Faith Ringgold (b. 1930, New York) – a black, female artist of a certain age – ticks all the boxes of an artist the art world is desperately try to bring into the spotlight. As institutions attempt to shed their skins of exhibitions that focus on white male artists, dozens of “overlooked” women are being thrust into the limelight. London’s Serpentine galleries are now exhibiting not one but two women artists – Luchita Hurtado (b. 1920, Caracas) is also on display at the Sackler gallery – that ought to have had international solo shows long before now. Of the two, Ringgold’s display leaves a greater impression, as it comments on class, gender and race in the United States.
“It was kind of like a rule that black people shouldn’t paint white people and white people could paint black people, but it was usually a negative portrayal. So I decided that I was going to show the look of what I saw and how it was in America at the time (1963)” – Faith Ringgold
Moving chronologically, Ringgold’s display begins with a series of paintings called American People, which takes on the “American Dream” and exposes gender inequality. One of the most striking images is American Dream (1964) where a woman is painted half-black, half-white, with a giant diamond on her ring finger. Amongst the images are also depictions of black artists painting white women, interracial couples, white businessmen and children of all skin-tones hiding behind bushes – the work in question is titled Hide Little Children (1966) and presumably instructs the infants to hide from a society that will separate them because of the colour of their skin.
Ringgold – who is also a teacher – tried to attend the City College of New York, only to be told that it was a “boys school.” Not letting that stop her, she enrolled anyway, and though she was unable to attain a degree practicing art, she was able to get one teaching it. This feminist standpoint runs through her oeuvres, with the first depiction of textiles at Serpentine including text that reads: “…we are so downtrodden/we cannot elevate ourselves…/we want light/we ask it/and it is denied us…” These works are hung beside political posters that address racism and feminism. The most powerful work here is probably United States of Attica (1971-1972), where she identifies all the murders and horrors that happened in prisons – and in wars – across every state in the USA. Ringgold also made posters for the Black Panthers, and even demonstrated against the Whitney Biennial for the lack of women artists in their festivals, a biennial that only just received gender equality this year (2019).
Around this time, Ringgold began working on the Black Light series, works that celebrated a newly recognised beauty and appreciation of blackness. In an interview with the Serpentine’s Hans Ulrich Obrist, Ringgold explained: “When Stokely Carmichael yelled out Black Power [a movement that took place across the United States between 1965 and 1985] we all got very excited because it was like a freedom of identity that we had achieved that we had never had before.” Amongst the Black Light works, gorgeous paintings include many black portraits tightly packed together, celebrating their different skin tones.
“I believe it came here with the slave movement because the slaves could make them easily because it was a form of art, and they couldn’t make the forms of art they made in Africa…but what they could do was make quilts, because that could keep them warm and it could keep the master warm.” – Faith Ringgold
However, it is once Ringgold moves away from painting on textile to working on it, that her work really shines. Turning the corner into a new gallery we become exposed to dozens upon dozens of quilts. The textiles include many stories, often pieces together as one like pages from a children’s book all stitched together. Often the subject matter is about women’s issues, or subjects concerning race. Huge in size, Ringgold explained that the quilts allowed her to make art as big as she liked, as she could roll it, fold it and pick it up herself, not relying on her husband to help transport it. She also explained that quilt making occurs all over the world, and mostly by women.
Many of Ringgold’s quilts include historic texts, while also referencing African textiles. She comments on the problematic image of Aunt Jemima – a black woman who appears as the face of an American brand of pancake mix – in works like Who’s Afraid of Aunt Jemima (1983), and also sheds lights on speeches by Martin Luther King and Sojourner Truth. The most intense quilts appear towards the exhibition’s end, with The American Collection (1997) series. In The Flag Is Bleeding #2 and We Came to America Ringgold shows a mother covered in blood, clutching her children in front of a bloodied American flag, as well as black Statue of Liberty waving a flameless torch in front of a sea of drowning black bodies. A comment on the American power structure and the founding of the United States, they are harrowing images that remind us of history’s legacy in America.
Yet, while Ringgold’s work may sound depressing and negative, it is as much a celebration of race and gender, as it is a critique of the way it has been addressed throughout history. We only have to look at Jazz Stories: Mama Can Sing, Papa Can Blow #1: Somebody Stole My Broken Heart (2004) to also think about the joy of life and music, and the contribution that African-Americans have made to society in the United States. Faith Ringgold, with a career spanning over fifty years and counting, continues to make a commentary that has just as much relevance today as it did when her first artworks were made in the 1950s and 1960s.
Faith Ringgold is on display at Serpentine Gallery, Kensington Gardens, London, W2 3XA, until 8 September 2019