“We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965–85”

Brooklyn Museum
200 Eastern Parkway
April 21, 2017–September 17, 2017

Lorna Simpson, Rodeo Caldonia, 1986, photographic print, 8 x 10". From left: Alva Rogers, Sandye Wilson, Candace Hamilton, Derin Young, Lisa Jones.

In the mid 1980s, a group of about seventeen women came together in the regal Brooklyn neighborhood of Fort Greene to create an avant-garde theater troupe named for an old B. B. King song and to needle the playwright Ntozake Shange, who had defected to Texas. The founding members of the Rodeo Caldonia High-Fidelity Performance Theatre described themselves as young, gifted, and black—but also weird, lonely, and in search of like souls, remembers the writer Lisa Jones, who penned the only two plays that ever made it into the collective’s repertoire. The work of Rodeo Caldonia was often outrageous, but it was also short lived. Just as they set themselves against other nearby artistic enclaves at the time, they acknowledged but broke away from the activism of their elders in the civil-rights and black-power movements. Their sense of entitlement was stronger but more complicated.

The story of Rodeo Caldonia—as seen in the striking early photographs of Lorna Simpson, a member alongside the actress Alva Rogers and the historian Kellie Jones—is just one of the many fascinating threads in this landmark exhibition, which follows the work of several such collectives through the history of black feminism in the United States. Another compelling story comes alive in the archival materials of Just Above Midtown, a gallery that worked with the artists Howardena Pindell, Lorraine O’Grady, and Senga Nengudi in the 1970s. Another story still is twined around the alluring self-portraiture of Ming Smith, the first (and for a time only) female member of Kamoinge, an association of black photographers established in the 1960s. Smith shot portraits of Grace Jones and Sun Ra as well as documentary-style imagery of everyday life from Harlem to the Ivory Coast. Her self-portraits here frame her body against a floral backdrop reminiscent of the Bamako school, with the added element of a defiant female gaze. Beyond the obvious importance of reviving lost history, the quiet insistence on collective action gives this show a timely political edge. “Give me a girl gang, a crew,” says Lisa Jones. “A zillion sisters ain’t enough.”

Kaelen Wilson-Goldie