Monday, September 2, 2019

Feminism; Empowerment & the Arts (Part V): The Second Wave Rolls Along

A portrait of American artist Faith Ringgold (born October 8, 1930) found on her website.
(All images in this post can be clicked for larger views.)

"... the term 'sexism' was most likely coined on November 18, 1965, by Pauline M. Leet during a 'Student-Faculty Forum' at Franklin and Marshall College. Specifically, the word sexism appears in Leet's forum contribution 'Women and the Undergraduate,' and she defines it by comparing it to racism, stating in part: 'When you argue ... that since fewer women write good poetry this justifies their total exclusion, you are taking a position analogous to that of the racist - I might call you in this case a 'sexist'... Both the racist and the sexist are acting as if all that has happened had never happened, and both of them are making decisions and coming to conclusions about someone's value by referring to factors which are in both cases irrelevant.'"

-Via Wiki's entry for sexism. Inset right above is Know nothing, Believe anything, Forget everything by American feminist artist Barbara Kruger (born January 26, 1945).

"Ringgold showed White her paintings—still lifes and landscapes in what she called 'French' colors, which were very much in line with the gallery’s focus. The dealer studied the work, the artist told me, then said to her, 'You (pause) can’t (pause) do that.'

... Driving back to Harlem, she and Birdie talked about what had happened. 'I said to him,' Ringgold continued, 'You know something? I think what she’s saying is - it’s the 1960s, all hell is breaking loose all over, and you’re painting flowers and leaves. You can’t do that. Your job is to tell your story. Your story has to come out of your life, your environment, who you are, where you come from.'”

- From an ArtNews interview with American artist, Faith Ringgold, found with her 1969 painting (inset left) Black Light #10: Flag for the Moon Die Nigger, its title possibly a reference to the political biography released that year by Black activist, H. Rap Brown.

"Over the course of her sixty-year career, Faith Ringgold’s activism has moved strategically between reform and revolution. She helped form one of the first collectives for women of color artists in Brooklyn, led protests to push for the inclusion of artists of color at the Whitney and the Brooklyn Museum, advocated for free speech as part of the Judson 3, and worked with women who were incarcerated on Rikers to make a mural for the prison...

Ringgold completed this self-portrait at the beginning of her career, concurrent with the rise of the Black Power and other radical political movements of the 1960s... the artist portrays herself with a determined gaze and folded arms, in a gesture simultaneously gentle and guarded. In reflecting on this painting and the political and artistic awakening she experienced during this time, Ringgold has said, “I was trying to find my voice, talking to myself through my art.”

- Excerpt from another article regarding Faith Ringgold which, along with her self-portrait, was sourced from this Brooklyn Museum page. The "Riker's Island" prison mural mentioned in the article can be found here, although I have since found information that the actual prison at the time (1971) was the New York Women's House of Detention, where black revolutionary Angela Davis was being held. It eventually moved to Riker's Island where it became a prison for men.

"Yes, I was in Europe in 1955. I went for a summer vacation for two months. I went to London and France and then to Paris and then to southern France. And then to Italy...You know, Negroes didn't at that time travel much. And I know one of the reasons, you just couldn't get accommodations and couldn't be comfortable, and I felt that I would find that it was the same thing there. That I would be a Negro, you know, in a white world. And that was very frightening. Plus I couldn't live up to any of the brilliance that I was sure I would encounter. But after being in England for awhile I began to come out a little bit, and I found that in Europe you are not a Negro. You're a person. And that was, oh, that was just a wonderful, wonderful experience. I didn't want to come home. I just didn't want to come home... In South Carolina I did a little of traveling... I remember once I got on the bus with some other teachers who were roommates. And I went and automatically sat in the first seat that was empty. And they came along, these Negro teachers, and gave a great whoopla, you know. "You mustn't sit there" and all that. I didn't know what had happened. I turned around and looked at the man next to me and he looked at me... 'You can't sit there.' he said, 'First of all it's the front of the bus, second of all you're sitting next to a white man.'"

- American artist Vivian Browne from a transcript of a 1968 interview found here. The photograph inset left featuring Browne and some of her work was sourced here. It was Vivian Browne who, in 1971, along with Faith Ringgold, formed the Where We At group of African-American women artists.

"...those of us who stand outside the circle of this society's definition of acceptable women; those of us who have been forged in the crucibles of difference – those of us who are poor, who are lesbians, who are Black, who are older – know that survival is not an academic skill. It is learning how to take our differences and make them strengths. For the master's tools will never dismantle the master's house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. And this fact is only threatening to those women who still define the master's house as their only source of support."

- Attributed to Black feminist/womanist, activist, lesbian and poet, Audre Lorde (1934-1992), inset right. A West Indian American, Lorde championed the "outsider," a role she deeply identified with. As a black feminist she felt excluded from the prevailing feminist school, which she felt was academic, heterosexual and primarily white. She was an early Intersectional feminist, insisting that women acknowledge "differences between other women not as something to be tolerated, but something that is necessary to generate power and to actively 'be' in the world. This will create a community that embraces differences, which will ultimately lead to liberation. Divide and conquer, in our world, must become define and empower."

"Arkansas State Senator Paul Van Dalsem got a roaring laugh in 1963 at the then all-male Optimist Club when he railed at women lobbying to improve educational opportunities for African Americans. He said his home county’s solution would be to get an uppity woman an extra milk cow. 'And if that’s not enough, we get her pregnant and keep her barefoot.'”

- Via "Trading in “Barefoot and Pregnant” for Economic and Reproductive Justice." Apparently, Van Dalsem was paraphrasing a statement made earlier in the century by Arthur E. Hertzler, a Kansas M.D.: "The only way to keep a woman happy is to keep her barefoot and pregnant."  Inset left is a linoleum block print by American artist Margaret Taylor-Burroughs (1915-2010) - The Faces of My People. In Chicago during1961, she and her husband co-founded the Ebony Museum of Negro History and Art in what amounted to the living room of their house. It relocated in 1973, becoming the oldest museum of African-American culture in the United States:  the DuSable Museum of African American History.

"There are few things which present greater obstacles to the improvement and elevation of woman to her appropriate sphere of usefulness and duty, than the laws which have been enacted to destroy her independence, and crush her individuality; laws which, although they are framed for her government, she has had no voice in establishing, and which rob her of some of her essential rights. Woman has no political existence. With the single exception of presenting a petition to the legislative body, she is a cipher in the nation…"

"Woman has been placed by John Quincy Adams, side by side with the slave… I thank him for ranking us with the oppressed; for I shall not find it difficult to show, that in all ages and countries, not even excepting enlightened republican America, woman has more or less been made a means to promote the welfare of man, without due regard to her own happiness, and the glory of God as the end of her creation…"

- Two quotes from Quaker abolitionist and early feminist (inset right, above), Sarah Moore Grimké (1792 - 1873), from her "Letters on the Equality of the Sexes and the Condition of Women" found in this Women's History blog article. Inset left is an abolitionist coin or token which reads: "Am I Not a Woman and a Sister?", a rallying cry paraphrased by Sojourner Truth (inset right) in her famous "Ain't I a Woman?" speech and further utilized by white abolitionist women who turned to feminism when they realized that, for the women of their time, abject servitude was merely several skin tones away. Today, modern slave traders are color-blind; all races of women and children (and some men) - most especially the poor - are victimized. See Human Trafficking. Also here and here.

“How long shall the fair daughters of Africa be compelled to bury their minds
and talents beneath a load of iron pots and kettles?”

- A quote from a speech by free-born African-American abolitionist and lecturer,
Maria W. Stewart (1803-1879) shown above. Also, see here.

"Let the women stay at home and hold their peace."

-Greek playwright Aeschylus, 467 B.C.

"A Woman is to be from her House three times:
when she is Christened, Married and Buried."

- British physician and preacher Thomas Fuller, 1732.

"A woman's place is in the house - the House of Representatives."

- 1970, Bella Abzug.
(Note: Abzug shot too low. Nowadays we'd say "the White House, Oval Office.")


The Radicals and Revolutionaries
Racism, Sexism & Aunt Jemima's Revenge

Well, it took 6 months and number of Interludes (following this post), before I could crank out a follow-up. The sad fact is, artists are so subversive they even rebel against their own agendas! Anyway, my apologies... but, this post was quite a project - substantially revised several times when volumes of new material was found - and, as we have a lot of ground to cover, well, we may as well dig in now.

An untitled work by Birgit Jürgenssen, 1978.
First off, a kind of a re-cap. What was (hopefully) apparent in my previous post of the series - and will become increasingly apparent here - is that art created by women from the second wave period was tremendously broad in both diversity and scope. Moreover, many of the artists involved are still alive today and are continuing to produce art which is relevant. Regarding the artists who have passed - and some only in the past decade - their artistic contributions not only continue to maintain a "shelf-life" but, in some cases are so peculiarly contemporary, they could seamlessly be exhibited alongside artwork emerging today.

Case in point, Austrian artist Birgit Jürgenssen, who was born in 1949 and died at the age of 54. Her work is featured above inset right - which seems to depict a female primate in captivity and below... examples which, as described here"powerfully subverted the clichés of gender representation, social stereotyping, fetishism and forced domestication of women. Only recently has her work been rediscovered and acknowledged for its significance."

XXO - B/W photographs coloured with pastels, paint, and pencil - 1979, Birgit Jürgenssen.

Apart from her early death, It's hard to understand why and how an artist like Jürgenssen managed to fall through the cracks so rapidly while other feminist artists didn't. But, it may have been a result of feminism in Austria at the time (see here), or it may have had to do with her understated style - XXO, above, was an exception - or eclectic oeuvre. On the other hand, her Housewives' Kitchen Apron (Inset left) in which the "housewife" seems to be no more than an insignificant extension of her stove, was a bold, subversive statement because, in the 1950s and 60s - the early days of Big Consumerism - and the 70s, manufacturers needed you to believe just that: a woman's value was assessed by her proficiency as a housekeeper and her knowledge of the latest kitchen appliance, dish detergent, and repertoire of recipes involving Jello.
(And, according to television script-writers and advertisers, she got extra points if she wore a strand of pearls and lipstick while scrubbing the bathroom floor!)

"Realization" by British feminist photographer, Jo Spence (1935-1992).
Spence has donned a Halloween mask for her parody of a stereotypical cleaning
product ad from the 60s. Note the "Capitalism Works!" poster behind her.

There were even magazines devoted to women designed to drive this domestic indoctrination home. "Good Housekeeping" (inset right) for example, arrived on newsstands in the late 1800s, one member of a group of American "woman's" magazines: the Seven Sisters. It initially targeted wealthy, white, married women for whom "housekeeping" amounted to no more than managing the servants.

After the Great Depression, however, and, more importantly, post-WWII, working women were obliged to return to their homes (see previous post in this series) and middle-class housewives (and mothers) now comprised a more burgeoning demographic. Of note: while there are both UK and South American versions of Good Housekeeping, in the States its succession of editors were all male until 1995! Lastly, all but two of the "Seven Sisters" is still in existence to today... presumably modified for modern consumption.

In any event, there was more than one force at work in the domestication of women and, in spite of those feisty New Women from the earlier part of the 20th century, and the success stories of mid-century artists like Georgia O'Keefe, Louise Bourgeois, and Frida Kahlo, and even after Judy Chicago brought feminist art to the fore, worldwide enthusiasm for women visual artists - most especially blatantly feminist artists - was lukewarm. As it was, the skills of women artists were still considered inferior, and the historical records - in which women's artistic achievements continued to be dismissed - reflected this.

A sampling of Supersisters trading cards found here.
Even many of the feminists themselves seemed to discount art as a meaningful profession. When, in 1979, members of NOW created a set of 72 trading cards - Supersisters - to commemorate the achievements of famous women throughout contemporary history, although they included a number of celebrities from politics, sports and the entertainment field, plus a scattering of poets, writers, musicians, etc., not one of the 72 featured a visual artist.

6 (out of 11) feminist icons composing the Sister Chapel. Left to right is artist Frida Kahlo, poet Marianne Moore, activist Betty Friedan, Womanhero, the goddess Durga, and Saint Jeanne d'Arc as a pious country maiden.

Which is not to say the feminist artists themselves kept a low profile, but, inadvertently, theirs was a separate camp... and, necessarily, a self-supporting one. When, in 1974, abstract painter, Ilise Greenstein, conceived of a feminist spin on the Sistine Chapel - a monument to female empowerment featuring an image of God in feminine form - she aligned herself with the Woman's Interart Center in New York; a group formed by artist Jacqueline Skiles and one which, according to this announcement, folded only recently.

Several years later the Sister Chapel was born, primarily a henge-like circle of large paintings depicting notable women by a number of feminist artists. The subject matter was an odd collection of female "heroes" (predominately Caucasian, with the exception of Frida Kahlo and the Hindu warrior goddess, Durga, inset left). But, at least the artists did include 2 visual artists in the mix - Kahlo and Artemisia Gentilieschi.

My Nurse and I, 1937, Frida Kahlo.
As it happened, the Sister Chapel, while initially popular, was dismantled in the early 1980s and fell into obscurity until 2016 when it was discovered and reassembled by an art history professor, Andrew Hottie. It is now on permanent exhibit at Rowan University Art Gallery in Glassboro, New Jersey.

But, the overall bottom line is that the world was not yet sold on the idea of woman artists, any more than it was prepared for truly free women. Moreover, society as a whole was unwilling to relinquish its hold on all its designated home-makers, baby breeders, caregivers, domestic slaves, and sex-toys. And, (surprise, surprise) it is still unwilling.

Woman Vacuuming Pop Art, 1972, Pop artist Martha Rosler (b. 1943).
(One way of getting your "work" into an art gallery in the 70s.)

For women of color, however, there was a double jeopardy: she was marginalized for both her gender and the color of her skin. She was doubly a "minority", because most legislature - and social scientists - categorized all women as a subordinate group; "women and minorities" shared the same lack of status despite the fact that, regardless of color, women comprised half of the global population. Moreover, if poverty and/or class was part of the equation, a woman might be burdened by triple oppression.

In any event, the African-American women knew intimately that there were two foes to overthrow: racism and sexism. And, for a blatant example of both, clothed in Christmas coziness, we have a second Good Housekeeping cover (inset left) which featured a stereotypical cartoon mammy-figure carrying in a tray of food captioned: "Black cook bringing steaming Christmas pudding into the dining room..." 

I'm only surprised she isn't wheeling in a large carton of pancake mix... (also referred to as Slave in a Box). In spite of the fact that this cover was created in 1902 - and the so-called Reconstruction Amendments were allegedly put into effect over 30 years hence - the jolly "black cook," while theoretically a free woman, was still presented as primarily a kitchen fixture and fundamentally a servant. Apparently, someone forgot to free Aunt Jemima...

... that is, until 1972! Above is the perfectly subversive The Liberation of Aunt Jemima, an assemblage by black womanist artist Betye Saar. Let's face it, the purveyors of the Aunt-Jemima-plantation-mammy icon had it coming... retaliation that Saar gleefully supplied. Mammy not only got her gun, but - noting the Black Power fist that is revealed in the vignette beneath her apron - mammy wasn't alone!

Subversion is the operative word here but, then, you might say subversion is an artistic tradition... possibly originating from those Paleolithic days when some anonymous prehistoric women (and men) filled the surfaces of cave walls with prints of their own hands. Although it's impossible to know their intent, I think we can all agree that they weren't merely decorating the environment...

Whitey’s Way - Assemblage of wood, mirror, ceramic, printed papers, and plastic 
- 1970-96, Betye Saar.
... and neither were the black feminists of the second wave.

As it was, it was the perfect place and time; subversion was a common thread running throughout much of 20th century culture on a global scale - (see: counterculture) - in all of its many manifestations and in the 60s the battle cry across the board was "down with the establishment" and that "establishment" just happened to be (essentially) patriarchal, consisting of predominately aging, racist, Caucasian conservatives, i.e., a group which men like Donald Trump currently represent.

So, feminist/womanist artists - and revolutionaries - of the second wave were to a large degree supported by the overall zeitgeist of their time... an era which allowed them to prove that a woman's "place" did, indeed, extend well outside the home... and, for the artists, that meant into galleries, museums and performance art spaces. Inset right is a second print by Margaret Taylor-Burroughs, from 1998, NOW, RIGHT NOW!, found here.

A great photo of a group of revolutionaries considered to be the first intersectional activists: the Third World Women’s Alliance. Photo credit: 1972, Luis Garza.

One important correlation frequently overlooked, however, is that second wave feminism more or less emerged from the civil rights movement, both in theory and practice, and in terms of history, not for the first time. While the very early days of feminism are popularly described as the rise of the suffragettes before the turn of the century, there was an earlier wave in the 19th century aligned with the Abolitionist Movement.* Despite the fact that it was socially unacceptable for women to even discuss topics like slavery in public at the time, white women radicals like the Grimké sisters, Abby Kelley Foster, Lucy Stone and Prudence Crandall fought hard for African-American freedom alongside free-born women like Maria W. Stewart, Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin, and escaped slaves Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth (inset left is a statue of Truth by Ruth Inge Hardison, 1968). Some women, like Lydia Maria Child, also fought for Native American rights, especially regarding the Trail of Tears, the forced migration (and genocide) of a number of Native American tribes beginning in 1830 under President Andrew Jackson's Indian Removal Act. (Note: Jackson - whose face "graces" U.S. currency - was also a slave owner and strongly opposed abolitionist interference.)**

There is a woman in every color - color linoleum cut, screenprint and woodcut -
- !975 by the Mexican-American - and the grandchild of freed slaves - Elizabeth Catlett (1915-2012).
Here, Catlett seems to (wisely) imply that all women are "women of color."

But, as the abolitionist women in northern states came together and compared notes, they discovered they all had something in common as women, regardless of heritage: subordination, servitude and little or no control over their bodies, their livelihoods, nor their futures. Moreover, they had no voices as citizens and were only marginally considered as such. It didn't take long before ending slavery became half of a duel agenda: emancipation of all women regardless of their shade of skin.

Equals - 1992, Emma Amos.
With the ratification of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution in 1865, slavery was abolished, and with the ratification of the 14th Amendment (theoretically) all citizens had equal protection under the law. The abolitionists had (or so it seemed) achieved their initial goal. It was the 15th Amendment, however, which caused a division within the ranks of women abolitionists. Apparently, some women believed (or were led to believe) that the 15th Amendment would enfranchise all women and all men. As it happened, the new Amendment prohibited the federal and state governments from denying a citizen the right to vote based on that citizen's "race, color, or previous condition of servitude." Sadly, one word was missing from that last bit: "gender." For black women, although some foresaw that exclusively male suffrage might re-establish the slave/master conflict in their own lives, ultimately, in terms of their race, the 15th Amendment was, more or less, a victory. For white women, however - who now perceived they had less rights than the male ex-slaves they once fought for - it was a sorry blow. The real tragedy was that, ultimately, the 15th Amendment was both ineffectual and hollow - especially for the impoverished of any race - and would remain so until the Civil Rights Movement 100 years later!

Sculptor Ruth Inge Hardison posing with a statue she donated to Mt. Sinai Hospital
in New York in 1957. Born in 1914, she lived to be 102. The photo was
found in this 2016 obituaryThe little girl is her daughter, Yolande.

In any case, while not all white female abolitionists dropped the ball, those who did became the first radical suffragettes, wholly concentrating their efforts on suffrage and suffrage only. In some cases black women, like Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin, joined them. In many cases, however, the newly freed sisters were left to fend for themselves in a frequently hostile environment... which, happily, against numerous odds, they did! Inset left, is a front page from The Women's Era (1894); a newspaper published by African-American women for African-American women; there was also an African-American women's organization with the same name  founded by Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin. Featured is a photograph of Victoria Earle Matthews (1861-1907), an ex-slave and the daughter of a slave and (most likely) her white "master," who founded the White Rose Foundation which eventually unified into the National League for the Protection of Colored Women. (See here.)

A legend in her own time: a photo of socialist and former Black Panther, Angela Davis.

From the "Little Men" series -
1968, Vivian Browne.
Unfortunately, it seems as if the initial 19th century racial disconnect carried on into the second wave of feminism, especially in the States. White feminists who initially made the greatest strides in the 60s, 70s, and 80s were predominately well-educated, from the upper-middle class and were primarily concerned with sexism, discrimination in the workplace, and reproductive rights. But, their paths to empowerment were not altogether relevant for many black women who, although not necessarily from lower-class backgrounds, still felt marginalized by racism. Hispanic and Asian women were likewise alienated. Women from poor or lower working-class backgrounds also felt excluded and diminished in a system that needed more than just a few tweaks. In other words, while most women experienced the effects of sexism, too many were otherwise burdened in ways that the feminist movement could not possibly effectively address.***

2 details from Barbara Chase-Riboud's Malcom X series, assemblages composed of
bronze, silk and cotton. The original .jpgs and more can be be found herehereand on this French site.
Also on Entrée to Black Paris. An interview can be found here.

Black women artists, however, already empowered by the civil rights movement and black radical movements, took their alienation in stride with the goal of empowering both themselves and their race, individually and collectively. However, as it happened - and, as one might expect - black male artists had already become the definitive expression of the Black Art Movement, so, in response, the Black Feminist Art Movement was born.

The woman worked together, formed collectives and exhibited together. One of the most successful of these collaborations was Where We At  formed by Faith Ringgold and Vivian Browne in 1971 concurrent with the first all-black women's exhibition in New York. (There's a wonderful photograph of the women here.) Browne was also a member the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition organized in 1969. Meanwhile, Faith Ringgold and her teen-aged daughter, Michele Wallace, formed two other groups: Women Artists in Revolution and  Women Students and Artists for Black Art Liberation. A manifesto for the latter, written by Michele Wallace can be found on this .pdf including a host of other women's art manifestos (in English only). Inset left is a photograph of Faith Ringgold and her daughter, protesting the dearth of women artists of color represented at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1970. A similar demonstration took place outside the Brooklyn Museum.

And there were other art groups as well: the Ad Hoc Women Artists’ Committee, for one, and Artists Against Racism in the Arts. There were galleries, specifically AIR gallery, founded by African American artist Howardena Pindell pictured inset right, whose work can be found here and here, and in this video where the photograph was sourced.

To refer to art as merely subversive, however, is to misconstrue the very nature of art and the artist. Subversion is merely a portion of the transformative process and not a goal in itself. The artist creates. He or she doesn't merely break down barriers; they break through them. In other words, we're talking about revolution... and hidden in that word is the real goal: cultural evolution, made possible by the alchemical, transmutative power of art. And, there is no better example of revolution-through-art than artist Faith Ringgold. Her Black Light #10: Flag for the Moon Die Nigger (shown at the top of the post) was a game-changer in which the worm of racism is exposed.

American People Series #20: Die, 1967, Faith Ringgold.
But, racism wasn't the only worm she exposed in the strangely live-action image above - a prescient view of a white masculine stereotype - the shooter - on overdrive; a no-holds-barred interpretation of the madness, the harrowing reality which confronts us on a daily basis in the here and now. Ringgold was not only commenting on the turbulent 60s but seeing a future that made the 60s look (relatively) benign. (See my previous post.)

But, unless I'm mistaken. this was still not entirely a racial statement. "Whitey" was not the only armed madman in the picture. The black man he's restraining (or assisting) is armed, too. He holds a bloody knife in his raised hand. And this revises the narrative. We are no longer quite sure what's going on. We assume that one of the women will be the next victim, but, as our eyes travel away from the shooter through a number of triangular planes, we note that, curiously, the 3 white men and the three black men are almost identical. It's as if we're seeing 3 frames of a film in which the pair eventually meet their own demise. Are they, in fact, the victims of themselves? And, if so, whom do they really represent?

There are also three women in the story... forming a human chain across the canvas. There are also three children: a small boy and girl huddling in the center - the still eye of the storm - while a small girl is being carried away from the disaster. Happily, they appear to be surviving. The white boy and black girl might be representative of a racial binary that has transformed into a united front; a symbol of hope amid the chaos. But, their differing genders reminds us that this is not restricted to a racial narrative but is addressing something larger and more pervasive. Violence, for instance, is an interracial issue; but it is also, to some degree, a gender issue. And, yet, Ringgold is merely presenting a vision; she provides no answers... except, possibly, for one in a geometric code. Note the many references to #3 in her painting, up to and including the many triangular planes incorporated into her design. Triangulation, whether it is deliberate, subliminal, literal or oblique, essentially follows a Rule of Three which, along with its other meanings, unites a duality: all dualities emerge from and return to a single holism. In other words, Faith Ringgold has brought a type of order to a chaotic, violent scene... just as she has brought that same order to the far more joyous scene inside left: a detail from a quilt entitled "Chasing Butterflies" (2010). 3 children - a boy and 2 girls - and 3 butterflies are in perpetual motion within a field of flowers... an affirmation of life's interconnected magic uninterrupted by issues of gender and color.

So, although Faith Ringgold is a wise woman and a sooth-sayer, she isn't a doom-sayer, and, in an extraordinary move, she artfully evolved, immersing herself in a new medium: the American quilt. Textile or fiber art is not virgin territory for many women - historically, it has always been a woman's domain - but, for a revolutionary, it was new frontier. Which is not to say that Ringgold's quilts look overtly subversive. They look like carnivals of color in which people dance and play; just like the woman and her daughters in "Dancing at the Louvre" (1991) (inset right). Which is why her quilts are revolutionary; they override the African American stereotype as an outsider, an underdog or ominous "other." Her human subjects are not a "race apart." They picnic, sleep under the stars... and boogie... be it on the Brooklyn Bridge or in a distinguished museum surrounded by priceless paintings. Ultimately, she's reaffirming the positive qualities of our race, that is, the human race.

But, renaissance women are not one-trick ponies and little girls (and big girls) need extra encouragement and, as Faith once channeled through one of her own children's storybook characters: "I can fly - yes, fly. Me, Cassie Louise Lightfoot, only eight years old and in the third grade, and I can fly. That means I am free to go whenever I want for the rest of my life…" (From Tar Beach, 1996, Faith Ringgold.)

by Christian Schloe.
Which kind of brings us back to my original theme for the Empowerment posts. Last year (in the first post of the series) I wrote: "... even when a woman is the boldest, most attractive, most ingenious person she can be, chances are she still fears she is never quite good enough... Inwardly, regardless of her accomplishments, she still feels as if she's treading water, or as if some undefinable force continues to hold her back or drag her down. This is not a delusion. Metaphorically, society - under the spell of a pervasive patriarchal zeitgeist - clipped her wings many ages ago... the trappings of her prison exist at all times embedded within her own psychology. So, the question becomes: how can a maimed bird fly?"

And flying is still my operative theme. While not all of us are "maimed bird(s)," I suspect there isn't a woman reading this for whom flight - in one form or another - is not a necessary thing. The real deal though is, creatively, women artists of all ethnicities have been flying all along... world-wide. Unfortunately, up until third-wave feminism, most women hadn't a clue, especially those living outside urban centers. And, until the PC came along, ferreting out this information was a long and tedious process.

So, yes, we have flown, are flying, and will continue to fly, and I'd like to end this section with a woman who transformed her flight into art, Carrie Mae Weems (b. 1953), who photographed her (solitary) self passing through notable places all over the world. Below is a self-portrait of Weems in Italy, standing inside the interior of an immense sculpture by Niki de St. Phalle - the subject of our next and last section. For the entire series of Weem's outstanding (and haunting) photographs see her website. They are both stark and powerful.

Niki's Place, 2006, Carrie Mae Weems. 

"I have been woman
for a long time
beware my smile
I am treacherous with old magic"

- Audre Lorde, from A Woman Speaks.

A Vietnamese statue of Durga.
(See: The 10 Weapons of the Goddess Durga.)


* In Europe there was even an earlier intimation of a feminist wave during the early 18th century connecting racism and sexism. The painting inset left (below) is from 1800 and was entitled Portrait d'une Négresse by French artist, Marie-Guilhelmine Benoist (Fr), who died 26 years later. It was eventually acquired by Louis XVIII and now hangs in the Louvre.

At the time, many male observers felt that d'une Négresse - later named Madeleine (possibly the name of the model) - was the work of an artist who (purportedly) influenced Benoist, Jacques-Louis David. The painting was considered too "aesthetically successful and technically proficient" to be painted by a woman. Moreover, it was unlike anything Benoit had painted in the past. Regardless, it was also considered a symbol for the emancipation of women and slaves at the time because, although slavery was abolished in France in 1794, it was reinstated by Napoleon in 1802. (See here.)

One contemporary male critic theorizes that Madeleine, although not technically a slave, was a servant, and had no control over her depiction by Benoist, which the critic informs us "failed politically" because it pandered to the "male gaze." Well, I must say, that's very odd coming from a man... but, I guess he could find no other way to ultimately disparage Benoist's work. I'm assuming he refers to the one exposed breast which, by the way, was a device used by many artists - going as far back as classical times - to infer a woman's freedom and nobility. It had litttle to do with the male gaze... a subject that I hoped to have addressed by now but must be postponed to a later post in the series.

But, allow me to say that I do not feel that Madeleine was victimized, coerced or exploited by Benoist. D'une Négresse is an exquisite portrait of a regal, mysterious woman who was comfortable in her skin, painted by another woman who appreciated her beauty, although, like she, was a prisoner in a system that demoralized and discredited them both.

** Apparently, in 2020, a new $20 bill will be issued with a portrait of Harriet Tubman (inset right) on the front - the very first example of contemporary nation-wide American paper currency which features a woman - replacing racist President, Andrew Jackson. That's the good news.

The bad news is that the Big Boys just couldn't quite part with Jackson and, in an extremely bizarre move, decided Jackson will appear on the reverse side of the note. In other words, they're more or less corrupting the whole concept by putting a known male slave-owner on one side of the bill and a female ex-slave on the other! Go figure. So, inadvertently, the Big Boys are commemorating a great woman... while simultaneously insulting her and all women. Only in America, cats and kitties.

*** In many ways, I think critics of the second wave tend to overlook information that fails to support their agendas. For instance, I do not feel that there was - across the board - a cataclysmic racial divide between all feminists during the 60s and 70s anymore than there was a racial divide between the country's youth. What we fail to hear about these days is the camaraderie, the successful interracial collaborations such a those emerging in other forms of art: music, film and literature. There were also urban communities in which race was not a factor. (See: Women’s Liberation Periodicals in this article). Lastly, there were feminist groups like Heresies of which artist Emma Amos (b. 1938) said: "And that’s what Heresies became for me. All of my disdain for white feminists disappeared, because we were all in the same boat. We just came to the boat from different spaces."

Blindfolds - acrylic on canvas with African canvas borders
 and photo transfer - 1993, Emma Amos.

Niki de St. Phalle: Creatrix of Worlds

The Empress in the Tarot Garden.

"The Empress is THE GREAT GODDESS. She is Queen of the Sky. Mother. Whore. Emotion. Sacred Magic and Civilization. The Empress is made in the form of a Sphinx. I lived for two years inside this protective Mother. She also served for headquarters for my meetings with the crew. It was here we had coffee breaks. On all she exerted a fatal attraction." 

- French sculptress, Niki de St. Phalle (October 29, 1930- May 21, 2002), describing her massive sculpture, The Empress, found in her monumental installation - Giardino dei Tarocchi (The Tarot Garden) - in Tuscany, Italy. (See here, and click "The Cards." This site is multilingual.) The interior of this sculpture is the setting for Carrie Mae Weems' photograph Niki's Place shown earlier.

"A critic has observed that Saint Phalle's 'insistence on exuberance, emotion and sensuality, her pursuit of the figurative and her bold use of color have not endeared her to everyone in a minimalist age'. She was well known in Europe, but her work was little-seen in the US, until her final years in San Diego. Another critic said: 'The French-born, American-raised artist is one of the most significant female and feminist artists of the 20th century, and one of the few to receive recognition in the male-dominated art world during her lifetime.'"

- Via the Wiki entry for Niki de St. Phalle, as is the photo inset left of her Blue Nana, a polyester sculpture in Hamburg, Germany. The iconic Nana figures - immense, energetic and vibrantly colored - were an important motif for Saint Phalle which often appeared in her work and of which she said:  "Since women are oppressed in today’s society I have tried, in my own personal way, to contribute to the Women’s Liberation Movement."

Note that this wonderful Nana is transferring a shimmering liquid from one jug to another; recognizably a motif from the Tarot, specifically the Temperance or "Art" card.

La Cabeza
"The works in Niki de Saint Phalle: Creation of a New Mythology range from the whimsical and wondrous to dark and serious. The exhibition relies on a handful of interconnected ideas and opinions to reveal the intellectual depth and reach of Niki's engagement with the worlds of myth, legend, religion and cultural archetypes. Many works by Niki are set in fantastic surroundings: dreamscapes populated by strange creatures, combinations of animals out of place with each other and their environment, sometimes threatening, other times benevolent and peaceful."

"There was a six-ton skull rolling down the interstate Friday morning from Troy to St. Louis. The Missouri Botanical Garden is getting ready for an outdoor exhibition of work by artist Niki de Saint Phalle. One of her pieces, La Cabeza, is a six-ton mosaic skull that was hauled to the gardens Friday on a flatbed semi."

- Excerpt from an American press release from 2012 promoting a traveling exhibition of Saint Phalle's work for the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art in North Carolina, and another from an article regarding the same exhibition at the Missouri Botanical Garden In St Louis.

"The heretic who rejects the idols of patriarchy is the blasphemous creatrix of her own thoughts. She is finding her life and intends not to lose it. The witch that smolders within every woman who cared and dared enough to become a spiritually questing feminist in the first place seems to be crying out these days: "Light my fire!" The qualitative leap, the light of those flames of spiritual imagination and cerebral fantasy can be a new dawn."

- An excerpt from Outercourse: The Be-Dazzling Voyage by Mary Daly.

"I am in solidarity with all those that society and the law excludes and crushes."

 - Niki de Saint Phalle (found here).


I suppose if anyone can qualify as "maimed" in this post, it'd be Niki de St. Phalle, especially in terms of her childhood. Her mother was a child beater, her father was a pedophile who sexually abused her from the age of eleven, and two of her younger siblings - a brother and a sister - eventually committed suicide. She herself was institutionalized for a short period when her (eventually estranged) husband feared she might take her own life.

But, there was one fortunate aspect of her childhood: she came from a wealthy family... wealthy enough to employ a family cook, a woman of color for whom St. Phalle had a deep and lasting fondness. The kitchen of the family domain was St. Phalle's place of refuge. So, yes, there have been authentic "mammy" figures out there in the real world and my impression is that they helped more than one white child from a dysfunctional family maintain sanity (and humanity).*

And, there were other fortunate aspects to her biography. She was physically beautiful; enough so to model for the covers of Vogue and ElleInset left is a photo of Niki in Paris from 1975. One suspects she was a naturally glamorous woman with or without the haute couture, but here she might be a rival to the then-popular Barbie doll, sans the grotesque curvatures. (Just for fun: Barbie Liberation Organization.) But, more importantly, St. Phalle had faith in her visions and was persuasive enough to inspire numerous people to both support and assist her. She had that knack, a certain charisma. She was also resourceful; in later years, when she needed more funds to complete her Tarot Garden, she fell back on her fashion sense to create a scent, specifically her own perfume: the snake design above is the logo for Niki de St. Phalle Parfum which, according to the description found on the linked page was and is fabulous. An excerpt: "As I wear the fragrance I find myself in a dream garden of scent; oakmoss hanging from coniferous trees and strange alien blooms dotting the dark forest floor."

But, to really explain St. Phalle's tremendous outpouring of creativity over the years, well, there's no theory in the world which can account for it. She wasn't formally trained.** Her largest influence was the great (and eccentric) Spanish architect, Antoni Gaudí. Moreover, she was a deeply troubled woman (see my previous post); and, often a sad woman who lost many friends to the AIDS epidemic, friends for whom she created cemetery monuments and referred to as her birds: “Unfortunately all my birds have unhappy endings… Birds are messengers from our world to the next. My Guardian Angel is a bird.”

She was later to write and illustrate a book about AIDS in the form of a letter to her son, Philip, entitled: AIDS: You Can’t Catch It Holding Hands (1978).

Meanwhile, there were her other birds, her Lovebirds - Oiseau Amoureux - massive human-like avians with Nanas hanging voluptuously from their necks like the one above (a fountain installed in Germany). In ways, the two figures composing Oiseau Amoureux is similar to the two figures in the Chakrasamvara Tantric mandalas of Buddhist tradition. Inset left is a Tibetan example. In metaphysical terms this divine union symbolized perfected bliss.

As it was, her first notable installment, and one that was only recently documented was also devoted to Oiseau AmoureuxLe Rêve de L’Oiseau (The Bird's Dream). Built in the south of France and commissioned by a friend, Rainer von Hessen, it is a private residence composed of three sculptural enclosures which has never been open to the public.

Saint Phalle's most monumental installation - which is most definitely open to the public - is her fabulous Giardino dei Tarocchi (The Tarot Garden) in Tuscany, Italy. It opened in May of 1998, sits on over 4 acres, took over twenty years to complete and cost somewhere in the vicinity of 11 million dollars (USD). Now, that's commitment... and fortitude!

Six details from St. Phalle's Tarot Garden which represent a small fraction
of the immense amount of creative vision and labor that was invested it.
See more from the photo sources: here and here.

The Empress - the first image in this section - was actually a kind of temple; note the door in her belly and the portals peering out of her nipples. Her magical interior was lined with mosaics of golden mirrors (scroll down on this page).

Inset left is a whimsical fountain - featuring a bevy of brightly colored Nana figures with the "water of life" spouting from their mouths & nipples - which lies in the Tarot Garden near The Emperor's courtyard. All in all, each of 22 trumps of the tarot's Major Arcana is represented - many with amazing, walk-in interiors - plus a smattering of smaller sculptures. Incidentally, the Tarot Garden is all over the web, and - apart from the links already provided - more information and photos can be found here, here and here. There is also a book.

Lastly, I think it's only fair to mention St. Phalle's second husband, sculptor Jean Tinguely, who was instrumental in many of her achievements and provided her with stability and emotional support she might not have found elsewhere. They collaborated on a number of projects together including the kinetic sculpture Cyclops (video), and the Stravinsky Fountain in Paris (inset left).***

One earlier collaboration bears mentioning, however... after all, we haven't had a Dali anecdote in ages. Apparently, in 1961, Marcel Duchamp introduced St. Phalle and Tinguely to Salvador Dalí and, while in Spain, they were invited to take part in tributary celebrations for the Spanish Surrealist. So, they created a life-size bull made of plaster and paper, which exploded in the Arena at Figueras during a firework display. Dali must've loved it.

St. Phalle's last installation - and one that she worked on up till her death in 2002 - was Queen Califia's Magical Circle in San Diego, California, where she died, allegedly from pneumonia, her lungs damaged by decades of breathing polyester fiber used in the creation of many of her works.

I wish I had known of her before her death; all of her work inevitably makes me smile.  Inset left is her Golem (Mifletzet) in Jerusalem. It, too, has an interior, and 3 tongues which double as slides. It was meant for children, created by a woman who had a unique understanding of what it means to be a child.

Alas, it was this sense of unbridled, child-like joy emanating from her sculptures that apparently inspired one critic to note that Saint Phalle's "insistence on exuberance, emotion and sensuality, her pursuit of the figurative and her bold use of color have not endeared her to everyone in a minimalist age."

Ah well, as one grows older (and more jaded) one knows enough to take what "critics," haters, and nay-sayers say with a grain of salt (and a shot of tequila). Can't please everyone... and, after all, critics have their bad days, too. As they should.


* Unfortunately, the anonymous "black cook" who is often mentioned in articles about St. Phalle is never mentioned by name; the fate of many women, as we know. The tragedy is that this nameless woman was quite possibly instrumental in saving, not only St. Phalle's sanity, but her life. In a video found here -  which my obsolete browser will not allow me to view - she makes a "strong political statement suggesting that Black Power and Women Power should join forces to create a 'new world of joy'" A new world of joy; I'll drink to that!

** Actually, due to her lack of formal training, Niki de Si. Phalle is generally considered an outsider artist. Of course, so is Henri Rousseau, Vincent van Gogh, Paul Gaugin, and a number of female artists in the Empowerment posts, and for the same reason. While Frida Kahlo is rarely referred to as an outsider, she was also never formally trained. See the Wiki List of Autodidacts.

*** Templar Alert! According to this page:

"In Île-de-France, just north of the town Milly-la-Forêt, is the small town of Dannemois. In 1970 Jean Tinguely purchased a large house there, and Niki de Saint Phalle and he stayed for several years while constructing Le Cyclop. The “Commanderie”, also known as “La Louvetière”, once belonged to an Order of the Templars. Intrigued by the mysticism of the property, Saint Phalle and Tinguely searched the house for the Templars’ treasures, but never found any. They did, however, find secret passages that led out of the village and another that went to the church. During WWII the house was used as a field hospital. Between the templars and its more recent history, guests staying with Saint Phalle and Tinguely always felt the house was haunted."


Christine Pizan at her Computer,
1999, Mary Yaeger.
Well, cats and kitties, I bid you all adieu till next time... but I'm not promising anything. For those of us who are not able to keep up with the constantly changing (and marginalizing) technological parameters on the web, researching things has become a losing battle.

But, that's the bad news. The good news is that the real reason the empowerment posts are taking so long is that there's simply too many female artists who've emerged in the past 50 years to cover here! In other words, there has, indeed, been a true renaissance for women in the arts - multi-racially and across the globe - and it's ongoing! Anyway, considering that the medieval Renaissance period lasted 200 years, in terms of a cultural revolution, we're not even mid-way through our own.

Primer misteri de Glòria - First Mystery of Glory,
Dionís Renart i Garcia & Antoni Gaudí.


  1. My god, my head spins....this is a glorious exultation of art and the battle of feminists AND a glimpse into the darkness of society behind the glitzy exterior. You, dear author, should take this on the road - a stop in every town with all citizens compelled to attend.

    This is amazing art. It is a powerful commentary. So very well assembled and written. Well said!

    I only hope this shall be read by many.

  2. Hah! Well, thanks, my friend, but this blog has proved itself somewhat unfit for the masses. I'm just hoping the people who do come here, find whatever information and inspiration they need.

    But, yes, there's certainly some awesome art and artists in this post. Unfortunately, I can only touch the surface of the immense quantity of art that exists from that period... and I'm not finished yet - in the next post our investigation goes global.

    1. You may consider it "merely touching the surface", but this also contains a rich depth of fractal might easily get lost on the side paths because everything branches off the main avenue of exploration. It is quite wonderful.

  3. P.S. Actually, there weren't any "battles" between feminists presented in this post. Certainly not in terms of racism or art. Divisions, yes, but I wouldn't say hostility.

    There were battles in the feminist ranks during this period, however; generally regarding sexual matters and the portrayal of women. I think I touched upon that in the first post and may again in the last.