New York City artist Faith Ringgold is an African American quilter, painter, sculptor, mask maker, activist, and author of an award-wining book “Tar Beach,” the first of her many children’s books. In 1995, her memoir “We Flew Over the Bridge” was published. Best known for her story quilts, Ringgold has also been making both figurative and abstract paintings and sculptures in a style she describes as “super realism” for more than fifty years. Her work confronts viewers with unflinching scenes of racial tension in America.
Ringgold grew up in Harlem in an artistic family and in the environment of the Harlem Renaissance. She attended C.U.N.Y and was forced to major in art education classes because the study of fine art was exclusively male.
In the 1950s, her paintings consisted of flat figures and shapes, all of which focused on racism. Her 1963 “American People Series” showed racial interactions from a female point of view. Her knowledge of West African culture led her to emphasize color – especially dark colors – rather than European tonality. In the mid-1960s, Ringgold worked on self-portraits. Her 1965 “Self-Portrait” was concurrent with the rise of the Black Power movement. Alluding to the hard-edged, mechanical line favored by Pop artists, she portrayed herself with a determined gaze and folded arms in a guarded gesture. In reflecting on this painting, Ringgold has said, “I was trying to find my voice, talking to myself through my art.”
Ringgold’s shocking paintings directly confronted racial and sexist conflicts and inequality. She was not given a show at the Studio Museum in Harlem. Nor was she allowed to join the African American male-dominated collective, the Spiral Group, founded by artists Romare Bearden and Norman Lewis. (Only one female artist – Emma Amos- was eventually accepted into the Spiral Group.) Ringgold, knowing that she was the artistic equal of these male artists, led her to identify as a feminist. In her ”Of My Two Handicaps,” a painting in her 1972 “Feminist” series that incorporated quotes from black women, she embraced a statement made by Shirley Chisholm: “Of my two handicaps, being female put more obstacles in my path than being black.”
Conveying a less than positive view in the “Figuring Black Power” exhibition, Ringgold’s 1967 painting “American People Series #20: Die” portrays race riot carnage, with blood-spattered white and black Americans – adults and children – clinging to one another in terror.
In 1970, the “People’s Flag Show,” was held in a church in New York, asking artists to create art that showed the American flag. The show’s purpose was to protest laws, which limited the use and display of the flag. 150 works were brought, many political and some even incendiary. After a performance in which a flag was burned, three of the organizing artists – one of whom was Faith Ringgold – were arrested. A protracted and ultimately failed legal battle ensued over the right of artistic license. Ringgold designed the show’s poster and later on the silkscreen “The Judson 3” during this legal battle. In 1971, she made a painting for female prisoners on Rikers Island called “For the Women’s House.”
She made a poster in defense of the Black Panthers. Another work which was produced as a popular poster was her “United States of Attica,” 1971-1972. This was her response to the tragedy of Attica where state police killed 39 people. Her work was a map of the United States, rendered in the green, red and black of Marcus Garvey’s Pan-African flag. The map shows the dates and details of other American atrocities against African Americans. At the bottom of the poster she wrote, “This map of American violence is incomplete.”
In 1970, Ringgold and others protested the Whitney Museum since women were excluded from the Whitney Annual exhibit as well as African American male artists. With her daughter Michele Wallace, Ringgold founded WSABAL, and both were founding members of the National Black Feminist Organization. Ringgold was also a founding member of New York’s organization for black women artists “Where We At.”
In the late 1970s, reaching back to her great-great-geat-grandmother, Susie Shannon, who had sewn quilts as a slave, Ringgold returned to the family tradition of making quilts. She collaborated with her designer mother on her first quilt, “Echoes of Harlem. “She was also inspired by Tibetan “thangkas” and combined painted canvas, fabric piecework, and handwritten text in her own narrative tableaux to reclaim African American life and history. Her “Slave Rape” quilt series in the early 1970s shows black women’s experiences of subjection during and after slavery. She depicted black women with weapons read to defend themselves against men. Her 1990 quilt, “Tar Beach,” shows apartment dwellers up on a Harlem rooftop, escaping the heat of summer. Children rest on a blanket while adults play cards. In the background is the New York skyline and the George Washington Bridge. The scene is surrounded by a colorful floral border, creating the sense of a garden.
Ringgold is Professor Emerita at U.C. San Diego where she taught from 1987 to 2002. Her work is in the permanent collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York’s Museum of Modern Art, Guggenheim, Baltimore Museum of Art, Philadelphia Museum of Art, and Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts.