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Faith Ringgold’s Art Was Never Squashed by the Reality of America

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A Black woman stands behind a large table filled with art supplies
Artist Faith Ringgold in her home studio in Englewood, New Jersey in 2013. (Photo by Melanie Burford/Prime for The Washington Post via Getty Images)

When an artist has been creating work in various forms for six decades, that work becomes known to different audiences in different ways. For 91-year-old Faith Ringgold, the breadth and volume of her artistic career has spawned any number of isolated fan clubs. Many will be most familiar with her “story quilts,” which she began making in 1983 and which have toured extensively over the years. Meanwhile, children of the ’90s grew up reading Ringgold’s illustrated book Tar Beach, about her own childhood in Harlem. Others may know only of her activism, much of it directed at New York institutions for failing to show Black women artists or hire Black curators.

Hence, the incredible gift of Faith Ringgold: American People at the de Young, which allows all those audiences to see a life’s work beyond the limitations of a specific art history lecture or a passing glimpse at a narrowly focused museum show.

The retrospective, curated by the New Museum, opens with a 1963 painting inspired by a racist encounter from the artist’s childhood. The show ends with a series reflecting on her 1992 move from Harlem to a predominantly white suburb of New Jersey. While these bookends capture Ringgold’s desire to depict—not sugarcoat—the realities of life for Black women in America, her work does not exist solely within this context. The great pleasure in viewing so much of Ringgold’s art is learning that she cannot be assigned to any one category, be it Black artist, textile artist, feminist, activist, conceptual artist or storyteller.

Painting of Black man, white woman and white man against American flag with bleeding red stripes
Faith Ringgold, ‘American People Series #18: The Flag Is Bleeding,’ 1967. Oil on canvas, 72 x 96 in. (© 2022 Faith Ringgold / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, Courtesy ACA Galleries, New York)

As a Black woman, Ringgold was routinely rejected, condescended to and relegated to ancillary roles by a predominantly white and male New York art world as she began her career in the 1960s. Still, she took up space: in sidewalk protests, with costumed performances, and, in her first solo show, in her large-scale paintings. Ringgold’s American People Series was first shown in a 1967 exhibition at New York’s Spectrum Gallery, and culminated in three “murals” (as she called them), two of which are on view at the de Young. (In a story that repeats itself across so many women’s artistic careers, these murals rarely emerged from Ringgold’s storage for decades after.)

In one, American People Series #18: The Flag Is Bleeding, three figures stand arm-in-arm, intermingled with the stars and stripes: a Black man, a white woman and white man. Noticeably missing is Ringgold’s own identity. Black women were simply not part of the conversation at the time, she later explained.

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Ringgold’s work fluidly encompasses both explicit imagery and conceptually rigorous processes. Immediately following American People, she began her Black Light Series, works made with almost no white paint. In these rich, luminous paintings, she rendered faces, parties, text and, once again, the American flag, in a refusal of Western art history’s reliance on whiteness. Like Roy DeCarava, who pushed the blacks of his photographs to showcase a range of shades in his depictions of Black life, Ringgold used the medium of oil paint to argue for a Black aesthetic.

Painting divided into four alternating blue and orange zones with dancing figures
Faith Ringgold, ‘Black Light Series #12: Party Time,’ 1969. Oil on canvas, 59.75 × 84 in. (© Faith Ringgold / ARS, NY and DACS, London, courtesy ACA Galleries, New York)

Between political posters like the powerful United States of Attica and the wide-ranging, fantastical story quilts about a Black artist in France (The French Collection), Ringgold adapted her practice to suit her subject matter. The former are striking designs calling for civil rights, justice and an end to state-sanctioned violence. They remain, in many instances, timely. The latter is a series of poetic, expansive considerations on the decisions female artists face when it comes to marriage, children and securing their place in art history. The central character, Willia Marie Simone, combines a version of Ringgold and her mother, Willi Posey, a Harlem fashion designer.

In both the posters and The French Collection, Ringgold created her own vision of what the world should be. Again and again, her work is rooted to a time and place, but her voice and artistic approach to her subjects carry across the years, as fresh and relevant as the day each piece was made.

This was most evident in the new-to-me collection of soft sculptures, some connected to performances Ringgold first staged in 1976 with The Wake and Resurrection of the Bicentennial Negro. In this strong critique of the American Bicentennial, staged as a scene of mourning, Ringgold points out that 1776 was not a moment of independence for all. The piece’s wall text includes a quote from the artist: “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.”

Gallery view with glass-enclosed space of life-sized sewn figures.
Installation view of ‘Faith Ringgold: American People’ with the artist’s soft sculptures at right. (Photo by Gary Sexton; courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco)

The de Young has brought incredible retrospectives of women artists to San Francisco over the past two years; Judy Chicago, Alice Neel, and now, Ringgold. In these shows, certain themes have emerged to explain why these retrospectives are happening now: works amassing in storage; historic relegation to “feminist” or “political” categories; being out of sync with market trends; later-in-life recognition. I have absolutely been seduced by these narratives. But this framing so often belies the hard work and accomplishments that came well before a museum decided to bill their retrospective as “long overdue.”

Ringgold is the recipient of more than 23 honorary doctorate degrees. She has published multiple children’s books and a memoir. She was a key member of seminal activist organizations, including Art Workers’ Coalition, the Ad Hoc Women Artists’ Committee and Where We At. With her two daughters, she helped found the Women Students and Artists for Black Art Liberation. None of this means that she didn’t face racism and sexism, but it’s important to understand just how much Ringgold has done in life, while under the steadfast belief that as an American, she can speak and make as she wants.

As Amiri Baraka wrote in 1985, “Faith Ringgold’s works have existed within the parameters of ‘American Art’ but have never been squashed by the exclusion and denial of reality that American art sometimes is.”

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‘Faith Ringgold: American People’ is on view at the de Young museum through Nov. 27, 2022. Details here.

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