One of the most important artists of our time, Faith Ringgold was born in Harlem, N.Y. in 1930. At age 93 she continues to gift us with her wisdom.
Ringgold identified as an artist from a young age, first honing her creative skills on her days spent at home sick due to asthma. From a long line of textile artists and powerful women, Ringgold witnessed and heard tell of women in her ancestral line who used their skills and talents and passed them on to their daughters. Her great-grandmother, Susie Shannon and grandmother, Betsy Bingham both born enslaved, were quilters and dressmakers.
Ringgold’s long career embraces all kinds of mediums, including soft sculpture, oil paintings, banners, books and children’s books, but what she may be best known for are her Story Quilts.
The quilts tell the story in scenes painted onto large, stitched quilts, The quilts contain text boxes that outline the central painted image. These text boxes are used in many of Ringgold’s paintings and Story Quilts to tell the story of what is happening in the image. The use of the text boxes is effective in deepening the overall intention of recovering lost history and lost narrative of Black Americans. The paintings themselves offer illustration and visuals but the text gives the paintings voice and speech in a unique and powerful way.
In the 1990s Ringgold created a series of Story Quilts dedicated to and inspired by Ringgold’s mother Mme. Willi Posey, a successful textile artist and fashion designer. This series is called The French Collection and it is what this post will focus on.
To learn more about Faith Ringgold, read Nasty Women Writers posts:
For this piece I will rely heavily on the essay about Ringgold’s The French Collection in the book Faith Ringgold: American People that I acquired at the fabulous exhibit I saw in the deYoung museum in San Francisco where I was first introduced to Ringgold’s work. I want to focus on this essay because it is written by her daughter, Michele Wallace, and has a loving and insightful touch. The exhibit is still making the rounds and is currently at the Contemporary Museum of Art Chicago until February of 2024. here’s the link.
Read Nasty Women Writers piece about woman writer Michele Wallace:
The narrator and main character in The French Collection Story Quilts is Willia Marie Simone, a fictional composite of Ringgold herself, her mother and other Black women artists through time. As a gift from her Aunt Melissa, Willia Marie is traveling in France in 1920. Aunt Melissa thought she might have more success as a Black artist in France at the time.
Willia Marie has two young children whom she eventually sends back to her Aunt Melissa in Atlanta so that she may freely pursue her artistic career. Indeed Willia Marie becomes very successful.
The text boxes in The French Collection are mostly the text of the letters that Willia writes to her Aunt Melissa.
The French Collection quilts include images of Ringgold’s own family and friends as well as artists, thinkers and writers from all different time periods.
Dancing at the Louvre (1991) addresses motherhood and career and how to manage both at once. It also shows off Ringgold’s talent and skill as an artist: the middle painting under which they dance is the Mona Lisa.
Wedding on the Seine (1991) addresses ambiguity and fear about being a married woman artist and whether or not that proves to be an obstacle to one’s ambitions.
All of these quilts deserve to be studied, enjoyed and admired. If you ever get the chance to see them, GO.
For this post I will focus on the five quilts in The French Collection that include groups of people as I find those most compelling, witty and fun.
Michele Wallace tells us that:
“The Picnic at Giverny (1991) is one of five quilts in the series rendered as a group portrait. It is also the first in the series in which chronology and time get seriously wonky and discombobulated. Faith rearranges history and location to include people, places and events that did not and could not have shared the same context, to underscore the relevance of race and gender to her project”(FR 176).
Willia Marie has apparently been invited to Monet’s famous home by Monet himself. In the quilt she portrays herself painting the group of women in the quilt. These are women who support her work and art. And then there is Picasso, sitting naked on a towel on the grass in front of the clothed women.
“In the letter, Willia Marie describes her painting as being inspired by Édouard Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe (1863). She inserts an elderly Pablo Picasso, naked apart from his rakish hat, into the scene of fully clothed women, a tongue-in-cheek reversal of Manet’s painting of a picnic in which the women are naked and the men are clothed”(FR 176).
In the story text boxes Willia Marie questions what a Black woman artist should paint, what is the best use of her talent and her success? She weighs many options but then decides she wants to “do some of this WOMEN ART”(FR 176).
The Sunflower Quilting Bee at Arles is another fabulous quilt in The French Collection, discussed in Nasty Women Writers original piece on Faith Ringgold:
Matisse’s Chapel (1991) came to Willia Marie in a dream after visiting Matisse’s chapel in Vence, France. Matisse built The Chapel of the Rosary between 1947-1951 and provided art for it, including stained glass windows.
At that time Willia Marie was there, one was only admitted by attending a mass. In the painting which depicts the dream are Ringgold’s ancestors and relatives, all dead when she painted it but, Wallace points out, some would have been alive in the fictional date of 1920. They are all wearing their dress clothes and one is in a wedding dress.
The text boxes contain a letter where Willia Marie tells her aunt of the dream and:
“‘the dead members of our family . . . gathered in Henri Matisse’s Chapel in Vence.’ When Willia Marie arrives, Grandma Betsy is telling a story that was told to her by her mother, Susie. A white man asked her how she felt about being a descendant of slaves. She shot back at him, “How you feel descendent from slavers?”(FR 178)
The story told goes on to address the Middle Passage and the enslavement of Black Americans by the white population as well as the erasure of that reality and those who were enslaved. It brings forward many yet unresolved issues for all Americans and the “stink” that white Americans yet carry over these crimes.
My personal feeling from this story quilt is one of deep healing and prayer. Matisse received a great healing from the Dominican sisters while he was in a hospital and that is why he offered to build this chapel for them. It is not a hospital but seems to hold the vibration of the deep healing he received and wanted to give back. I imagine all of the ancestors assembled here attending a sort of “afterworld mass” in the healing container Matisse created. In my own imagination, I create a story where both Ringgold and Willia Maria experienced a great healing there and wanted to offer it to their ancestors as well. It speaks to the power of art and art as healing and transformative.
Ringgold herself writes:
“In The French Collection Series I seized the opportunity to paint in the manner of Van Gogh, Matisse, Monet, and Picasso, as I had tried to do when I was a student. But now I had a story to tell about a young black woman who went to Paris at age sixteen to become an artist and never to return to America. As the story goes, Willia Marie becomes a successful artist and makes a name for herself in the modern art movement and exchanges ideas with the great artists of her time”(WFOB 80).
Dinner at Gertrude Stein’s (1991) has Willia Marie and a group of writers and artists gathered in Gertrude Stein’s salon in Paris of the 1920s. James Baldwin, Ernest Hemingway, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Pablo Picasso, Richard Wright, and Stein and her partner Alice B. Toklas and brother Leo Stein.
Paintings on the wall behind them include Picasso’s Portrait of Gertrude Stein (1905-1906) and works by Matisse, Paul Cézanne, and Marie Laurencin.
American woman writer Gertrude Stein’s salons are famous for who they gathered and what they inspired in Paris between 1903-1938. It was said if Gertrude Stein gave you the stamp of approval, you were in. Willia Marie is there, standing, while the others are all sitting which makes her more of an observer in this quilt.
When asked in an interview with Massimiliano Gioni about her anachronistic combining of people in famous known places with people from other times Ringgold replied:
“With the The French Collection I wanted to show there were Black people when Picasso, Monet, and Matisse were making art. I wanted to show that African art and Black people had a place in that history”(FRAP 211).
Le Café des Artistes (1994) is an absolute celebration of the French café and the role it has played in art through the centuries.
Willia Marie stands in the center of the café that she owns with a clientele of artists, writers, and movers and shakers including, Faith Ringgold, Romare Bearden, Elizabeth Catlett, Ed Clark, Aaron Douglas, William H. Johnson, Sargent Johnson, Loïs Mailou Jones, Paul Gauguin, Vincent van Gogh, Jacob Lawrence, Edmonia Lewis, Archibald Motley, Raymond Saunders, Augusta Savage, Henry Ossawa Tanner, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Maurice Utrillo, and Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller.
This painting is packed full of people who need to have more attention shone on them from the art world and the general public. Ringgold is doing a lot of the work of unerasing with these quilts. Each of the artists listed above needs to be remembered and honored for their work, acknowledged and appreciated. Each one of them has an entry on wikipedia if you feel so moved.
Indeed all of these quilts are powerful to stand before and allow the sensations and feelings they elicit to come through. They convey so much even without intellectual understanding of who exactly is in them or what the text boxes reveal. Empowering and moving, they also hold the energy of potential and possibility.
I love the jumbled-up timeframes and combinations of people. It is fun, illuminating and opens your mind. Art at its finest.
Faith Ringgold is a Nasty Woman Artist.
©Theresa C. Dintino 2023
Featured Image by Jill Mead of The Guardian
Gioni, Massimiliano and Gary Carrion-Murayari. Faith Ringgold: American People. New York, Phaidon Press. 2022.
Ringgold, Faith. We Flew Over the Bridge: The Memoirs of Faith Ringgold. Boston, Little, Brown, Inc. 1995.