50 Years of Celebrating Black Beauty and Culture: Faith Ringgold Tells Her Story

Against the backdrop of the civil rights movement in the early 1960s, Faith Ringgold began her ‘American People’ series (1963–67), in which she dissected the notion of the American dream to expose the uncomfortable realities of racial and gender inequality. Fusing pop art’s hard edges with the political ideals of social realism, and techniques of Tibetan painting with the graphic symbolism of West African sculpture and design, her practice occupies a unique space within the black arts movement of the 1960s and ’70s. This aesthetic originality is compounded by the fact that the figures and faces captured in Ringgold’s early painting speak to a distinctly American social world – a world of bloody interracial tension and psychological trauma drawn along the lines of ideology and ethnic difference. Following in the footsteps of pivotal figures of the Harlem renaissance, such as Jacob Lawrence and Romare Bearden, her work is imbedded within the cultural tradition of storytelling that has been central to the survival of African American histories.

The narrative arc of Ringgold’s own story runs parallel to the artist’s radical activism; before co-founding the activist group Where We At, Black Women Artists, Inc. in the early 1970s, she led a series of protests against the lack of diversity in New York’s Whitney Museum of American art, an institution that recently placed her work in an exhibition dedicated to protest. But perhaps the most enduring feature of the artist’s work is her commitment to the art of storytelling. In 1980, Ringgold collaborated with her mother Willie Jones, a fashion designer, to produce her first story quilt. Developing a tradition once practiced by her great-great grandmother Susie Shannon, who was born into slavery and produced quilts for plantation owners, Ringgold uses fabric to weave together personal stories and histories of African American experience. The author of several children’s books and a much-read autobiography, she once wrote: ‘I have always wanted to tell my story, or, more to the point, my side of the story.’

Osei Bonsu Throughout your career as an artist, one of the most enduring forms has been the quilts you began producing in the early 1980s, reviving the African and African American tradition of quilts that told stories and preserved memories. Your current exhibition at Pippy Houldsworth Gallery, London, includes quilts from the ’80s onwards including Subway Graffiti #2 [1987] and Ancestors Part II [2017]. What are your earliest memories of story quilts and how have they shaped your artistic approach to storytelling?

Faith Ringgold My earliest memory of quilting comes to me through my family history. My great-great grandmother, Susan Shannon, and her daughter, my great-grandmother Betsy Bingham, were both born slaves and were quilters all their lives. Both lived into advanced old age in Florida where they continued, after slavery, to work as quilters and seamstresses. Betsy taught her granddaughter, my mother, Willi Posey, how to quilt and my mother taught me, but not until 1980. Much of this story is retold in Ancestors Part I, which is currently on exhibit at Benedict College in Columbia, South Carolina.

My first collaboration with my mother was Echoes of Harlem, made in 1980, one year before she died, and now in the collection of the Studio Museum in Harlem. I continued to gradually make quilts on my own, producing my first story quilt, Who’s Afraid of Aunt Jemima [1983], over the course of an entire year as part of my mourning of the loss of my mother. Since then, I always work with collaborators, most recently my assistant Grace Matthews. The idea to make story quilts – that is, painting on canvas framed with quilting and bordered with boxes of text – first came out of my desire to tell my own story and to see my writing in print. Every time I exhibited a story quilt, I was also ‘publishing’ a story I had written.

OB The exhibition includes a number of paintings from your first mature body of work ‘American People’ Series [1963–67] including The American Dream [1964] and Woman Looking in a Mirror [1966]. What did it mean to you, at the time, to make art that engaged directly with politics?

FR In 1963, I took my children with me to stay in Oak Bluffs [a black community on Martha’s Vineyard] for the summer where I began the ‘American People’ series. This began with Between Friends [1963], inspired by the somewhat awkward meetings I witnessed of black and white female members of the NAACP [National Association for the Advancement of Colored People] at social events in the house of the family we stayed with. As it happens, this was also the summer of the March on Washington, followed immediately by the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham and the assassination of President Kennedy. This was a time of great eventfulness and turmoil in the civil rights movement in the North and the South. I was greatly inspired by the writings of James Baldwin, in particular The Fire Next Time [1963], in which he grapples with the issues raised by Malcolm X, a prominent figure in the North who would soon break with the Nation of Islam as a result of his efforts to articulate racism. It was Malcolm X’s comments concerning the death of JFK about chickens coming home to roost that would lead to his expulsion from the Nation and begin his metamorphosis into a visionary political leader that would inspire the writer Leroi Jones [Amiri Baraka], whose work also inspired me.

OB Throughout your career, you have addressed the question of race relations in America, a topic that continues to dominate the socio-political agenda. Between Friends [1963] recalls an uneasy meeting between a black and a white woman, while US Postage Stamp Commemorating the Advent of Black Power [1967] represented the demographic status of African Americans as just ten percent of the population. What function do you think art has addressing these issues both historically and in the present moment?

FR In both Between Friends [1963] and U.S. Postage Stamp – as is true generally in the works of the ‘American People’ series, of which there are 20 – I am careful to emphasis that African Americans exist within an overall structure dominated by white racism and power. I have continued to repeatedly address race relations as I have felt it necessary or compelling. But I added to my repertoire, as is visible in my ‘Black Light’ series [1967–69] as well as in the range of my ‘story quilts’ [1980-present], the celebration of black beauty and culture. Over the course of my career, I have combined my tributes to African American culture with my ongoing critiques of racism.

OB Although your work is very much in dialogue with issues in American society, you have drawn influences from many regions and cultures, including Tibetan paintings, traditional West African sculpture and the forms of lettering and design drawn from the Kuba people of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. How would you describe the influence of Pan-Africanist ideologies and aesthetics on your work and thinking?

FR In the summer of 1975, I sent my mother to West Africa to explore her interest in African fashion and design. She had such a wonderful experience travelling alone in terms of the warmth of the people she met that I decided to go on a trip myself through Nigeria and Ghana to study art-making techniques and traditions. This experience had a huge influence on my artistic practice, particularly on the soft sculpture and masks I produced in the 1970s. I returned to Africa again in 1977 to attend FESTAC, in which people of African descent from all over the world travelled to Lagos in a celebration and display of African cultures. I had already begun to incorporate Kuba design in my paintings as early as the ‘Black Light’ series [1967–69] and in my political poster designs. I often used the Kuba elements to organize my paintings. I began to adapt the thangka form as a result of a trip to Amsterdam in 1972 when a guard in the Rijksmuseum directed my attention to an exhibition of them. It occurred to me that making paintings framed by thangkas would allow me to roll my paintings and transport them easily and inexpensively. My mother made the thangkas that framed my ‘Slave Rape’ series [1972–73] and, in retrospect, her use of quilting techniques in their design is obvious. My use of thangkas in the 1970s was consistent with my exploration of the use of sewing techniques in the making of my art, which was strongly prompted by feminism and ideas of making feminist art.

OB Could you discuss the role that audience participation plays in your practice, both in terms of art and activism?

FR Over the course of my career, I have found different ways to incorporate audience participation. I have also always collaborated with other artists, beginning with my mother, Willi Posey. In 1976, for example, I did a performance called The Wake and Resurrection of the Bicentennial Negro in tribute to the Bicentennial Celebration of the founding of America in 1776. I travelled to various campuses around the country, working with students to collaborate on a dance in which the lives of two characters, Bena and Bubba, were explored. Bubba died of a drug overdose and Bena died of a broken heart. This story epitomized the crises we were facing in Harlem over drug addiction and the difficulties of black families in the community in the 1970s. Harlem, which is now being gentrified, was at that time turning into a wasteland. Much of my work, whether it is paintings, posters or sculpture, involves some form of protest and political statement. I have often collaborated with writers such as my daughter Michele Wallace, and others including Nikki Giovanni, Zora Neale Hurston, Gwendolyn Brooks and even Martin Luther King, using their texts as the basis for illustrations I have created in print formats or paintings used to illustrate children’s books.

OB In 1968, you led a group of artists who were protesting the Whitney Museum of American Art’s lack of inclusion of black and Hispanic artists. You also joined the Ad Hoc Women’s Art Committee and co-founded Where We At, Black Women Artists, Inc., a collective of black female artists. Ironically, your work was eventually acquired by the Whitney in 2014 and is currently on display in the exhibition ‘An Incomplete History of Protest: Selections from the Whitney’s Collection’. How do you think American museums have handled issues of exclusion and inequality over the years?

FR In 1968, I was involved in the first black protest against the racist but routine exclusion of black artists from major museum shows. The occasion was a survey of 1930s art at the Whitney Museum of American Art which included no black artists whatsoever. A group of us met at my gallery, Spectrum, then located on Madison Avenue near the Whitney. I prompted them to make signs and to picket the museum. It was at this protest that I first experienced being called a ‘nigger’ right outside the Whitney on Madison Avenue. This is what I wrote about in my painting Hate is a Sin Flag [2007] which was bought by the Whitney in 2014 and, as you mention, is currently on display there.

In the late 1960s, I protested at the Museum of Modern Art with the Art Workers’ Coalition. Tom Lloyd suggested that I join him in demanding a wing for African American and Latino Art at MoMA, which we never got – perhaps partly because we wanted to name it after Martin Luther King and at the time, Coretta King, his widow, would not support this endeavour. Instead, two black artists, Romare Bearden and Richard Hunt, received retrospectives. It was the exclusion of the work of black women artists generally, despite these attempts, that led me to become a feminist in 1970 and to the formation of WSABAL [Women Students and Artists for Black Art Liberation], which often participated in protests, most notably with Ad Hoc Women, a feminist offshoot of the Art Worker’s Coalition led by the art writer Lucy Lippard. In 1970, WSABAL participated in ‘The People’s Flag Show’ at the Judson Memorial Church. It was an open show designed to protest the federal laws forbidding the desecration of the American flag, which was causing a lot of arrests around the country. Just as the show was about to close, I was arrested by the District Attorney’s office along with Jon Hendricks and Jon Toche [friends from the Art Workers’ Coalition]. We became known as the Judson Three and were vindicated on the grounds of the First Amendment [freedom of speech] in court via a team of lawyers from the ACLU [American Civil Liberties Union]. Monies raised on our behalf were used to bail out and defend young people getting arrested all over the country for displaying the flag in ways considered unsuitable by the powers that be.

OB Throughout your career, you have published many children’s books on historical figures such as Harriet Tubman [1992] and Rosa Parks [1999]. Your own work has clearly been marked by artists like Jacob Lawrence and Romare Bearden. What do you hope that oncoming generations of artists and students will take from your artistic and political endeavours?

FR The answer to this question is simple: My hope is to inspire others to tell their stories and to have the courage to do so.

‘Faith Ringgold: Paintings and Story Quilts, 1964–2017’, runs at Pippy Houldsworth Gallery, London, UK, until 28 April.

This interview was originally published by Frieze.com in April, 2018 © Osei Bonsu, 2018.