In her home in Englewood, New Jersey, Faith Ringgold is energetic and ready to chat over Zoom. Thick, long strands of her gray dreadlocked hair poke out from a colourful red and green headscarf and curl down one shoulder. At 91, the artist, activist, writer and educator is preparing a show at the New Museum in New York: although her work is now in the collections of the Met, MoMA and other leading institutions, this will be her first full retrospective. Entitled Faith Ringgold: American Peopleit showcases almost 50 years of her career, from 1962 to 2010.
Besides 135 of her works, Ephemera and photographs bear witness to Ringgold’s pivotal role as an art activist who courageously spoke out against the discrimination and exclusion of black and brown people and women in the art sector and society at large.
Although she has worked in multiple genres, from oil to watercolour, soft sculpture and more, Ringgold is best known for her innovative story quilt paintings, blending patchwork quilting and storytelling traditions from her African American heritage with mainstream painting traditions. “I always thought it interesting — why condemn a medium just because you don’t know how to use it? You can use the materials that craftspeople use to do anything you want to do,” she tells me.
For the story quilts, she paints on to unstretched canvas using acrylics. Then, typically, she or an assistant writes her narratives on the dried painted canvas, or along the fabric borders. Some quilts incorporate appliqué or silk screening. All the stories are narrated by women.
Whether through textile, paint, doll-making, performance art or language, Ringgold has always been unafraid to share her truth about her country, and to weave a range of human emotions through her work. From racism and sexism to the celebration of fellow black truth-tellers, fictional stories inspired by life events and her childhood in Harlem, Ringgold’s art is an open book to her thoughts and experiences, and a visual history of a country, culture and people.
“I’m so happy that I have all the work,” she says. “All those years when people weren’t interested in me, I made the work anyway. And if I hadn’t, I’d be offered this retrospective but I wouldn’t be able to do it.”
Born in 1930 into the last years of the Harlem Renaissance, the golden age of 20th-century African American culture, Ringgold moved with her family to the comfortable environs of Sugar Hill in 1940. She was the last of three children; her mother, Willi Posey, was a fashion designer. Both her parents nurtured Ringgold’s interest in the arts. “I had asthma as a child and I would get really sick, so I stayed at home a lot. My father gave me my first easel and my mother made sure I had paints and brushes.”
In 1950, Ringgold was one of the first black people to study art at the City College of New York. As a woman she wasn’t allowed admission to the School of Liberal Arts, so she enrolled at the School of Education. Later, she worked for 18 years in the New York public school system before taking a full professorship in the visual arts department at University of California, San Diego, in the 1980s.
“If I was going to teach anything it was going to be art.” She says this, and then sighs, as if remembering again how challenging those times were. “Oh my goodness,” she says. “There was so much racism and sexism. A lot of problems in that regard. But . . . um . . . we got past it.”
It was in the 1960s that Ringgold’s activism began to challenge racial and gender barriers in museums and the art world in general. She organized demonstrations, protesting in 1968 at the Whitney Museum’s exhibition The 1930s: Painting and Sculpture in America because no black artists were included. She then went on to be part of activist groups such as the Artist Workers’ Coalition, and the Women Students and Artist for Black Art Liberation, which she helped found with her daughter, among many other campaigns.
Giving artistic voice to the civil rights era (and later to second wave feminism), Ringgold began painting her “American Series” in what she called her new style of “Super Realism”. The first in the series, “Between Friends”, was inspired by interracial social events hosted by some members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. In a mix of bold orange and blue against a darkened background, a black and a white woman stare at one another, the tension and obvious discomfort. “If something was happening, you could talk about it with art,” Ringgold observes. “And it was a time when a lot of things were happening.”
In 1967, for her first solo gallery show at Spectrum in New York, Ringgold painted three of her most famous large-scale works, “The Flag is Bleeding”, “US Postage Stamp Commemorating the Advent of Black Power”, and “Die” , inspired by the social conditions of those years. “You know, in the ’60s you could be walking around in the streets, in Harlem or some part of the city, and riots would break out right in front of you. And nothing in the papers about it. Nothing,” she says.
The painting is a violent scene of a riot involving black and white protesters; blood is splattered everywhere. Caught in the mayhem, crouched on the ground and hugging one another in fear are two children, a little black girl and a little white boy. MoMA purchased the work in 2018.
Remembering a day in 1971 when she was protesting at the Whitney, she tells me that was the day she was called the N-word for the first time. “There was this little girl [who was watching us] with her father. He got very annoyed with her, I remember. Then called me that.”
In response, she painted a Confederate flag black with the words “Hate is Sin” in bold letters across the X. Around the border is an inscription describing the incident. The painting was later purchased by the Whitney Museum.
During the 1970s, Ringgold began to focus on the challenging relationships between black men and black women, and the latter’s struggle for equality. In 1971, she made two protest posters of support for the imprisoned activist Angela Davis, and created her first mural featuring a group of women, “For the Women’s House”, for the Women’s House of Detention on Riker’s Island.
That decade also included watercolor paintings she called “Political Landscapes”, which explored racism in Europe, and her Feminist Series, the first of her cloth-framed acrylic paintings inspired by the Tibetan tankas she had first seen during a visit to Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum. She also began making African-inspired soft sculptures and masks.
Ringgold did not make her first story quilt until 1984 with “Who’s Afraid of Aunt Jemima?”, which reframed the derogatory archetype of a large female house slave as a strong, admirable black entrepreneur. She went on to create well-known story quilts, such as the 12 pieces in her 1991-97 “French Collection”, which will be shown in the new retrospective as a complete series for the first time in almost 25 years. These works center on the fictitious character of Willia Marie Simone, a young black woman in Paris in the early 1900s who has amazing adventures while developing as an artist and socialising with literary and artistic greats: a vision of life beyond the strictures of race and gender .
Besides her art works, Ringgold has been a prolific author and illustrator. “I started to write my autobiography in the early 1980s,” she says. “I just thought I should begin to put all the pieces together. We Flew Over the Bridge is the title. It took me [about] 12 years to get it published.”
She has also published some 17 children’s books, including the bestselling Tar Beach (1991), about a fictional little girl named Cassie. In 1999 it was made into an animated film for HBO. The book followed a 1988 story quilt, “Woman on a Bridge, #1 of 5: Tar Beach”, which she says is probably her most popular painting.
“You know, Tar Beach has been in my head since we started talking,” she tells me. “It’s such an important part of my childhood. It’s what we called the roof of the apartment where I lived as a child in Harlem. We would go up there as a family and have picnics. I could see the George Washington Bridge from up there, and I used to dream I could fly over it.”
The 1988 painting depicts a family on an apartment rooftop in Harlem on a summer night. The sky is full of stars, and lights of the city buildings and the bridge illuminate the background. Four adults sit playing cards at a table while two children, a little black girl and her brother, lie on a mattress, their heads on white pillows gazing up at the night sky. Another little girl flies magically over the bridge. On one side of the painting, a line of laundry hangs neatly, a comforting reminder of home routines and rituals. The painting feels tender, warm and familiar.
Now it is in the Guggenheim. “They wrote a letter once saying it was the most requested work in their collection for loan by another institution,” Ringgold tells me.
I ask her if at 91 she is still making work and her response is immediate and energetic. “Yes! Yes! But right now is a difficult time. I’ve started a number of series but I’m not able to complete them yet because I want to see what’s going to happen in the world. But,” she exclaims smiling, “I’ve done so many works that it’s not a problem.”
She shakes her head thoughtfully before continuing. “I tell you, I couldn’t be happier that I did [all this]. Every day of my life I’m saying: ‘Oh my God, I’m so happy that I went ahead and did this because so many artists stop, or don’t fulfil their dream. But I’ve done mine.” She laughs. “I have done some work!”
February 17-June 5, newmuseum.org
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