For the past 50 years, a mural by American artist Faith Ringgold has resided on Rikers Island, home to New York City’s notorious jail complex. Created in 1971 for a women’s correctional facility, the public art commission depicts women of various occupations—a doctor, a police officer, a construction worker, a basketball player—and was designed to encourage female inmates to imagine the possibilities of a better future.
After hanging in various spots across Rikers, For the Women’s House was moved to the Rose M. Singer Center, a facility for female detainees, around 2000. Though it was displayed in a place of prominence—in the gym, above the basketball hoops—for over a decade, the mural was later moved to a remote hallway where few were able to see it. Now, after a lengthy campaign by Ringgold, the artwork is set to be relocated to the Brooklyn Museum, reports Zachary Small for the New York Times.
The Department of Correction and activist Chirlane McCray announced the move at the end of December, shortly before McCray’s husband, Bill de Blasio, ended his tenure as New York City’s mayor. A new mural will replace Ringgold’s artwork on Rikers Island, which is slated to close permanently by 2027.
Pending review by the NYC Public Design Commission, For the Women’s House will enter the Brooklyn Museum’s permanent collections and go on view in the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art on the cultural institution’s fourth floor, according to Hyperallergic’s Valentina Di Liscia.
“This Administration has made it a priority to showcase unseen and unheralded artworks that give us another perspective on the important issues of our time,” says McCray in a statement. “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.”
Ringgold, a multidisciplinary artist famed for creating “story quilts” that reflect on African-American identity and experience, began working on For the Women’s House after receiving a $3,000 grant from the city in 1971. She based the mural on her interviews with female prisoners on Rikers Island, many of whom “voiced the opinion 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,” as the artist told Rebecca Mead of the New Yorker in 2010.
Divided into eight triangular sections, the artwork portrays figures of different ages and races performing roles that were rarely occupied by women in the 1970s. A panel depicting the first female president had yet to become a reality at the time—and remains unfulfilled today.
The mural originally hung in the lobby of Rikers’ Correctional Institution for Women, which was repurposed as a men’s facility in 1988. Eleven years later, Ringgold received a call from a prison guard who informed her that the artwork had been taken off the wall and covered with white paint by male inmates.
“When it was installed, they told me that nobody could get that painting off the wall,” Ringgold said to the New Yorker. “Well, I’m sorry—those guys figured it out.”
For the Women’s House was restored and subsequently transferred to the Rose M. Singer Center, a new facility for women on Rikers. Per Jen Carlson of Gothamist, the work most recently hung in a corridor accessible only by staff and people in custody being escorted through the hallway. Overhead lights shine directly onto the painting, creating a glare that makes the mural difficult to see in passing.
The bid to move Ringgold’s artwork to a more front-facing location arrives amid plans for the permanent closure of Rikers Island. The jail complex has long been the subject of shocking reports of mismanagement and abuse—and the Rose M. Singer Center is no exception. Nonetheless, some have expressed dismay that the mural will be transferred to a private institution, citing the relocation as evidence that the city is unable to care for public artworks.
“It troubles me that the city is embarking on this kind of enterprise again,” art historian Michele H. Bogart, who specializes in New York’s public works, tells the Times. “And I just keep wondering whether they are doing a disservice to the people who are still in Rikers.”
The Art for Justice Fund, which strives to combat mass incarceration and racial bias, has offered to fund a new community artwork that will replace Ringgold’s mural and “promote beauty and healing within the jails,” says the Department of Correction in its statement.
Todd Fine, a public art activist and critic of the mural’s relocation, tells Gothamist that placing it “in an elite museum” counters its original purpose of serving “people in [a] difficult situation.” By commissioning a new mural, he adds, officials are “conceding ... that there’s a need to have [art]. They’re basically saying, ‘Not this piece [of art], because this piece is too important.’”
Ringgold, who is now 91 years old, had campaigned for the artwork’s relocation for almost a decade. She expressed happiness that For the Women’s Prison will soon be accessible to a wider audience at the Brooklyn Museum, which previously showcased the mural in a 2017 exhibition.
“That’s absolutely wonderful,” Ringgold tells the Times. “Nobody could see it before.”