at the Museum of Modern Art in the Education Center in discussion with Lisa Farrington and at the invitation of the Friends of Education this past Wednesday night. I am hoping that their technicians were successful in capturing both the tape of the interview and the videotape (more successful than they were in projecting Faith's powerpoint retrospective of her 50 years of art work, which appeared bleached beyond recognition) because Faith was as brilliant and amusing as a body could be in the space of less than an hour.
She will be 80 October 8th (God willing). I just can't believe it. Independently of everything, I just adore 80 year old women. There is something about that particular perspective on the past that is so fascinating to me, perhaps because it is the only perspective that remains beyond my present imagination. Or perhaps it is simply that after all these years I am finally allowing myself to become fully enchanted by Faith's riveting and constant accomplishments as an artist. The sheer breathe is dazzling even for a daughter.
I've given up fighting it and seeing the other side. Why shouldn't her work be taken as seriously as the great male African American artists Jacob Lawrence or William Johnson, whose works have been celebrated and lionized by the Whitney and the Modern? Because she is a woman?
Why shouldn't her work be taken as seriously as the great women sculptors Louise Bourgeoise or Louise Nevelson? Because she is a painter whose work is often figurative?
Why shouldn't she be considered in the same breathe with the great American painter Georgia O'Keefe, whose work grows more beautiful with each decade? Because Faith sometimes did work such as "For the Women's House," which was deliberately and explicitly propagandistic and political?
Why shouldn't I say so when nobody else will at the Museum of Modern Art or on Facebook or anywhere else I care to? Because I am her daughter, and should know better than to advocate for family?
Why in the world does Modernism, which was supposed to break all the rules, have all these completely insane and completely dysfunctional rules, despites its disdain for "irritable reaching after fact and reason? "
Nevermind. That question is rhetorical. I know the answer oh so well. Because if it didn't, there would be so much junk in the Museum of Modern Art, and every other museum you wouldn't be able to make a path through the crap. It would be like the Collyer Brothers row townhouse in Harlem in 1948 when the police found both of them dead and dessicating under the fallen rubble. Only ten times worse.
Unfortunately, at the Friends Event, there was little time for discussion and not much will to discuss. I think perhaps many of Faith's listeners were shocked into silence and disbelief as she described the unbelievable ordeal of one absolutely obsessed black women's effort to be a major artist in the latter half of the 20th century in a modernist canonical environment. The Museum of Modern Art has often been in our lives. But as Faith said, nobody wants to hear an old woman complain. And so she didn't, which made her message and her meaning, I would guess, all the more cryptic for her listeners who have had so little opportunity to hear her speak and to view her work in New York.
Faith spoke in a small screening room. When I sat down front in a sparsely populated room as the convenor made a point of mentioning that this event would start on time because she appreciated punctuality. So I didn't notice as the room's seats steadily filled.
In the lobby, there was an enormous crowd that I would imagine had never gotten into the auditorium--I don't know whether they had been turned away because the room was full or because they had come to greet others in the lobby. There were many late arrivals among the black bourgeoisie (which is the main constituency of this group), as their evenings had been divided by at least one other event attended that very same night by the Met's Multicultural Committee in consortium with the Links, 100 Black Women and 100 Black Men at the Metropolitan Museum of Art celebrating the new Picasso exhibition that had opened that night.
Recently, I was skimming through photos taken by the great 60s photographer Jan Van Raay of some of the protest activities in the art world that Faith and I engaged in when suddenly I found myself not only looking at a photo of myself at a protest in 1970 in front of the Museum of Modern Art but also wearing a dress that my grandmother made (which is how I actually recognized myself), and which I had modeled in one of her fashion shows that very year. As a coda to the vagaries of the late 60s, early 70s I present them. In 1970, I was 18 and a student at the City College of New York where I had ended up after a riotous semester at Howard University. When I got back to New York, Faith was caught up full swing in the protests of the Art Worker's Coalition and Museum and I could do naught but join in. In those days, although I was credited with much originality (I think because of my youth and physical beauty), I was in fact little more than a cipher, an appendage of my mother's vigorous and determined campaign to set the art world on its heels. It was invigorating nonetheless. And I like the pictures of it more and more as the decades go by.