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Alva Rogers, Sandye Wilson, Candace Hamilton, Derin Young and Lisa Jones, 1986Courtesy of Lorna Simpson

These radical black artists stood against white feminism

A new landmark exhibition in New York celebrates black women artists from an under-recognised generation

Catherine Morris is a white woman who has problem with "white feminism". Over the past few years, alongside Rujeko Hockley, Assistant Curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art, she's played a key role in championing the work of black women artists who have been underrepresented in the mainstream rhetoric around second-wave feminism.

We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965–85, an exhibition currently taking place at the Brooklyn Museum in New York City, is the outcome of her and Hockley's work.

Zeroing in on the photography, paintings, performance and other forms of art by more than 40 black women (including filmmaker and Beyoncé influencer Julie Dash, painter Emma Amos and southern vernacular artist Beverly Buchanan), many of whom were caught up in activism around the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements, the Women’s Movement, the Anti-War Movement and the Gay Liberation Movement in America, the exhibition is the first of its kind.

It feels especially necessary in an era when the political tide is turning venomously against people of colour and women in the United States. Just two days ago Donald Trump released a signing statement questioning whether key funding sources for historically black colleges were constitutional, and if his ghastly healthcare bill goes through it's a matter of fact that women of colour would be disproportionately affected. Even the Women's March, which was supposed to unite feminists the world over in the era of Trump, has been legitimately called out for failing to embrace intersectionality. 

With this in mind, Dazed spoke to Morris, who is also the Sackler Family Senior Curator for the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, about what we can learn from the radical black women who came before us.

Why now?

Catherine Morris: The exhibition, as with most, large historical exhibitions, has been in the works for a couple of years. We wanted to do an exhibition that really expanded the narrative and history of feminism. And this is an obvious place to start. Most white people's understanding of second-wave feminism is as a middle-class, largely white movement. And we know that's not true. There was lots of different kinds of feminisms emerging at the same time, even if they weren't necessarily using the word feminism. And so it felt very timely to talk about that. It seemed to become even more timely over the course of us putting the show together. 

Do you think the political climate has led to more of an interest? 

Catherine Morris: When we started this exhibition there was no way we could have known the result of the recent US presidential election. Black women largely voted for Hilary Clinton and there are these ghastly statistics about these white women voting for Trump so it points to the contested lived experiences that are still present. That were present in this show and that live on.

The other thing that's really fascinating and wonderful about the show is that there's a lot of interest in it that's being driven by young women. And young women of colour in particular. And social media. It's something I've never seen before in my life as a curator. They want to learn about these histories that they don't necessarily know so well. They might remember reading Faith Ringgold as a child but they don't know all of the really important work black women artists were doing during this period.

Obviously it's first exhibition of it's kind. Why has no-one wanted to celebrate them before?

Catherine Morris: When the idea started forming and we started doing research into other projects that might be like it, it's one of those things. It's one of those moments of surprise. Why hasn't it been done before? I don't know. There has been comparable exhibitions done on feminism like WACK! that touched upon black women's contributions but I'd be curious to knowwhat other people think.

“A black lesbian feminist organisation wrote a statement in 1977 that basically presages the whole idea of intersectionality” – Catherine Morris

It's interesting you were saying the Instagram generation have played a big role in sharing the exhibition. Do you think the internet has worked to make these narratives more accessible?

Catherine Morris: Driving! I find Instagram to be so cool. I'm of the older generation but I love how it's about sharing images and it's not about getting into protracted conversations. There's an enthusiasm and an immediacy that comes across in the way people are posting about it. Having said that, I'm a museum curator and my big fear is that people will stop going in person. Seeing the works in person is a very different experience and I hope that's what it prompts.

There's a lot in the exhibition that is interesting and enlightening. The fact that in 1977, the Combahee River Collective, a black lesbian feminist organisation, wrote a statement that basically presages this whole idea of intersectionality in a brilliant kind of way. What we're talking about today is contained in this history.

We're not as original as we think we are!

Catherine Morris: (laughs) and they were just so cool! I mean, maybe that's it. You can see yourself in it in terms of the ideas but the lived experience was very different. It's so lovely to see people looking at an old typed letter in a case and get excited about it. I think the other thing that's important about this exhibition is that it will change how people talk about this period in the future. You know, If you're doing an exhibition about conceptual art in the 1960s and 70s you neeed to talk about Beverly Buchanan.

It's an opening of a conversation but it's exciting to think about how young curators, writers and exhibitions will take this.

“Women, well before this period even, have always found ways of engaging ideas about feminism” – Catherine Morris

What do you hope the younger generation might take from it?

Catherine Morris: The most important thing for me is that feminism can exist in many different ways. Women, well before this period even, have always found ways of engaging ideas about feminism. One of the significant differences to me between what we call "whitestream feminism" that really appears in the exhibition, is that the women weren't just focused on the rights of themselves in relationship to gender equity. They were focused on their families along with them. Feminism for women of colour wasn't about getting the next good job. It was the much closer relationship to other rights movements – particularly Civil Rights obviously – but sometimes gay rights or disability rights. They intersected and they weren't discrete. Class issues and economic issues were also incredibly tied in to all these discussions.

As Lorraine Hansbury said: "Obviously, the most oppressed group of any oppressed group will be its women, who are twice oppressed. So I imagine that they react accordingly: as oppression makes people more militant, women become twice militant, because they are twice oppressed."

We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965–85 is on view until September 17, 2017