Someone told me to go see the exhibit “Faith Ringgold: American People” at the de Young museum in San Francisco. They told me the artist was incredible. “The show is amazing. You must go.” And so, for my 60th birthday I headed there with a friend.
Arriving at the museum, we noticed the “Ramses the Great and Egyptian Treasures” exhibit which had been publicized ad nauseam for months. We may as well walk through, we thought, to see what all the brouhaha is about. And gosh, did we wish we hadn’t.
It didn’t take long for us to want to get away from the constant sound of war drums and battlefield chants pumping through the speakers, the propaganda of how great Ramses was because of his victories as a warrior at war. It was history as told through the story of the victor. A celebration of war and the spoils of war. A story told too many times.
Exiting the black hole of Ramses, we took the elevator up to the Ringgold retrospective. It was as though we had left hell and entered heaven. Here were stories rarely told, painted, stitched and written onto colorful quilts.
Here was the life work of a woman who fought and succeeded to do what she loved in spite of all the odds, and so many obstacles in her way. Here was Black feminist artist Faith Ringgold recovering and revealing the truth of Black American women’s lives and realities. Here was color, bold and fierce, pain, laughter and love, images of places and people we recognized and others we were meeting for the first time. Here was the art world critiqued through a Black woman artist’s lens. Here was the story of triumph and and celebration. And it was gorgeous and amazing.
The pinnacle of the exhibit for me were the rooms filled with what have become her defining art form: story quilts. They made me gasp and giggle out loud. I was enamored with them. I wanted to touch them, to feel them, to hang out with them for a very long time. They felt like comforting friends.
The quilts are huge and delightful even as their stories are sometimes grim. They each have a story hand written in text boxes around the borders or interspersed within the images. They are a painted canvas stitched onto quilted fabric. They are large, 60-90 inches wide and high. They hold secrets and puzzles, surprises, which beckon one closer, a smile forming in recognition.
For this post I will focus on “The Sunflowers Quilting Bee at Arles,” from The French Collection. Watch for a full post on Ringgold’s French Collection on Nasty Women Writers soon.
“In this work, Faith Ringgold reimagines the fabled setting of a sunflower field in Arles, the French town where Vincent Van Gogh famously painted floral still lifes between 1888 and 1889. Among the bright blooms, Ringgold has situated a group of historically significant African American women: Madam C.J. Walker, Sojourner Truth, Ida B. Wells, Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks, Mary McLeod Bethune, Fannie Lou Hamer, and Ella Baker. The women take part in a quilting bee, a social event popularized in the mid-nineteenth century where women came together to talk and stitch quilts collaboratively . Such gatherings gained renewed significance during the civil rights movement, when Black women, such as those involved in the Freedom Quilting Bee in Rehobeth, Alabama, formed quilting cooperatives as a way to earn independent income”(Faith Ringgold: American People at the de Young Museum, San Francisco, 2022).
I was so excited to see so many Nasty Women Artists, Writers and Activists sitting around a table quilting together in the fields of sunflowers so beloved by Van Gogh and he, coming up behind them bringing them flowers in respect and tribute. It took me a minute to see him, the splashes of brightness and color disguise and hide him, but when I did see him, I giggled out loud. There is something in his gesture and posture which is fun and heartening. Full of humility and admiration, he approaches these giants of social justice, which is as it should be.
The anachronisms in this series of quilts are jarring at first. Wait, what are they all doing sitting together? And what are they doing in Arles among the sunflowers with Van Gogh? Then your mind adjusts to the surreal and the trans-dimensional realm Ringgold is engaging and it becomes a puzzle to solve. Wait, who is there? You notice the written names on the tablecloth. Then your eyes move to the text boxes and begin to read the story, the women dialoguing about the scene they are in and their lives in general. It all begins to makes sense.
The French Collection, created in the 1990s is a twelve-part series featuring a character named Willia Marie Simone in Paris in the 1920s. It is a tribute to Ringgold’s mother Willi Posey and also to Ringgold herself as she imagines what life as an artist could have been without the constraints of racism and sexism.
Ringgold had been to Paris with her mother in 1961 and her mother had been many times for her work as a fashion designer. Ringgold writes that Willia Marie gets “to do things that no African-American woman artist had ever been able to do in Paris or America. In this sense, Willia Marie is my alter ego. For her character I had to rewrite history using Mother’s beloved Paris as the setting”(WFOB 80).
In Faith Ringgold: American People, Michele Wallace writes of the Sunflower Quilting Bee at Arles:
“They are presented here working together on a sunflower quilt in the middle of a sunflower field in France, as a metaphorical representation of their important work in human rights. Standing nearby is Vincent Van Gogh with a bouquet of sunflowers, with the town of Arles in the background. His presence unsettles them. “Is this a natural setting for a black woman?” Sojourner asks Willia Marie. She tells them it wasn’t possible for her to be an artist in the United States, to which they respond, “We are all artists. Piecing is our art. We brought it straight from Africa . . . That was what we did after a hard day’s work in the fields to keep our sanity and our beds warm and bring beauty into our lives. That was not being an artist. That was being alive.”
Later on, after they have finished the quilt, they say, “Now we can do our real quilting, our real art: making this world piece up right”(FR 177).
Ringgold’s mother learned the textile arts from her mother who had learned it from her once enslaved mother. Willi got a degree from FIT and her designs were highly sought after in the 50s and 60s. Ringgold adored her. They were very close. Willi Posey collaborated with Ringgold on many art projects. They made their “first and only quilt together in 1980”(WFOB 67). That quilt was Echoes of Harlem. Willi died in 1981 which is why the collaboration came to an abrupt end.
Upon her mother’s death Ringgold created Mother’s Quilt and then went on to create over 80 more.
Diedrick Brackens writes:
“In creating quilted works, she [Ringgold] acknowledges that she is working in the medium our foremothers, both real and imagined, used to keep us warm, a medium that guides our aesthetics and cultural ethos, a medium that has belonged to feminist intervention in art production since the start of her career.
It has often occurred to me that one of textiles’ most powerful allegiances is to healing. If we probe language further, we find the old English word clitha (a parent of the word cloth) meaning “poultice.” I think Ringgold is aware that her narrative textiles are wholly dedicated to mending, to realignment. Cloth certainly tends to our physical needs in the form of bandages, slings, and cold compresses. She uses textiles to explore psychic space and to patch and poultice our interiority. She re-images history, considers rest, and reworks worlds through cloth”(FR 163).
Ringgold was born in Harlem in 1930 and grew up there. Her mother raised her and her siblings mostly alone. She was very strict. Ringgold had asthma as a young child. That kept her home from school often. On those days she would stay in bed and do art. That is where she got her beginnings and she never wanted to do anything else. It was a battle however, as she was a fiercely independent woman in the 50s when that was not popular and she was also firmly committed to her art which she had to fight to take space for.
She went to City College of New York where she was not allowed to major in art. No women were allowed to at that time. She was forced to minor in art and major in education, as being a teacher was one of the few jobs approved of for women by the culture at large.
Ringgold did become a teacher and was committed to that role as well. In all her schooling she did not have one Black teacher, ever! She knew how important it was for her to teach, being both a Black woman and an artist and she did it for a very large portion of her life, both in high school in Harlem and at the college level later.
She had two daughters at a very young age whom she also ended up raising mostly on her own. Eventually, when she remarried and found support in the parenting from her husband, she had to continue to fight for her time as an artist in her marriage.
Ringgold developed her own style which was bold and outspoken. Often she was told it was too outspoken, too political but she never let that stop her.
In her Black Light Series Ringgold worked with and developed her own palette for painting black skin, eliminating the color white and using grey, blue and green pigments instead.
“As Faith Ringgold became increasingly influenced by the Black Power movement in the late 1960s, she began working with a new palette, committing herself to an aesthetic and tonal program in her Black Light Series (1967-1969). Her revolutionary interpretation of Black Power as an approach to color theory speaks to a growing emphasis at the time among many Black artists on expressing self-reliance, self-determination and solidarity with African nations newly independent of European colonialist regimes. . . . Rendered atop a matte-black around in a grid of rich dark green, blue, and gray pigments, these canvases exhibit the possibilities of representing the complex under tones of skin color with the almost total elimination of white paint-a potent symbol of Black autonomy and visibility”(Fatih Ringgold: American People” de Young Museum, 2022).
Fighting for civil rights alongside men, she noticed that women were being left behind. “For me the concept of Black Power carried with it a big question mark. Was it intended only for black men or would black women have power, too?” (WFOB 158).
She began to focus her work and her art more heavily on Black feminist issues, and dedicating herself to bringing forward the stories of Black women artists, activist before her who had been erased, forgotten or ignored. She became interested in telling the truth of Black women’s lives and history, and from that place she began to let her imagination soar to what if’s, which both rewrite history and project a just future.
Despite all she lived through, Ringgold remained optimistic and hopeful, creating art of possibility.Her children’s books are wonderful representations of this. Beginning with the publication of Tar Beach in 1991, she has gone on to publish 16 more, including Aunt Harriet’s Underground Railroad and The Invisible Princess. Watch for a Nasty Women Writers post dedicated solely to Ringgold’s children’s books.
Tar beach tells the story of Cassie Louise Lightfoot who, on a hot summer night up on the roof (tar beach) of her apartment building in Harlem, sets herself free by flying over the George Washington Bridge and then the rest of the city she loves, casting blessings and ownership on her way.
“Considering her singular efforts to redefine art to include the “women’s work” of craft-based textiles and her crucial role in redefining who an “art worker” might be, Ringgold, perhaps more than anyone else, redefined artistic labor in the United States in the late twentieth century. . . . It is not overstating the case to say that her work has underpinned entire theorizations of artistic labor, insisting upon a classed, raced, gendered conception of what artistic effort and valuation look like”(FR 89-90).
Her career has been long and awe inspiring and continues at age 93.
Faith Ringgold is a Nasty Woman Artist, Writer and Activist.
Theresa C. Dintino 2023
Gioni, Massimiliano and Gary Carrion-Murayari. Faith Ringgold: American People.New York, Phaidon Press. 2022.
Ringgold, Faith. Tar Beach. Dragonfly Books, 1991.
Ringgold, Faith. We Flew Over the Bridge: The Memoirs of Faith Ringgold. Boston, Little, Brown, Inc. 1995.