Journey Through Six Decades Of Faith Ringgold’s Revolutionary Art And Activism In New Phaidon Tome

By Natasha Gural

The faces of two Black children and three white children peek through lush jungle foliage, the vivid, ferocious brushstrokes directing our gaze.

The Black girls are Faith Ringgold’s daughters, Michele and Barbara, depicted alongside three white classmates at New Lincoln School, an experimental integrated school in Harlem.

American People Series #15: Hide Little Children (1966) from the revolutionary artist’s acclaimed American People Series (1963-1967) was one of her first paintings to sell to a private collector in the 1970s. The title hints at a benign game of hide-and-seek, but the imagery of children seeking refuge or obscurity weaves a darker narrative about institutionalized racism which persists under the guise of white liberalism.

Faith Ringgold, American People Series #15: Hide Little Children, 1966. Oil on canvas, 26 x 48 in (66 x 121.9 cm). Private collection. © Faith Ringgold / ARS, NY and DACS, London, courtesy ACA Galleries, New York 2021. Photo: Todd-White Art Photography, London; courtesy Pippy Houldsworth Gallery, London (pages 40-41)

 

 “New Lincoln School had a reputation for being ultra-liberal, but what about the parents? What kind of reputation did they have?” Ringgold, also an award-winning children’s book author, wrote in We Flew over the Bridge (1995), a memoir of a young Black girl in New York City who dreams about flying.

The captivating large-scale oil on canvas is among some 150 full-color plates of Ringgold’s trailblazing paintings, sculpture, posters, and story quilts featured in Faith Ringgold: American People, which goes on sale February 23. Phaidon, in partnership with the New Museum, presents a comprehensive survey spanning more than six decades of Ringgold’s prolific career, edited by Massimiliano Gioni, Edlis Neeson Artistic Director at the New Museum, and Gary Carrion-Murayari, Kraus Family Curator at the New Museum.

Ringgold’s work, which boldly explores themes of race and gender that continue to plague western society, is contextualized with contributions by curators, writers, and artists, including essays by Amiri Baraka, LeRonn P. Brooks, Julia Bryan-Wilson, Bridget R. Cooks, Mark Godfrey, Lucy R. Lippard, Michele Wallace, and Zoé Whitley, as well as an interview with Ringgold and reflections on her personal life and enduring legacy by American artists, Diedrick Brackens, Jordan Casteel, and Tschabalala Self.

Ahead of her time as a painter, mixed-media sculptor, performance artist, writer, teacher, and a tireless activist and advocate for profound social change, Ringgold serves as the pioneering art historical force who connects themes and styles from the Harlem Renaissance to today’s emerging Black artists. Her contribution is invaluable to art history and understanding why our society cannot overcome racial violence and injustice. At 91, Ringgold is among the world’s leading women artists and artists of color, triumphantly leading the effort to implore major U.S. museums to improve representation.

The monumental American People Series #18: The Flag Is Bleeding (1967) demands viewers to confront racism and the construct of democracy in the United States. A Black man, holding a knife with one hand and clutching his bleeding heart with the other as if pledging allegiance to the flag, joins arms with a white woman and a white man. The three stand behind a diaphanous U.S. flag, its colors bleeding to underscore the wounds of racism.

Faith Ringgold, American People Series #18: The Flag Is Bleeding, 1967. Oil on canvas, 72 x 96 in (182.9 x 243.8 cm). Courtesy the artist and ACA Galleries, New York. © Faith Ringgold / ARS, NY and DACS, London, courtesy ACA Galleries, New York 2021 (pages 44-45)

 

It was the first work by Ringgold acquired by the National Gallery of Art last October. “This may well be the most important purchase of a single work of contemporary art since the National Gallery acquired Jackson Pollock’s No. 1, 1950 (Lavender Mist) in 1976,” Harry Cooper, senior curator and head of the department of modern and contemporary art, said at the time.

“The flag is the only truly subversive and revolutionary abstraction one can paint,” Ringgold said.

In her final collaboration with her mother Willi Posey, Ringgold created Mother’s Quilt (1983) on painted, appliqued, and embroidered fabric with sequins. The colossal quilt exemplifies Ringgold’s mastery of the long undermined art form. A plaintive tribute to Posey, who died the following year, it was a pivotal point in Ringgold’s oeuvre which includes more than 100 quilts created between 1983 and 1990, conveying empowered autobiographical and fictional narratives.

Faith Ringgold, Mother’s Quilt, 1983. Painted, appliqued, and embroidered fabric with sequins, 58 x 43 1⁄2 in. (147.3 x 110.5 cm). The Blanchet Bradley Collection. © Faith Ringgold / ARS, NY and DACS, London, courtesy ACA Galleries, New York 2021. Photo: readsreads.info; courtesy Serpentine, London (page 113)

 

Black Light Series #7: Ego Painting (1969), selected as the book cover image, underlines Ringgold’s lifelong wrangling with classical studies of Western art. Ego Painting celebrates the bold, graphic compositional format of Kuba textile designs of the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire). Ringgold divides a square into eight triangles to house a series of word associations, fluidly linking “BLACK AMERICA,” “BLACK RINGGOLD,” “RINGGOLD AMERICA,” and their various sequences. Her name presented in distinct block letters signals the Ego.

Faith Ringgold, Black Light Series #7: Ego Painting, 1969. Oil on canvas, 30 x 30 in. (76.2 x 76.2 cm). Art Institute of Chicago; Wilson L. Mead Trust Fund; Claire and Gordon Prussian Fund for Contemporary Art; Mr. and Mrs. Frank G. Logan Purchase Prize Fund; Ada S. Garrett Prize, Flora Mayer Witkowsky Purchase Prize, Gordon Prussian Memorial, Emilie L. Wild Prize, William H. Bartels Prize, William and Bertha Clusmann Prize, Max V. Kohnstamm Prize, and Pauline Palmer Prize funds. © Faith Ringgold / ARS, NY and DACS, London, courtesy ACA Galleries, New York 2021. Photo: Art Institute of Chicago / Art Resource (page 59)

 

Reflecting on her Black Light Series, Ringgold said in Eleanor Munro’s Eleanor Munro’s Originals: American Women Artists (1979):

“I tried to develop a style of painting related to what I imagined to be the African idiom. I still painted figures, but without the use of chiaroscuro—realistic but flat—to lend a high degree of visibility to the image of the American [B]lack person. And as a matter of fact, African art achieves the real look of Black people. By its decorative, flat appearance, it helps project the real look of [B]lack people. If you have a dark form, and you modulate it with shadows, you have nothing. But if you flatten it out and indicate the shadows in flat, contrasting colors, you have a strong pattern.”

 


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