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Faith Ringgold was one of the great storytellers of American art. Raised in a lower-middle-class household in Harlem and belonging, as she put it, to a “family of teachers” and raconteurs, she developed a unique practice, which combined painting, sculpture and a pioneering approach to quilt-making, to narrate American history as it happened.

Her grandfather, who had been a teacher in the South, was one of the millions of Black Americans who sought a better life in the North, as immortalised in Jacob Lawrence’s narrative sequence The Migration Series (1940-41) ; her great-great-great-grandmother had been a slave who made quilts for plantation owners, a likely influence for her own achievements in this medium, which often engaged with the legacies of slavery in contemporary America.

The start of it all

Her mother, Madame Willi Posey, was an accomplished fashion designer who taught her daughter, who was often off sick as a child with asthma, needle­work and mask-making. “Mother would give me scraps of fabric or pieces of patterns she had discarded,” Ringgold later reflected, “and I would sew them together in an attempt to make outlandish-looking shoes and pocket-books.” Later, in the early 1970s, they collaborated on “tankas” inspired by Tibetan paintings, which narrated significant moments in African American history.

By the mid-60s, Ringgold was displaying her work in Harlem, whether in galleries or on the street. She showed in a travelling exhibition of Black artists organised by Amiri Baraka’s Black Arts Repertory Theater. “The intent was to take art to the people of Harlem by caravan, set up in parks and empty spaces,” she said, entirely consistent with a democratic approach to art-making that was part of her lifelong strategy “to politicise, to revolutionise … art, [and] to embrace the people in the street”.

I wanted my painting to express this moment I knew was history

Ringgold’s first solo show took place at Spectrum Gallery on 57th Street, a co-operative space run by the poet and critic Robert Newman, a few days before Christmas 1967. More than 500 people attended the opening night, among them Romare Bearden, the artist and co-founder of the Spiral arts alliance, who became an important mentor on artistic and political strategies alike. On show were works from Ringgold’s American PeopleSeries, many of which combined elements of Pop block-forms with social realist portraiture to represent the vexed relations between white and Black Americans. Inspired by James Baldwin, whom Ringgold believed “understood … the disparity between Black and white people better than anyone”, the artist felt she “had something to add” that Baldwin could not with his words alone: “the visual depiction of the way we are and look”. Ringgold said: “I wanted my painting to express this moment I knew was history … I wanted to give my woman’s point of view to this period.”

Power of omission

In The Flag Is Bleeding (1967) Ringgold depicts three figures: a Black Panther holding his chest (at first sight it looks like he is pledging allegiance but he is in fact plugging a knife wound), a diminutive white woman, and a threatening heavy-set white man in a country-club suit with plunging blue eyes. “The white woman was trying to bring the Black and the white man together because she really had no power,” Ringgold explained—the “Black woman was left out of it”. Like all great artists, Ringgold knew that leaving something out often makes the point more effectively than putting something in. She was an artist who showed but didn’t tell.

The searing promise and the crushing disappointment that the stars and stripes symbolised for many African Americans, especially at a time when the Black Panthers championed Black nationalism over liberal integration, was a perennial subject for Ringgold in this period. In November 1970, as one of the Judson Three (with Jon Hendricks and Jean Toche of the Guerrilla Art Action Group), Ringgold was arrested for using the American flag in an “uncomplimentary manner” during the People’s Flag Show at the Judson Memorial Church in New York City. The event was staged in opposition to the faltering Vietnam War campaign abroad and culture war attacks on artists at home. Ringgold’s daughter and fellow activist Michele Wallace was originally arrested but Ringgold stepped in and persuaded the police to let her take her place. “She’s a minor and I’m her mother,” she argued. All charges were eventually dropped after an intervention by the American Civil Liberties Union.

I wanted my audience to make a personal connection with the images and the message

This moment is representative of Ringgold’s unwavering belief in the inherent politics of mother­hood. This same belief animates a work such as Slave Rape #1: Fear Will Make You Weak (1972), which she made with her mother and calls attention to the sexual exploitation of enslaved women as their children become chattels, or We Came to America from the series The American Collection (1997), which depicts a burning slave ship on the horizon line as thousands of victims scream and tread water in an unforgiving Atlantic. Lady Liberty is Black and cradles an infant in her arms: it is not the American dream that will liberate Black people, but Black mothers, the painting suggests. “I had called my art ‘super realism’,” Ringgold said, “because I wanted my audience to make a personal connection with its images and the message.”

By the early 1970s, Ringgold had built up a reputation across New York: for fusing art and protest, for taking institutions to task on the shameful lack of representation of Black and women artists, and for getting into trouble. Earlier in 1970, Ringgold co-founded the Ad Hoc Women Artists’ Committee with Brenda Miller, Poppy Johnson and Lucy Lippard. They petitioned outside the Whitney Museum of American Art, which was accused of putting on sentimental ethnographic exhibitions of Black art over vibrant contemporary work. In December 1971, Ringgold co-founded Where We At for Black women artists and helped to organise the important “Are museums relevant to women?” forum at the Brooklyn Museum. “Ringgold brought to the women’s movement a strength and confidence that was rare in those days for any woman,” Lippard recollects. Ringgold never waited for anyone else to lead her revolution.

Urgent art

Ringgold’s work from this period possesses an urgency that sought to enliven sluggish progress on Black women’s liberation. All Power to the People (1970) depicts unmistakably Black Panther parents and their young son, and calls for the release of political prisoners. Ringgold depicted everything that was happening in the United States during the 1960s, a decade she believed was defined by its “tumultuous thrusts for freedom”. She is one of that decade’s most eloquent chroniclers.

In the last half of her career, her robust and unwaveringly political paintings gave way to sophisticated visual stories that demonstrated a belief in social change in the transformation of how Black women and girls saw themselves. By challenging racial and gender stereotypes, Ringgold imagined impassioned Black female heroines on canvas and, especially, on quilts. “She stretches the lineage of Black feminists across her quilts,” Diedrick Brackens wrote in the book that accompanied Ringgold’s New Museum retrospective in 2022, “emblazoning the faces and words of women like Sojourner Truth, Audre Lorde and Alice Walker upon their surfaces.”

Perhaps Ringgold’s most significant contribution in this field was Tar Beach 2 (1990), which tells the story of spirited Cassie Louise Lightfoot who, on a hot summer night, flies over the George Washington Bridge and across the New York night sky. “Sleeping on Tar Beach was magical,” Cassie explains in the text on the quilt, “… only eight years old and in the third grade and I can fly. That means I am free to go wherever I want to for the rest of my life.” Tar Beach 2 became an award-winning children’s book, and Ringgold’s prolific publishing output includes 17 books for young people on American history, including on the Underground Railroad and the Harlem Renaissance.

Ringgold and Picasso

Many of Ringgold’s works from the 1990s explored the place of artists like herself against the long arc of Modernist painting, dominated as it was by white men. Ringgold’s “story quilt” The French Collection (1991-97) tells the fictional story of Willia Marie Simone, a young Black woman who moves from Harlem to Paris in the early 20th century to become an artist and businesswoman. Willia paints her friends beside Claude Monet’s waterlilies at Giverny, gets married in Henri Matisse’s chapel in Vence, and leads a quilting bee at Arles as Vincent van Gogh (looking surplus to requirements) holds a bunch of sunflowers. In one of the most striking quilts, Willia poses for Pablo Picasso as one of the models for Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, telling a new story for a painting that is sometimes seen as misogynist and racially essentialising. If, she later reflected, “I had to cite the single artist who inspired me the most,” her words tinged with an inevitable undertone of regret, “I would name Picasso.”

The civil rights movement’s Guernica: Ringgold’s American People Series #20: Die (1967)

It was only fitting then that when the New York Museum of Modern Art reopened in 2019 Picasso’s early Cubist masterpiece was displayed alongside Ringgold’s American People Series #20: Die (1967). This painting depicts white-collar workers lost in a frenzy of blood-splattered shirts, loaded pistols and lunging knives. In its panoramic storytelling and its subject of the massacre of the innocents, Die is the civil rights movement’s Guernica.

When asked by the artist Kara Walker what activity or entity kept her feeling optimistic, lively and purposeful, Ringgold responded: “Painting. I usually like to do a series because it’s telling some kind of story. And if it hits me good, it might take a long time to tell it, and I might produce a lot out of that one idea.” Ringgold produced many extraordinary ideas over a long career. But it is her unparalleled knack for storytelling that will be her most enduring legacy. She hit American art good and long. She told us the news.

Faith Willi Jones, born New York City 8 October 1930; 1950 married Robert Earl Wallace (two daughters, marriage dissolved 1956); 1962 married Burdette Ringgold (died 2020); died Englewood, New Jersey, 13 April 2024.

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