Faith Ringgold: “Riots would break out right in front of you”
At her home in Englewood, New Jersey, Faith Ringgold is energetic and ready to chat on Zoom. Long, thick locks of her dreadlocked gray hair come out of a colorful red and green scarf and curl over one shoulder. At 91, the artist, activist, writer and educator is preparing an exhibition at the New Museum in New York: although her work is now in the collections of the Met, MoMA and other leading institutions, it will be of his first complete retrospective. Entitled Faith Ringgold: American Peopleit presents almost 50 years of his career, from 1962 to 2010.
Along with 135 of her works, ephemera and photographs testify to Ringgold’s pivotal role as an arts activist who courageously spoke out against the discrimination and exclusion of black and brown people and women in the arts sector. art and society in general.
Although she has worked in several genres, from oil to watercolor, soft sculpture and more, Ringgold is best known for her innovative storytelling quilt paintings, blending the quilting and storytelling traditions of his African American heritage with traditional painting traditions. “I always thought that was interesting — why condemn a psychic just because you don’t know how to use it? You can use the materials that artisans use to make whatever you want,” she tells me.
For story quilts, she paints on unstretched canvas using acrylics. Then, usually, she or an assistant writes her stories on the dried painted canvas or along the edges of the fabric. Some quilts incorporate appliqués or screen prints. All the stories are told by women.
Whether through textiles, painting, doll making, performance art or language, Ringgold has never been afraid to share her truth about her country and weave a range of human emotions to through his work. From racism and sexism to celebrating other black truth tellers, fictional stories inspired by life events and her childhood in Harlem, Ringgold’s art is an open book about her thoughts and experiences, and a story image of a country, a culture and a people.
“I’m so happy to have all the work,” she says. “All those years of people not caring about me, I still got the job done. And if I hadn’t done it, I would be offered this retrospective but I couldn’t do it.
Born in 1930 in the closing years of the Harlem Renaissance, the golden age of 20th-century African-American culture, Ringgold moved with her family to the comfortable surroundings of Sugar Hill in 1940. She was the last of three children; his mother, Willi Posey, was a fashion designer. Both of his parents nurtured Ringgold’s interest in the arts. “I had asthma as a kid and got really sick so I stayed home a lot. My dad gave me my first easel and my mom made sure I had some paint and brushes.
In 1950, Ringgold was one of the first blacks to study art at City College of New York. As a woman, she was not allowed admission to the School of Liberal Arts, so she enrolled in the School of Education. Later, she worked for 18 years in the New York public school system before becoming a full professor in the visual arts department at the University of California, San Diego in the 1980s.
“If I had to teach anything, it would be art.” She says that, then sighs, as if remembering again how difficult those times were. “Oh my God,” she said. “There was so much racism and sexism. Lots of problems in this regard. Corn . . . uh. . . we have passed 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 protests, demonstrating in 1968 at the Whitney Museum exhibition The 1930s: painting and sculpture in America because no black artists were included. She went on to join 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 an artistic voice to the civil rights era (and later 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 dark background, a black woman and a white woman stare at each other, tension and discomfort evident. “If something was going on, you could talk about it with the art,” observes Ringgold. “And it was a time when a lot of things were happening.”
In 1967, for his first solo gallery exhibition at Spectrum in New York, Ringgold painted three of his 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 walk down the streets, in Harlem or some part of town, and riots would break out right in front of you. And nothing in the logs about it. Nothing,” she said.
The painting is a violent scene of a riot involving black and white protesters; blood is splattered everywhere. Caught in the chaos, crouching on the ground and hugging each other in fear, two children, a little black girl and a little white boy. MoMA purchased the work in 2018.
Recalling 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 his father. He was very angry with her, I remember. So called me that.
In response, she painted a Confederate flag black with the words “Hate is Sin” in bold 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 difficult relationships between black men and black women, and the latter’s struggle for equality. In 1971, she produced two protest posters in support of imprisoned activist Angela Davis and created her first mural depicting a women’s group, “For the Women’s House”, for the Women’s House of Detention on Riker’s Island.
This decade also included watercolors she called “Political Landscapes”, which explored racism in Europe, and her Feminist series, the first of her fabric-framed acrylic paintings inspired by the Tibetan tankas she had first seen. during a visit to the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. She also embarked on the production of flexible sculptures and masks of African inspiration.
Ringgold didn’t make her first quilt until 1984 with “Who’s Afraid of Aunt Jemima?”, which reframed the derogatory archetype of a large domestic slave as a strong, admirable black entrepreneur. She then created quilts with well-known stories, such as the 12 pieces of her “French Collection” from 1991 to 1997, which will be presented in the new retrospective as a complete series for the first time in almost 25 years. These works center on the fictional character of Willia Marie Simone, a young black woman in Paris in the early 1900s who lives incredible adventures while developing as an artist and socializing with literary and artistic greats: a vision of life beyond race and gender restrictions.
Besides her artwork, Ringgold has been a prolific author and illustrator. “I started writing my autobiography in the early 1980s,” she says. “I just thought I should start putting all the pieces together. We flew over the bridge is the title. I needed [about] 12 years to get it published.
She has also published some 17 children’s books, including the best-selling 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 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 on my mind since we started talking,” she tells me. “It’s such an important part of my childhood. It was called the roof of the apartment where I lived as a child in Harlem. We went there as a family and had picnics there. I could see the George Washington Bridge from up there and I dreamed of being able to fly over it.
The 1988 painting depicts a family on the roof of an apartment in Harlem on a summer night. The sky is full of stars and the lights of the city buildings and the bridge illuminate the background. Four adults sit at a table playing cards while two children, a little black girl and her brother, lie on a mattress with their heads on white pillows, staring up at the night sky. Another little girl magically flies across the bridge. To one side of the painting, a laundry line hangs neatly, a comforting reminder of the routines and rituals of the home. The painting is tender, warm and familiar.
He is now at the Guggenheim. “They once wrote a letter saying it was the most requested work from their collection to be loaned by another institution,” Ringgold tells me.
I ask her if at 91 she is still working and her answer is immediate and forceful. “Yes! Yes! But right now it’s a tough time. I’ve started a number of streaks but I’m not able to finish them yet because I want to see what’s going to happen in the world. But, she exclaims smiling, I’ve done so much work that’s not a problem.
She shakes her head thoughtfully before continuing. “I tell you, I couldn’t be happier than I did [all this]. Every day of my life, I say, ‘Oh my God, I’m so glad I moved on and did this because so many artists stop or don’t achieve their dream. But I did mine.’ ” She laughs. “I did some job!”
February 17-June 5, newmuseum.org
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