Faith Ringgold: 'I'm not going to see riots and not paint them'
March 18, 2021 - The Guardian, Ellen E Jones
It looks a long way down from the window of Faith Ringgold’s attic studio to her snow-covered garden in Englewood, New Jersey. Her friend and longtime gallerist Dorian Bergen is holding the phone aloft, giving me a video tour of an impressively ordered room. There is a long work table in the middle, with paints of every kind and colour at one end, and canvasses piled high, ready for use, at the other. Hung on one wall are two framed quilt editions from Ringgold’s Coming to Jones Road series, inspired by her move to this very house 28 years ago, when the neighbours’ hostile reception ended in a court case. Ringgold herself – now aged 90, and regal with it – sits by that window with its vertiginous view, as if on a throne backlit by the sun.
In a 70-year career spanning the US’s 20th-century social revolutions, the artist, activist and children’s author has infused the US art establishment with traditions that had previously been systematically excluded: west African; African American; the work of women; and the perspectives of children. But while her famous fans include Oprah Winfrey and Hillary Clinton, it is only in the past five years that the art world has come to appreciate the full scope of her legacy.
For a long while the American art world didn’t seem to know what to make of Ringgold’s determination to depict the nation – racism, violent upheaval and all. In December 1967, her striking, 12ft by 6ft American People Series #20: Die was first shown at Spectrum, a cooperative gallery in midtown Manhattan. The painting draws on the influence of Picasso’s Guernica to depict a dramatic scene of civil unrest on the streets of an unnamed American city. Injured or dying bodies of men, women and children – black and white – are dramatically splayed on the pavement, amid splashes of blood. One visitor to the gallery apparently emerged from the lift, saw the painting, and immediately let loose a wild scream of terror.
“People weren’t used to seeing blood,” says Bergen now. “I wasn’t used to painting blood either, by the way,” adds Ringgold. “But I found it very easy and very interesting. Because I saw it all the time, you see. People were having these riots, but nobody was painting them.” In 1964, Harlem had seen six nights of what Ringgold described in her 1995 memoir as “tumultuous thrusts for freedom”, after a 15-year-old African American, James Powell, was shot dead by a white police officer. By summer 1967, uprisings were taking place all over the country. “I said: ‘I’m not gonna see all these riots and not paint them. I can do what I want,’” says Ringgold.
Making art that elicits screams would doubtless attract notice today, but despite the political tumult of the late 60s, white men dominated the New York art scene, just as they did other spheres of public life. And the attention she did get was not always favourable. In 1970 she was arrested for what the NYPD termed “desecration of the flag”. She had designed the flyer for the People’s Flag Show exhibition in Greenwich Village, a red and black lithograph that reimagined the US flag to include text such as: “A flag which does not belong to the people to do with as they see fit should be burned.” Ringgold insists it was far from desecration. “It was just people, y’know, trying to control creativity.” The authorities soon realised their mistake and she was released that same night.
Things were slowly changing, though, with Ringgold seemingly involved in every major liberation movement of the 70s and 80s. As a founding member of the Ad Hoc Women Artists’ Committee, in 1970 she protested against the almost exclusively male lineup of the Whitney annual exhibition by depositing raw eggs and sanitary towels around the gallery. In 1971, she co-founded the black women artists’ collective Where We At, to foster community art, and in 1974 she and her elder daughter, Michele Wallace, were founding members of the National Black Feminist Organization. Her Anyone Can Fly Foundation remains dedicated to “expanding the art establishment’s canon to include artists of the African diaspora”.
Ringgold’s childhood took place amid the creative buzz of the Harlem Renaissance, when Langston Hughes was writing poetry and Bessie Smith was singing the blues. Her father, a truck driver and a minister, “would always make sure that I had enough paint and crayons”. He brought home her first easel when she was 10. Her mother was a fashion designer, offering a role model as someone who made a living through art. “We all had lots of beautiful, unique clothes made and designed by my mother. People were very careful about being dressed in those days. Nobody went out in the street looking raggedy, unless they were.”
This was particularly important, because you never knew who you might bump into. Ringgold says, of the black artists of the 1930s: “No matter how famous or important they were, they lived in Harlem.” There was a lot of racism elsewhere in New York City, but her neighbourhood was the exception, “because Harlem was for us”. Duke Ellington lived around the corner, so Ringgold and her friends would make a diner coffee last for hours, in hopes of crossing paths with him. The jazz saxophonist Sonny Rollins also lived nearby, and remains a life-long friend. “If he played at home then the neighbours would complain, y’know – they didn’t want all this music, all hours of the night. So his parents told him no, and he’d go on George Washington Bridge and play.”
Her memories of growing up in Harlem fed into the semi-autobiographical Tar Beach (1988) and Tar Beach 2 (1990) story-quilts, which depict an eight-year-old girl soaring above her neighbourhood and claiming its landmarks as her own. The inspiration was the sun-heated asphalt roof of her childhood apartment building. “We’d go up there and my mother would make up lunch and put it all on a table, and everything. It was perfect.” In 1991, Ringgold adapted Tar Beach into her first illustrated book for children. She has now published 17 such titles.
Chronic asthma meant Ringgold was mostly home-schooled until the age of eight, but after several years teaching in Harlem’s public schools, she now looks back at that early period as fundamental to her artistic development. “I noticed there’s a point in the life of children when they kind of give up on art,” she says. “They don’t like the idea that some people won’t like what they do, and I just didn’t have that problem. Because I was home a lot, I didn’t have to deal with people who liked or didn’t like. I liked – and that was the end of that.”
In 1950, her application to study art at the City College of New York was rejected, owing to her gender and race. She refused to take no for an answer and a compromise was eventually reached: instead of majoring in art, she would study “art education”, considered a more acceptable subject for a woman. In retrospect, this diversion was a happy one. “Children are extremely inspiring when it comes to art,” says Ringgold. “I’m very glad I did it.” But back then, wasn’t she outraged? “Absolutely! I was determined that I didn’t want to be limited.”
Ringgold’s formal education focused on the European masters and her early work reflected that. “A lot of boats and trees and whatever they taught you in school. Not political at all.” This period coincided with Ringgold’s first marriage, to the jazz and classical pianist Robert Earl Wallace. The two married in 1950, separating four years and two daughters later. It wasn’t until 2004, however, with her Jazz Stories series of quilts and acrylic paintings, that Ringgold explicitly incorporated the soundtrack of her youth into her art. “I’m definitely not a musician of any kind,” she says with a laugh. “But the music was rampant – it was all over the place.”
In the early 1960s a fateful meeting with the New York gallery owner Ruth White changed everything. “She said: ‘You can’t paint any of this kind of stuff.’ And I said: ‘I wonder why she’s telling me what I can do? I can do what I want.’ But then I realised what she was saying – ‘With all the racist things that are going on in the world, you’re painting landscapes?’ So I said: ‘OK, here it comes …’”
Ringgold married her second husband, Burdette “Birdie” Ringgold, in 1962, and with his financial support and encouragement was able to devote more time to art. Influenced by the writing of James Baldwin, as well as White’s challenge, she began work on her American People series of oil paintings (1963-67), now among her most celebrated works. These paintings, usually of figures chosen to reflect the interracial tensions of the times, were rendered in a bold style that combined influences from pop art, post-cubist Picasso and African sculpture. She eventually gave up teaching in 1973, though she continued to hold prestigious positions at various US universities until the early 00s.
Her mother, Willi Posey Jones, was a key supporter, providing both childcare and collaboration. “She taught me how to make these quilts,” says Ringgold, pointing to the framed editions hanging on her studio wall. “She knew how it should be composed.” Mother’s Quilt (1983) was the first quilt work that Ringgold completed without her, and the physically demanding work became a kind of grief therapy. “Finishing that quilt, after my mother died, was very helpful,” she says.
Sometimes Ringgold’s work has been able to combine the politically incendiary and the personally cathartic. In the early 90s, some of her New Jersey neighbours were apparently unhappy about a black family moving to the area. The ensuing legal battle inspired Coming to Jones Road, which depicts runaway slaves migrating north. Ringgold saw parallels in “the slaves coming to America, people deciding where we should be. Of course, I didn’t know anything about that, being born in Harlem; who tells anybody where to live?”
As an enthusiastic traveller, she did her own version of the European Grand Tour in 1961, taking in the galleries of Paris, Florence and Rome, and in the mid-70s there were trips around west Africa, where she studied mask-making and other traditional fabric techniques. Since her international reputation began growing in the 1980s, she has shown her work in galleries from Cairo to Tokyo and collected honorary doctorates (she has 23) from institutions around the world. Her only regret is that she can’t currently represent her work in person. “We can’t even get out of the house now because of this corona thing,” she says.
In 1989, Oprah Winfrey commissioned a quilt as a birthday gift for Maya Angelou, and in 1994 Ringgold was seated next to Hillary Clinton at a White House dinner, but it wasn’t until 2016 that the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York purchased the bloody, scream-provoking culmination of her American People series, Die. In 2017, Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power at the Tate Modern in London included some of her most confrontational work, alongside that of other African American artists. This was followed two years later by her first solo show in a European institution, at the Serpentine Gallery in London. A version of the same show will open at Glenstone Museum in Maryland next month.
In the era of global Black Lives Matter protests and a white supremacist-led storming of Capitol Hill, Ringgold’s work has found new resonance. Today, though, she doesn’t seem interested in talking about her activism. “We’ve made some progress, yes, but I don’t pay much attention to it any more.” At 90, Ringgold has been there, done that, and got the MoMA x Vans T-shirt, based on one of her collages. Since the loss of Birdie in February last year, grief has challenged even her prodigious productivity. “Most of my life, I used to get up at six o’clock in the morning, every morning and do my work. Now, I don’t quite do that, because my husband died … That has set me back.”
Even so, the work continues, and in conversation the right topic can light a fire behind Ringgold’s eyes. Take a series that she has been painting in semi-secrecy since the 2016 presidential election but has been in no rush to exhibit: “I’m like, what else is [Trump] gonna show me about himself? I wanted to see more …”
If Ringgold has slowed down, it’s only because so much is already accomplished that she can afford to take her time. She has lived her life, and created her art, without regrets. “Make your art what you want it to be. And I did that. So all my work is there – I don’t have anything waiting in the corner that I’d like to show.” She pauses for a moment to skim the vast exhibition catalogue in her brain. “No, I think I’ve got it all out there.”
Photo Credit: Jill Mead/The Guardian
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