Where We At
"Where We At" Black Women Artists, Inc. (WWA) was a collective of black women artists affiliated with the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and 1970s. It included artists such as Dindga McCannon, Kay Brown, Faith Ringgold, Carol Blank, Jerri Crooks, Charlotte Kâ (Richardson), and Gylbert Coker. Gylbert Coker started an art column in the African American Newspaper, The Amsterdam News, to present and discuss African American art exhibitions, art work, and artists. In 1969 she became the second black person to work in the art department of the Guggenheim Museum. The first black person was Kynaston McShine, and following Coker was Cheryl McClenney . In 1970 Coker joined the registration department at the Museum of Modern Art. In 1972 she became the first Chief Curator at the Studio Museum in Harlem where she produced a number of important exhibitions, among them The Bob Thompson Exhibition in 1976 and the Hale Woodruff 50 Years of Art Exhibition in 1978. During the development of the Woodruff exhibition she discovered the WPA murals Woodruff and Charles Alston produced inside Harlem Hospital. Her discovery and initiation to gain recognition for the art work helped to save and conserve these murals. She developed a registration and cataloging system for the SMH collection. She went on to catalog the Palmer Hayden Collection, The Charles Alston Collection, and served as the private secretary to his widow Ida Mae Cullen. One of her largest exhibition projects was the 1980 and 1982 outdoor exhibition, Art Across The Park which she produced with David Hammons and Horace Brockington. Where We At was formed in the spring of 1971, in the wake of an exhibition of the same name organized by 14 black women artists at the Acts of Art Gallery in Greenwich Village. Themes such as the unity of the Black family, Black male-female relationships, contemporary social conditions, and African traditions were central to the work of the WWA artists. The group was intended to serve as a source of empowerment for African-American women, providing a means for them to control their self-representation and to explore issues of Black women’s sensibility and aesthetics. Like AfriCobra, a Chicago-based Black Arts group, the WWA was active in fostering art within the African-American community and using it as a tool of awareness and liberation. The group organized workshops in schools, hospitals, and cultural centers, as well as art classes for youth in their communities.
In the 1960s, in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement and Black Arts Movement, the work of African-American artists had begun to gain more attention in the mainstream art world. However, many black women artists felt neglected by both the male-dominated Black Arts Movement, the largely white Feminist art movement, as well as the mainstream art world. While several individual female artists, including Elizabeth Catlett, Faith Ringgold, Inge Hardison, Lois Mailou Jones and Betye Saar, gained national attention, most practicing black women artists in New York found it difficult to find venues for their work in white-run galleries and museums. The initial "Where We At: Black Women Artists" exhibition and the collective of the same name that later formed were created to addressed this neglect.
Where We At: Black Women Artists: 1971
In the spring of 1971 "Where We At" Black Women Artists exhibit was perhaps the very first black women professional artists show in New York and history. WWA was held at the Acts of Art Gallery (1969–74) owned by Nigel Jackson located on Charles Street in the West Village. In one of the few detailed accounts available of the history of this group, WWA artist and founder Kay Brown describes the development of WWA and its connections with the Black Arts Movement. Kay Brown began working with the Black Arts-affiliated Weusi Artist Collective in 1968. The Weusi artists had recently founded the Nyuma Ya Sanaa Gallery ("house of art" in Swahili), which they later renamed the Weusi Academy of Art, in Harlem. With the Weusi artists, Brown developed her painting techniques and learned the craft of relief printmaking and mixed-media collage. She also learned about the developing conception of a "black aesthetic" that had become an important project for the Black Arts Movement. Influenced by this search for a "black aesthetic," she began to develop a philosophy based in African traditions.
Although Weusi had previously had a few black women members, including textile artist Dindga McCannon, when Brown joined, she was the only female member in a what was frequently referred to as "a brotherhood" of 14 men. Although she states in her essay that she felt "honored" to be included in the group, she also felt the need for an "affirmation" of black women artists. In 1971, Kay Brown, along with Dindga McCannon, Faith Ringgold and others, began to discuss the possibility of a major exhibition of black women artists. As a response to what was commonly referred to in the group as the “Whitney fiasco” (the Whitney Museum of American Art's first major exhibition of black artists, which became extremely controversial in the black community, who saw it as sensationalizing and exploitative, rather than a sincere recognition of the artists' talent) artist Nigel Jackson had opened the Acts of Art Gallery in Greenwich Village as an exhibition space for the works of black artists. When Brown and her fellow black women artists presented Jackson with a proposal for a show of work of 14 black women, he agreed to host it. The show, entitled "Where We At: Black Women Artists: 1971," was the first group show of black women artists ever held. It was funded by the Brooklyn Educational and Cultural Alliance, the New York State Council on the Arts, the Presbyterian Church Committee for the Self Development of People and America the Beautiful Foundation. According to Brown, the show's title emphasized the artists' ties to the “grassroots” community and referred to a general “earthiness” to the show, as demonstrated by the fact that at the exhibition's opening, the artists served cooked food to the visitors, departing from the traditional wine and cheese.
The show was popular and met with critical acclaim. Ms. Brown identifies the perceived success of the exhibition as a motivating factor in the artists' decision to form a collective of the same name: the "Where We At" Black Women Artists, Inc. (WWA). Developing a set of by-laws and electing officers, the founding members established an official organization. Kay Brown served as president and executive director, and as a team the group took on the responsibility of targeting various sites for WWA art exhibitions.
WWA engaged in many projects, including a panel of women artists at the Brooklyn Museum in conjunction with David Driskell's landmark exhibition, Two Centuries of Black American Art, and a seminar for Women's International Year at Medgar Evers College.
In the fall of 1978, WWA held art workshops for inmates at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for Women. According to artist Kay Brown, “the women inmates loved expressing themselves creatively in classes with professional black women artists. It was as if a beautiful ray of sunshine had appeared in the darkness. Someone really cared about us!” The WWA also led workshops at the Arthur Kill Correctional Facility for men, as well as in hospitals and cultural centers. In addition, the WWA created an apprenticeship workshop for youth in Brooklyn taught graphic design, illustration and media skills, as well as painting, ceramics, crochet and macramé.
WWA also published "Where We At" Black Women Artists: A Tapestry of Many Fine Threads, a widely circulated brochure describing the history and mission of the organization, which consisted at one point of 30 women, with a foreword by Linda Cousins.
Members of WWA contributed to publications including the Feminist Art Journal and Heresies: A Feminist Publication on Art and Politics.
Shows with male artists
In the 1970s and '80s, the WWA artists collaborated with male artists on several projects. During the winter of 1972 they held the Cookin' and Smokin exhibition at the Weusi-Nyumba Ya Sanaa Gallery (later the Weusi Academy of Art). A short time afterwards, the black psychologist Kenneth Clark presented WWA at the M.A.R.C. gallery.
In 1985, WWA teamed up with the "brothers" of Weusi to create the collaborative exhibit Close Connections at 1199 Gallery in midtown. In the show, black men and women worked together on a single thematic project.
The next major WWA show, Joining Forces: 1 + 1 = 3, which opened June 1986 at the Muse Community Museum in Brooklyn, was a collaborative installation of the WWA and a group of invited male artists. It was curated by Charles Abramson and Senga Negudi-Fitz. The show consisted of three-dimensional works produced by male/ female artist “couples” who met over a three-month period and engaged in an “artistic and platonic mating ritual.” The two artists were expected to come to a consensus on how to visually compose the work, and the entire exhibition had to come together as a unified whole. "1 + 1 = 3" was an erotic symbol that suggested a process of male and female entities coming together to create something that "went beyond the normal vocabulary to make an entity of a third thing."
The close spiritual connection of one couple, Charlotte Richardson and Lorenzo Pace, who previously been casual acquaintances, was captured by Coreen Simpson, a photographer and exhibiting artist, who recorded the couples as they interacted during the design. Her photographs, the “Spirits” series, were published in WWA's exhibition brochure.
The WWA and "Women's Liberation"
Although, according to Kay Brown, WWA members and other black women artists agreed with feminist activists on many issues, such as the idea that women should pursue economic and artistic equity with men, Brown felt that WWA artists generally felt more aligned with the Black Arts Movement than with “Women's Liberation”, which they felt was dominated by “liberal white women.” According to Brown, there were as many tensions between the black and white women's community at that time as between black and white men. Brown notes that, “Our [black women's] struggle was primarily against racial discrimination -- not singularly against sexism. We were not prepared to alienate ourselves from our artist brothers.” However, many well established and influential black artists of the period, such as Howardena Pindell, a founding member of A.I.R. Gallery, did choose to align themselves with Feminism, or to maintain connections with both mainstream feminist groups as well as groups oriented towards women color.
According to Brown, the tensions between the black and white women's communities were evident in a series of joint exhibitions produced by the National Conference of Women in Visual Arts (NCWVA) and the WWA artists at selected showplaces in Greenwich Village, SoHo, the East Village and the midtown area. The exhibition series was intended to demonstrate a form of "unity" between all women artists independent of race, age or class. However, it soon became apparent to Brown and other African-American participants that the goals and ideology of the feminist-identified artists and the WWA artists were not the same. According to Kay Brown, “The feminist artists focused totally on sexism, often in a flagrant, bizarre fashion. The black women artists explored the unity of the black family, the ideal of the black male-female relation, and other themes relating to social conditions and African traditions.”
Early WWA members
Early WWA artists included:
Other members included:
- Brenda Branch
- Linda Cousins
- Asiba Danso
- Jeanne Downer
- Miriam Francis
- Claudia Gibson-Hunter
- Rafala Green
- Deidre Harris
- Claudia Hutchinson
- Crystal McKenzie
- Marie Morris
- Madeline Nelson
- Millie Pilgrim
- Hurtha Robinson
- Akweke Singho
- Saeeda Stanley
- Gail Steele
- Joan Stevens
- Priscilla Taylor
- Ann Wallace
- Joyce Wellman
WWA exhibition sites included:
- Medgar Evers College
- Studio Museum in Harlem
- Stonybrook University
- Brooklyn Museum
- New York Public Theater
- Hofstra College
- Metropolitan Museum of Art
- Martin Luther King Gallery
- Bed-Stuy Restoration Gallery
- Benin Gallery
- NY State Office Bldg in Harlem
- NY Arts Consortium
- Women's Interstate Center
- BACA's Downtown Gallery
The WWA was also included in WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution, the first comprehensive, historical exhibition to examine the international foundations and legacy of feminist art. The show appeared at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, and P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center, New York.
- Cornell's “Blackness in Color” Conference Website.
- Brown, Kay. “The Emergence of Black Women Artists: The 1970s, New York.” International Review of African American Art. Vol. 15, no. 1, 1998 (45-52).
- Farrington, Lisa (2011). Creating Their Own Image: The History of African-American Women Artists. https://books.google.com/books?id=I7TS6bFWCbUC&lpg=PA168&dq=Where%20We%20At%2C%20Black%20Women%20Artists&pg=PP4#v=onepage&q&f=false: Oxford University Press. pp. 145, 150, 168. ISBN 0199767602.
- Jones, Kellie (2011). EyeMinded. https://books.google.com/books/about/EyeMinded.html?id=IPaFCHEz8-cC: Duke University Press. p. 417. ISBN 978-0-8223-4861-0.
- "WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution". MoMA PS1.