- The exhibition Faith Ringgold: American People at the New Museum, NY.
- Ringgold’s early works and political activism.
- Story Quilts and Soft Sculptures.
- The French Collection and The American Collection series.
Faith Ringgold: American People
The highly anticipated exhibition Faith Ringgold: American People filled three floors of the New Museum with paintings, story quilts, soft sculptures, political posters, and ephemera that define this artist’s career while also paying special tribute to her accomplishments as an author of children’s books.
Born in 1930, Faith Ringgold was an art student at City College in New York where she earned Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Fine Art, married her first husband, and became the mother to two daughters, Michele and Barbara, in the 1950s. She worked for almost two decades as an art teacher in the New York public school system and secured her first solo exhibition in 1967 at the Spectrum Gallery in midtown Manhattan.
In the interim, she married her second husband, Burdett Ringgold, and became an active participant in the Civil Rights and Feminist Art Movements of the late 1960s and early 1970s. She was co-founder of several groups including the Art Workers’ Coalition (AWC), Where We At, and Women Students and Artists for Black Art Liberation (WSABAL).
Furthermore, Ringgold was a member of the Ad Hoc Women Artists’ Committee and led protests against the underrepresentation of women and Black artists at art institutions such as the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Museum of Modern Art. The New Museum had devoted a gallery space to this period of activism with correspondence, posters, photographs – some showing Ringgold with her teenage daughters at various protests – and other materials related to The People’s Flag Show, co-organized with Jean Toche and Jon Hendricks in 1970 at the Judson Memorial Church in New York. Soon after this exhibition opened, Ringgold, Toche, and Hendricks, also known as the “Judson Three,” were arrested and convicted of using the American flag in an uncomplimentary manner, for which the charges were eventually dropped.
As a Black woman artist at the intersection of two groundbreaking political movements, Ringgold was acutely aware that her particular concerns and conditions were not being adequately addressed by her white female and Black male counterparts. However, her involvement with and founding of different groups with slightly different agendas created opportunities for Ringgold to speak out across multiple platforms.
However, access to her peers was not always a guarantee. Ringgold was denied membership to the Spiral group, of which Emma Amos was the only female artist invited to join this reputable group of Black male artists. Regardless, Ringgold’s career continued to progress in and around the mainstream art world, for the artist was unafraid to speak out publicly and take risks in the studio. Ringgold’s integration of sewn fabrics and quilting practices combined with her fearless choice of subject matter and embrace of non-Western artistic traditions created possibilities for the artist to determine her own path.
One of the many highlights of this retrospective was the reunion of works across the numerous series produced over the course of several decades. The exhibition opened with an early series of paintings that confront the racial tensions of the 1960s that are emotionally driven and skillfully captured the subtle yet commonplace hostilities of this nation where the imbalance of power was and continues to be skewed in favor of one race.
The showdown between white supremacy and Black power was quietly addressed in some paintings from the American People Series, for example in Hide Little Children. In other paintings from this series, the confrontation is amplified as in The Flag is Bleeding and U.S. Postage Stamp Commemorating the Advent of Black Power but reaches an absolute boiling point in Die.
These three mural paintings reveal the systemic racism eating away at a democracy that was never pure through the clever incorporation of racial slurs and terms of empowerment with patriotic symbols such as the U.S. flag and the U.S. postal stamp. The vision of chaos, the race riot in Die captures the turbulence of the 1960s, however, the intensity of this scene and those of all the paintings from the American People Series continue to resonate given that the uneven distribution of power and opportunity continues to plague this nation.
The recurrence of the U.S. flag throughout this period explores the hypocrisy of this iconic image and the parallel narratives running through this patriotic arrangement of stars and stripes but also gives insight into Ringgold’s masterful use of language and image as form.
This is further evident in an eye-catching pattern devised by the artist that divides square and rectangular picture planes into eight triangles. Filled with either bold text or images, these triangles move rhythmically around the picture plane in a manner that was intended to break away from the Minimalist grid. Borrowed from an African Bakuba design, Ringgold’s interpretation was employed to generate messages of power, and in some cases of self, for both paintings and posters.
Story Quilts and Soft Sculptures
As a devoted educator and compelling storyteller, Ringgold’s imagination takes off with the introduction of textiles for numerous series of soft sculpture masks and story quilt paintings. Made in collaboration with her mother Willie Posey, a couture fashion designer who taught Ringgold to sew, these works are powerful patchworks of personal biography and historical events.
The collaboration between daughter and mother began with the Feminist Series and Slave Rape paintings that were in part response to Tibetan tanka (thangkas) paintings, a sacred and portable art form of paintings on fabric that could be rolled up. Drawn to this rich tradition, Ringgold was also attracted to the idea of paintings on fabric that was easy and inexpensive to install and transport. The move towards the fabric arts and that which has been categorized as women’s work not only gave her the professional independence to show her work frequently and without limitations but expanded her potential and created more opportunities for the artist to delve deeper into her practice of storytelling as well as branch out with performances.
Mining the history of her own family which includes ancestors not too many generations ago who were born into slavery, particularly on her mother’s side, Ringgold is dealing directly with generational trauma brought on by personal and collective proximity to slavery and its aftermath that lead right up to her own lifetime. Through this historical lens, the artist works through interpersonal relationships, the hardships between lovers, the complicated dynamics between mothers and daughters, and also looks inward reimagining herself and the experiences of her ancestors.
The Change: Faith Ringgold’s Over 100 Pound Weight Loss Performance Story Quilt series of the late 1980s documents the artist using her body for these objects and performances at a time when other women artists had also moved into the realm of Body Art. The large quilt, used for this series and others, gives equal importance to the text as much as to the images. Photographic images were used for this series, however, paintings appear on most of the other series of story quilts. The text in the Change series goes into the details of her weight loss journey while the text that appears on other story quilts imagines conversations and explores narratives that freely mix together fantasy with reality.
The three-dimensional fabric pieces, the soft sculptures, also used for past performances, carry forth the artist’s concerns and interests. These soft sculpture installations at the New Museum were a selection of quietly intense tableaux that grab the viewer’s attention. The museum label for The Wake and Resurrection of the Bicentennial Negro, explained the following:
Ringgold draws on masquerade traditions from the Dan people of modern-day Liberia and Côte d’Ivoire that make use of sculpture, costume, music, dance, and drama as a catalyst tor the critique of the American Bicentennial, which was celebrated with enormous pageantry in 1976. For Ringgold, the anniversary of independence was not a moment for celebration, but rather one for great mourning. As Ringgold has said, ‘for almost half of that time we had been in slavery, and for most of the following years we had still been struggling to become fully free.
The amount of text incorporated into the story quilts made for a lot of reading and one can only wish for transcripts of the complete text because there was a lot to read at the New Museum. Not so much a complaint but a longing to sit down and savor the text so carefully chosen for each story quilt. It is easy to feel swept away by the many stories marching across beautifully crafted quilts that are standalone masterpieces.
The public was given the opportunity to read one of these stories in book format when Ringgold published her first children’s book, Tar Beach in 1991. Based on her Woman on a Bridge series of story quilts from the mid to late 1980s, Ringgold has since authored 17 children’s books in addition to a memoir We Flew Over the Bridge.
Ringgold’s children’s books are classics that should be in every elementary school library because they are rich with historical information that has failed to make its way into the general curricula of the American school system, one that continues to cram all of Black history into one month. Black history is American history, a concept that has yet to permeate the American school system and a collective understanding of the nation’s history.
The French Collection and The American Collection
The New Museum committed an entire floor to a breathtaking installation of The French Collection, an exquisite series of 12 story quilts that were also the subject of a 1988 exhibition at the New Museum, Dancing at the Louvre: Faith Ringgold’s French Collection and Other Story Quilts. Visually stunning, the artist used this body of work to travel abroad and back in time to the 1920s.
The central character of this story, Willie Marie Simone, a combination of the artist and the artist’s mother, moves to Paris, marries a white man, has two children, and becomes a widow within a short time span. Following the death of her husband, Willie Marie is left with the financial resources to support herself comfortably and pursue an art career. Choosing to send her two children back to the U.S. to be raised by her aunt, Willie Marie has the complete freedom to take part in the Parisian art scene of the 1920s.
Throughout this series, Ringgold generously references the presence of Black American expatriates who were actually in Paris around that time and who took refuge in the relaxed attitudes of the French towards African Americans.
Every painting is accompanied by text that is based on a series of letters between Willie Maria and her aunt that give insight into Willie Marie’s time in France, her experiences of being a Black woman artist, and her decision to not raise her children. In response to her aunt’s question about her choice to become an artist, Willie Marie states the following:
My art is my freedom to say what I please. N’importe what color you are, you can do what you want aves ton art. They may not like it, or buy it, or even let you show it; but they can’t stop you from doing it.
Picasso’s Studio (The French Collection, Part I: #7).
The French Collection features cameo appearances from some of the most iconic figures and paintings of the Western art canon, especially those from around the turn of the 20th century, to re-envision spaces occupied by the main character and other Black artists and intellectuals that reimagines art history.
The choice of subjects is partially historically accurate but the artist does not limit herself and takes advantage of creative license to include historical figures from other times and places as well as her own ancestors in a way that disregards a logical timeline. This series beautifully stitches together imagined conversations and situations that turn the art history canon inside out with this series of colorful and wildly exciting story quilts. This gallery deserves a standing ovation.
Ringgold’s daughter Michele Wallace has frequently written about her mother’s art, including an essay for this exhibition’s catalog, and provided her mother feedback while she was in the process of developing the stories for her quilts. Despite the close personal and professional relationship between mother and daughter, Wallace is unable to explain Ringgold’s curious decision to realize the female protagonist of The French Collection, Willie Marie, and Marlena, the fictional daughter of Willie Marie and the central character of the next series The American Collection, as women whose life choices regarding their careers and motherhood do not reflect those of Ringgold. Across these two series of story quilts, Ringgold explores feelings of guilt, regret, and forgiveness as they impact the mother/child relationship. Marlena forgives her mother but vows to become a successful artist and devoted mother.
The American Collection, a series of 11 quilts, traces Marlena’s journey and her professional achievements yet she remains alone without a life partner or children. Her story takes place in the United States where Ringgold resumes her ongoing conversation with the past, particularly with the history of slavery.
Faith Ringgold: American People at the New Museum was a deep dive into Faith Ringgold’s distinguished and critically acclaimed career, one that should be familiar to most Americans. This highly anticipated exhibition did not disappoint and will easily go down as one of, if not, the best show of 2022.