May 16, 2019 - Cultured, Diana McClure

With its potent depictions of racial violence and African American empowerment now more palatable to the mainstream, the explicit political content in Faith Ringgold’s early work is increasingly de rigueur. For some, its visceral message seems to match the complex feelings of rage, discomfort and empowered self-representation wafting throughout the zeitgeist, alongside discussions on gender equality, structural racism, white privilege, economic disenfranchisement and so on—conversations Ringgold was having with a group of black intellectuals and activists in the 1960s, continuing a lineage of thinkers from Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass to Harriet Tubman and Marcus Garvey, among others. Yet, Ringgold’s interests have taken her elsewhere in 2019. “I spoke about what I had to say at the time I had to say it,” are about the only words she wants to share regarding those early years.

Those works are being considered anew within the art world. When I met her for this interview, her Black Light Series #10: Flag for the Moon: Die Nigger (1969) was in its last days as part of an installation where it was paired with Jasper Johns’s Flag on an Orange Field II (1958). On view at the recently opened Glenstone museum, in Potomac, Maryland, both paintings riff on the American flag—however in vastly different tones. Ringgold addresses the vicious political climate of the 1960s by inserting the phrase “Die Nigger” within the stripes of her flag. In regard to Johns’s more spare representation, she says, “To me, that wasn’t enough. I mean, what do you say about the flag? Why is it just a flag? But that’s the way artists were in those days. They didn’t want to say anything. I guess they figured they would say the wrong thing. Somebody wouldn’t agree or this or that. I didn’t have that impression. I wanted to say what I thought, how I felt.”

In the 1960s Ringgold’s politically charged “super-realist” oil paintings were ignored. Now, she is preparing for a solo show organized by Hans-Ulrich Obrist at London’s Serpentine Galleries opening on June 6; the release of a BBC documentary on Ringgold’s life and work will coincide with the exhibition; and her work is on tour in the blockbuster exhibition, “Soul of A Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power 1963–1983,” currently on view at the Broad Museum in Los Angeles. “I was immediately struck not just by her radical painting and publishing career, which spans over 50 years, but also by her active involvement within the Civil Rights and Feminist Movements in New York,” says Obrist of his first meeting with Ringgold. “Now in her eighties, Faith is widely considered to be one of the most significant artists of her generation, a great inspiration to younger artists, including Grace Wales Bonner and Lynette Yiadom Boakye, both of whom have exhibited at the Serpentine Galleries.”

Part of Ringgold’s consistent output can be attributed to her nearly 25-year relationship with Dorian Bergen of ACA Galleries. “I looked around and realized I needed to dedicate one staff member to take care of Faith,” says Bergen. “That was back in 1995. We realized we are cut from the same cloth. The same work ethic. She’s up by 6 or 7, arms ready to work. I’m the same. We’re worker bees.” One of Bergen’s first ideas was the organization of a traveling exhibition that showcased the breadth and depth of Ringgold’s oeuvre. The show has been on the road since 1996, breaking attendance records, and presented at nearly 50 institutions so far.

Ringgold’s jubilant spirit, robust laugh, and healthy sense of entitlement seem to illuminate her choice to live in a present moment defined by her own interests—a joie de vivre nurtured during her Harlem childhood, an extraordinary period of African American creative and intellectual output. Although she was not taught about African or African American art in school, she was surrounded by it, with figures like Langston Hughes, Aaron Douglas and Billie Holiday in the ether. “All those guys were living around us in Harlem. Isn’t that something? You walk down the street and you run into them. I knew them, but I didn’t know about them. I didn’t know they were as great as they were. And I don’t think they knew either, because they didn’t allow a whole lot of excitement,” she says.

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Photo Credit: Nona Faustine

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