Curator Tracy Fitzpatrick convinced the warden of Rikers Island to approve a loan of artist Faith Ringgold’s mural for the Neuberger Museum’s exhibit of her 1960’s paintings. It had been at Rikers since 1971.
The painting is called For the Women’s House and was artist Faith Ringgold’s first public commission in 1971 through a Creative Arts Public Service grant. It was her first feminist work, and depicted women engaged in a variety of everyday activities, many of which were attributed to men. The artist created the eight foot by eight foot work for what was then the Women’s House of Detention.
The mural hung in Riker’s cafeteria until the early 1990’s, when the detention center became all male. Fearing the painting would have an adverse effect on the inmates, the guards had it whitewashed by an unknown prison artist.
The mural was then moved to the basement. A female guard, who remembered Ms. Ringgold, contacted her and warned her the canvas was slated for disposal. Ringgold went to the Commissioner of the Department of Corrections to try to rescue her work. It turned out, New York City prisons along with other institutions, possessed art collections donated to them over the years. The Commissioner had the painting restored in 1999 at a cost of $25,000.
The painting was the last of her series of oil paintings beginning with American People and America Black in the 1960’s. By the time she created this work, she had already become committed to black feminism and the pursuit of equality and opportunity for women, partly as a consequence of her experience of art world activism and its tendency to put women’s issues and women’s accomplishments on the back burner. Ringgold composed For the Women’s House based upon in depth interviews with the inmates at the prison.
In one quadrant of For The Women’s House, a female president speaks into network microphones at a press conference, and is surrounded by the female members of her family. The opposing image is of women playing professional basketball. One player wears a New York Knicks number. The other player wear’s Wilt Chamberlain’s number. In another quadrant, a woman is being married by a female priest. It is the bride’s mother who gives her away. Opposite that image, a woman is playing the drums, a taboo in the 1960s and 1970s.
The painting is currently displayed in the lobby of the Neuberger Museum of Art as part of the exhibit American People, Black Light: Faith Ringgold’s Paintings of the 1960’s. It will remain on view through December 19.