Art as Resistance
We ought to stop thinking we have to do the art of other people. We have to create an art for liberation and for life.
Elizabeth Catlett, 1971
After I decided to be an artist, the first thing that I had to believe was that I, a black woman, could penetrate the art scene and that I could do so without sacrificing one iota of my blackness, or my femaleness, or my humanity.
Faith Ringgold, 1985
Every time I think about color it's a political statement. It would be a luxury to be white and never to think about it.
Emma Amos, 1993
TWO OF the most significant events in recent United States history -- the civil rights and women's movements -- have had a profound impact on contemporary African American women artists. While considerable attention has been paid to the racial politics of the image-making of black women artists and their role in the black arts movement, they have been absent, for the most part, in histories of black feminism and the development of the feminist art movement. In her groundbreaking essays on "Afrofemcentrism" and "Black feminist art-historical discourse," artist and critic Freida High Tesfagiorgis articulates a unique method for analyzing black women artists which simultaneously considers the politics of race, class, gender, and sexuality. 1 This black feminist critique is long overdue, she argues, because "much of what has been written lies within the history of African American art, is secondary to male production, and for the most part is without critiques of class, gender and sexuality . . ." 2
Sculptor and printmaker Elizabeth Catlett comes to mind most immediately in an analysis of black feminist impulses in the visual art of African American artists. Her pioneering 1946-47 series, The Negro Woman (fifteen linocuts, later named The Black Woman Speaks), challenged the stereotypical, non-heroic treatment of black women, which characterized Western art for decades, by portraying them as strong, beautiful, political, creative, and intelligent. In fact, women of color, particularly ordinary women such as those portrayed in Tired (terracotta, 1946), The Survivor (linocut, 1983), Nina (linocut, n.d.), and Sharecropper (linocut, 1968) (fig. 1) were the primary subjects of her prints and sculptures. She was unapologetic about her focus on women:
I don't have anything against men, but since I am a woman, I know more about women and I know how they feel. Many artists are always doing men. I think that somebody ought to do women. . . . I think there is a need to express something about the working-class black woman and that's what I do. 3
A self-defined feminist, she espoused her commitment to the eradication of the oppression of women, particularly black and Latin American women, whose struggles were different from middle-class white women:
I am interested in women's liberation for the fulfillment of women; not just for jobs and equality with men and so on, but for what they can contribute to enrich the world, humanity. Their contributions have been denied them. It's the same thing that happens to black people. . . . I think that the male is aggressive and he has a male supremacist idea in his head, at least in the United States and Mexico. We need to know more about women. 4