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Women’s prison mural on view in Washington

Faith Ringgold’s work is on show at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, one of the few museums open in the capital

Faith Ringgold, For The Women’s House, 1971. photo: Courtesy Rose M. Singer Center, New York, © Faith Ringgold 1971, courtesy of the artist

A mural created for a former women’s prison by the artist Faith Ringgold is on view outside New York City’s jail complex on Rikers Island for the first time. For the Women’s House, 1971, is part of “American People, Black Light” (until 10 November), a survey of Ringgold’s early paintings at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, DC—one of the few museums that remain open in the capital during the government shutdown.

Before starting work on the project, Ringgold interviewed inmates about what they wanted to see in the mural. (One answered, “A long road leading out of [here].”) The final design depicts a diverse group of women at work: a bus driver, a basketball player, a doctor and even a president. “By the time she did this work, she had already become committed to black feminism… 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’s daughter Michele Wallace wrote in an essay about the mural.

The work was nearly destroyed in 1996 when the Women’s House of Detention converted into a men’s facility and the mural was covered in white paint. A guard who witnessed the original installation contacted the artist and the warden. Rather than take legal action or invoke the Visual Artists Rights Act, Ringgold engaged in a letter-writing campaign and had several meetings with the Department of Corrections. Eventually, the city agreed to finance the restoration. Since 1999, the mural has been on display at the Rose M. Singer Centre for women on Rikers Island.

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