In 1972, artist Faith Ringgold dedicated a painting to the women incarcerated at Rikers Island, the notorious jail complex in New York City. Titled “For the Women’s House,” the work is a message of possibility and perseverance, depicting women of different ages and ethnicities in diverse roles inspired by Ringgold’s interviews with detainees. It was conceived, in the artist’s words, to “broaden women’s image of themselves … and to show women’s universality.”
After five decades at Rikers, the eight-by-eight foot canvas may now be headed to the Brooklyn Museum. The relocation plan was announced by NYC First Lady Chirlane McCray and the Department of Correction (DOC) last week and is subject to review by the NYC Public Design Commission.
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“I’m proud that this historic painting will be preserved at the Brooklyn Museum where children can see it and know that they too can create works of art that ignite change, expand awareness and fire the imagination,” McCray said in the statement.
“For the Women’s House” has been displayed at the institution before, in the 2017 survey exhibition We Wanted A Revolution: Black Radical Women 1965-85. If the plan is approved, the work would become part of its permanent collection, on view at the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art on the museum’s fourth floor.
The mural is Ringgold’s first public commission and a veritable piece of human rights advocacy history, dovetailing the early years of prison reform and feminist activism. Ringgold, a leading figure of the Black Arts Movement best known for her painted “story quilts,” had received a $3,000 grant from the city to create a public artwork. It was 1971, and Angela Davis was serving an 18-month sentence at the Women’s House of Detention in Manhattan for her alleged connection to the botched escape attempt of imprisoned Black writer George Jackson. The public protests for her release were among the first widespread calls to end mass incarceration and set the stage for the modern-day prison abolition movement.
The work was initially destined for Ringgold’s alma mater, City College. When the school reportedly turned down the offer, the artist, inspired in part by Davis’s plight, pitched the project to the Correctional Institution for Women at Rikers — where the inmates previously held at the Women’s House were transferred when it closed that same year.
In conversations with the women incarcerated at Rikers, Ringgold found that “they wanted to be able to see women being things in the world other than some of the things they had gotten arrested for,” she told the New Yorker in 2010. Across eight triangular sections on a square canvas, she rendered the first female president; professional basketball players; and a bus driver en route to “2A Sojourner Truth Square,” a hopeful nod to the “long road” out of incarceration that detainees spoke about, among other figures.
It was on display until 1988, when the Correctional Institution for Women became a male detention center and the painting was whitewashed. The mural was eventually restored and reinstalled in the then-newly opened Rose M. Singer Center (RMSC), a women’s jail that has since accrued egregious allegations of sexual abuse, rape, and unsanitary conditions. Like the rest of Rikers, RMSC is slated to close permanently, but not until 2026. If Ringgold’s painting is relocated, a new community mural funded by the Art for Justice Fund will take its place to “promote beauty and healing within the jails,” the press release says.
To some, however, the Brooklyn Museum’s potential acquisition of the Ringgold canvas constitutes a clumsy uprooting of the painting from its important social context. Todd Fine, president of the Washington Street Advocacy Group preservation organization and a Hyperallergic contributor, said the move would be “one more privatization of a public artwork” under the outgoing De Blasio administration. (The Brooklyn Museum is open to the public, but charges admission.)
“Hopefully, the [Public Design] Commission will stand firm here and insist that Ringgold’s mural remain in a city facility,” Fine told Hyperallergic.
The work has been exhibited outside of Rikers on more than one occasion, and not just at the Brooklyn Museum. The first time was in 2010, when it was included in a large-scale exhibition of Ringgold’s paintings on canvas at the Neuberger Museum of Art in Purchase, New York.
On that occasion, Ringgold said, “It’s wonderful to see it free. I think it can inspire some women to see the history, if nothing else. It is history, isn’t it? And we can go ever further, if we care to. And we do.”
The artist has not yet responded to Hyperallergic’s immediate request for comment.