Where We At - A Revolution of Black Women Artists

Art History

February 16, 2021

The Civil Rights Movement was probably the largest and certainly the most relevant movement in the United States in the 1960s and 1970s. To conduct a social emancipation, the movement had to fight hard as the oppression in some parts of the country that were explicitly racist grew, as well as to agitate and pose questions in all the fields of human activity. It was a non-stop struggle aimed to dissolve the centuries-old slavery, to revisit the continuity of hatred, but also to exemplify the social and cultural domains of Black people.

Numerous figures played enormous efforts during the mentioned era to deconstruct stereotypes, speak of equality and the specifics of Black experiences. The artists use to gathered around groups, the Spiral Group and the AfriCOBRA being the most prominent ones. As Feminism sprawled in the late 1960s, women artists decided to gather and stand for themselves.

Where We At Black Women Artists, Inc. (WWA) was a collective formed in New York as a response to the lack of racial articulation within the Feminist art movement. These fierce artists confronted the issues they were exposed to as women of color while being neglected by the male-dominated Black as well as the mainstream art world. 

Where we at, Cookin & Smokin Poster, 1972. Courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum

The Unification of Black Women Artists

This prolific collective was founded in 1971 around the exhibition of the same title conceived by 14 Black women artists at the Acts of Art Gallery in Greenwich Village. Among them, there were Kay Brown, Faith Ringgold, Carol Blank, Dindga McCannon, Jerri Crooks, Gylbert Coker, and Charlotte Ka (Richardson). The initiative was aimed to support Black female independence and embodiment, African heritage, and the unification of the Black family in the light of contemporary social conditions.

Furthermore, the WWA was thought of as the platform to empower African-American women by allowing them to express themselves and their aesthetic freely and without convictions. Their method was similar to AfriCobra, as the art these women produced was socially engaged and made in regards to their community and was followed by numerous workshops in cultural centers, hospitals, schools, and prisons, but also art classes for youngsters.

We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965–85

The Milestone Exhibition

Namely, this exhibition was the first Black women's professional artists show in New York held at the Acts of Art Gallery owned by Nigel Jackson in a period from 1969 to 1974. To understand the context in full, it is mandatory to mention that this particular gallery was opened as a reaction to the Whitney Museum of American Art's first major exhibition of Black artists which caused the furor in the community due to the exclusion of the Black voices in curatorial and advisory boards.

WA artist and founder Kay Brown and her comrades proposed the exhibition to Jackson without knowing it would gain such popularity and critical acclaim. The subsequent fame motivated the women to organize themselves into an official collective. Brown claimed that the title of the show was meant to underline the artists' connection with to the “grassroots” community, enforced when the artists served cooked food to the visitors instead of traditional wine and cheese.

Another relevant piece of data that indicates the WWA’s connections with the Black Arts Movement unravels Brown’s collaboration with the Weusi Artist Collective in 1968. During her time in that collective, the artist learned different techniques (such as relief printmaking and mixed media collage), but more importantly Brown learned how to develop the conception of a Black aesthetic crucial for the Black Arts Movement. By plunging herself into the search, she has developed a philosophy based on African traditions to excel the Black woman's perspective.

Alongside the mentioned workshops and communal art classes, Where We At Black Women Artists, Inc. took part in other projects such as a panel discussion on women artists organized at the Brooklyn Museum simultaneously with seminal exhibition Two Centuries of Black American Art by David Driskell; a seminar for Women's International Year at Medgar Evers College; workshops for inmates at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for Women, and other programs with Women and Student Artists For Black Art Liberation.

WWA also published a well-articulated brochure "Where We At" Black Women Artists: A Tapestry of Many Fine Threads that featured the history and mission of the organization, while some members of the collective published their contributions in the Feminist Art Journal and Heresies: A Feminist Publication on Art and Politics.

Editors’ Tip: We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965–85: A Sourcebook

The accompanying Sourcebook republishes an array of rare and little-known documents from the period by artists, writers, cultural critics, and art historians such as Gloria Anzaldúa, James Baldwin, bell hooks, Lucy R. Lippard, Audre Lorde, Toni Morrison, Lowery Stokes Sims, Alice Walker, and Michelle Wallace. These documents include articles, manifestos, and letters from significant publications as well as interviews, some of which are reproduced in facsimile form. The Sourcebook also includes archival materials, rare ephemera, and an art-historical overview essay. Helping readers to move beyond standard narratives of art history and feminism, this volume will ignite further scholarship while showing the true breadth and diversity of black women’s engagement with art, the art world, and politics from the 1960s to the 1980s.

Looking At the Legacy of Where We At

Although at the time WWA’s members felt exposed to misogyny as they were excluded from the debates centered on the Black liberation, they saw themselves as more committed to the goals of the Black arts movement than the agenda of the White feminist art movement (WWA members, as well as other Black women artists, agreed with feminist rhetoric on many issues).

The collective gradually ceased to exist, and in the following decades, each artist pursued their own careers that remained socio-politically charged. Their actions and socio-political demands expressed during the emergence of second-wave feminism have been surveyed with a groundbreaking traveling exhibition titled We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965–85 organized by the Brooklyn Museum of Art in New York in 2017.

Looking from a present-day stance and the context of current racial tension in the US, the activity of these bold women seems very important as they perceived the art as a crucial element of their community; a useful tool that can be used for social emancipation and the further struggle for racial equality.

Featured image: We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965–85, April 21, 2017 through September 17, 2017. Courtesy Brooklyn Museum.