On Sept. 13, 1971, the deadliest prison upheaval in American history came to a blood-spattered end just east of Buffalo, N.Y., with more than 40 prisoners and employees dead at the notorious Attica Correctional Facility. Prisoner demands for humane treatment were met with an institutional show of force.
In response, artist Faith Ringgold drew a devastating map.
A copy hangs in the second room of “Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power, 1963-1983,” a large and ambitious traveling exhibition downtown at the Broad. Nearly half a century on, Ringgold’s image still shocks. Partly that’s because it resonates against mass incarceration as a defining civil rights issue today.
The prison rebellion embodied elements of a national history that remained very much repressed. Attica held nearly twice as many inmates as the penitentiary had been designed for, more than half of them black Americans; the correctional staff was largely white. Ringgold titled her map, which she mass-produced as a lithographic poster, “United States of Attica.” As the civil rights movement slowly advanced, pushback was being felt.
The map shows the country divided into quadrants, a crisscross that recalls the view through the scope of a rifle. Red, green and black — the colors representing blood, fertility and the African diaspora in the now hundred-year-old Pan-African flag — make the target explicit.
Annotations written across almost every state, as well as in areas beyond the country’s borders, chronicle brutal episodes of lynching, rape, war, indigenous genocides and other violence. A caption invites adding whatever incidents of mayhem might be missing.
This is not a Jasper Johns-style map, on which a beautifully chaotic array of brushy color and stenciled, misdirected place-names brilliantly re-imagines what a work of art is or might be. Ringgold’s chaos is instead declarative and relentless. The carnage piles up.
Her shrewd map also subtly encodes Johns as a major American artist consecrated by New York’s Museum of Modern Art, which famously acquired three paintings in 1958 from the then-unknown artist’s first gallery show. The Attica debacle was managed by Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, whose family founded MoMA.