By Noma Faingold
Artist Faith Ringgold, 91, was rejected by the art world countless times. Being an African American woman, who boldly confronted subjects like racism, slavery, violence and inequality in her prolific body of work, made the establishment uncomfortable.
But earlier this year the New Museum of New York City mounted a long overdue retrospective, spanning six decades. The exhibit, “Faith Ringgold: American People,” next arrived at the de Young Museum on July 16 and will run through Nov. 27.
“Every major museum should have a Faith (piece). She’s that important to American culture. She’s transformative,” said Janna Keegan, Assistant Curator of Contemporary Art and Programming at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. “She created a visual language of the African diaspora within the United States. That’s huge.”
Ringgold, who lived most of her life in Harlem and currently lives in New Jersey, has used a variety of mediums, including painting, quilting (often referred to as soft sculptures), poster art, words, performance and writing/illustrating children’s books, to tell both personal stories and stories of others. She has reimagined historical moments and iconic figures, such as creating a powerful new narrative for the fictional stereotype, Aunt Jemima. The 1983 canvas quilt called, “Who’s Afraid of Aunt Jemima?” was Ringgold’s first of many story quilts. The text in the piece tells the life story of how Ringgold sees the character – as a business owner, independent thinker and strong matriarch. Ringgold based the story on the lives of her aunts.
According to Keegan, a number of pieces have never been shown before the exhibition. However, one well-known painting, “U.S. Postage Stamp Commemorating the Advent of Black Power” (1967), is an indictment on pervasive racism, a reoccurring theme in Ringgold’s oeuvre.
The border resembles the ridges of a postage stamp. The words “Air Mail” are in red. The grid of tiled faces is meant to represent the demographic composition in the U.S. at the time. Black faces run along a diagonal and are surrounded by white faces. The phrase “Black Power” is easy to spot. It is also placed diagonally across the painting. The term “White Power” is much harder to find. But it’s there.
“It speaks to the systemic nature of white supremacy,” Keegan said. “We can’t always see it. It’s in our education system, in our politics and in our economics. It’s woven into the fabric of our everyday life. It’s important that she called it out.”
The celebrated, “Tar Beach,” the first children’s book Ringgold wrote and illustrated (published in 1991), is also represented in the exhibit. It is a story about a 7-year-old girl growing up in Harlem, who can fly. It shows Ringgold’s optimism about the future.
The sacrifices Ringgold made, and the obstacles she overcame, are a big part of her legacy.
“Faith is unique in that she looks at children as agents of change,” Keegan said. “She imagines a better future and more opportunities for the artists who came after her.”
When “American People” opened in New York, Ringgold was interviewed by the PBS NewsHour television show which summarized how she’ has always approached her art.
“You can’t necessarily change what’s going on, but I can say what I think about it,” she said. “I’m free to do that and I will.”
The retrospective Faith Ringgold: American People runs through November 27 at the de Young Museum. Information: deyoungmuseum.org.
African American Quilt Guild
The de Young Museum is collaborating with the African American Quilt Guild of Oakland (AAQGO) to host a series of quilting workshops on Aug. 13, Sept. 10 and Oct. 8. Each day will feature two types of workshops: one more practical and the other more conceptual.
According to the organization’s president, Marie de Porres Taylor, in the how-to workshops, participants will learn how to put together a block. It is the way traditional quilts are built.
“They will go home with a block,” said Taylor, who will co-lead the workshops, with a few of the 80 members of AAQGO.
The “artistic” workshops will perhaps be inspired by Faith Ringgold’s story quilts, a familiar style to the organization. In 2014, they staged a 100-quilt exhibition, featuring various aspects of life in the East Bay city. Titled “Neighborhoods Coming Together: Quilts Around Oakland,” the event included a quilt depicting the 1991 Oakland firestorm.
“Some of our quilters have messages in their art quilts, including political messages,” said Taylor, 75, a retired teacher. “People reveal themselves in their quilts, maybe not like Faith. But I hope the workshops stimulate people’s creative side and get them excited to develop a beautiful part of themselves.”
To sign up for the quilt workshops led by the AFQG of Oakland, go to deyoung.famsf.org.