An inspiring mural Faith Ringgold painted for a women’s prison on Rikers Island, New York’s main jail complex, will be transferred to the Brooklyn Museum this month.
The work, For the Women’s House (1971), was unveiled in January 1972 at the Correctional Institution for Women, and was later whitewashed and moved to the basement when the building became a male prison in 1988. It was restored in the late 1990s by a superintendent, who relocated the work to the Rose M. Singer Center, a women’s prison, where it has remained on view.
Ringgold, who will have a major retrospective at the New Museum this year, created the piece after receiving an grant for painting from the Creative Artists Public Service Award. In a 1972 interview, the artist described why she chose to mount the work in a women’s prison: “I asked myself—do you want your work to be somewhere where nobody wants it or do you want it to be somewhere it is needed?” She said the work honours “the blood guilt of our society”.
The work has only been shown publicly twice, most recently in the Brooklyn Museum’s 2017 exhibition We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965–85. The director Anne Pasternak says the museum is “excited to share [the work] with millions of people locally and around the globe and engage them in dialogues about this groundbreaking artist’s work and themes of mass incarceration, women's equality, the artistic movements of the 1970s and more”.
The transfer was announced on 30 December by then New York City first lady and activist Chirlane McCray (her husband, Bill de Blasio, was succeeded by Eric Adams as mayor on 1 January). “The history of New York City’s success is very much about how women contributed in every aspect of the city’s development, but too many of those stories remain untold, particularly for women of colour whose achievements were literally erased from history books,” she said in a statement.
She adds: “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.”
The Art for Justice Fund, founded by the philanthropist Agnes Gund, will support the creation of a new work to replace Ringgold’s mural. “I am pleased to know that Ringgold’s important painting will be moved to a permanent home, at the artist’s request,” Gund said in a statement. “It is my fervent hope we will all see Rikers Island shuttered, and everyone incarcerated and working there soon relocated to a safer and more positive environment.”
Also on 30 December, the city’s department of corrections transferred ownership of several parcels of land on Rikers Island to the department of citywide administrative services, the latest step in a process that will see the department of corrections fully cede control of the island by the summer of 2027.