Five Decades On, Faith Ringgold Still Packs a Punch

Born in Harlem almost 84 years ago, Faith Ringgold has had a powerfully prolific career as an artist, teacher, thinker, and activist. She formed the Ad Hoc Women’s Art Committee in 1970 with artist Poppy Johnson and critic Lucy Lippard, was active in Women Artists in Revolution (a feminist splinter group of the Art Workers’ Coalition), and a founding member of the National Black Feminist Organization. Ringgold studied with the social realist painter Robert Gwathmey at the City College of New York, and applied her radical imagery and critical vocabulary not only to canvas, but also to vernacular and distinctly American domestic materials, including posters and prints, children’s book illustrations, and her well known storyquilts. With works in the collections of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Museum of Modern Art, Ringgold’s significant legacy has been growing in prominence. Groovin High (1986), for example, which depicts the artist’s memory of Sunday afternoon dances at The Savoy on Lenox Avenue, was reproduced as a billboard facing onto New York City’s Highline earlier this spring. Her eighteenth illustrated children’s book, Harlem Renaissance Party, is due from HarperCollins in January 2015.

Ringgold’s bold and colorful imagery draws influence from European and American Modernism, as well as African and African-American culture. Her quilts were inspired by Buddhist Thangkas—painted and brocaded fabric pictures—as well as the remnants of her mother’s work as a fashion designer. Mixing craft and “high art,” Ringgold has produced tremendously compelling works, from the muralistic (Subway Graffiti #2, 1987), to the portrait (American People Series #17: The Artist and His Model, 1966), to the more explicitly political (United States of Attica, 1971-72). The artist combines all three of these modes in her masterly 1967 canvas American People Series #20: Die—a mob scene of diffuse and violent mayhem, without linear perspective or a clear perpetrator—which is now on view at Museu Picasso in Barcelona, in an exhibition that travels to the Pérez Art Museum in Miami later this summer. Her paintings, including Black Light Series #10: Flag for the Moon: Die Nigger (1969) can also be seen, currently, at the Brooklyn Museum for the touring exhibition “Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties.”

“I don’t feel restricted by being female, any more than I feel restricted by being black or being American—these are the facts of my life,” she has said. “It is powerful to know who you are. The restriction comes in not knowing.” The development, over the past five decades, of her characteristic visual language and portrayal of serious thematic subjects—balanced with gravity, humor, and empathy for the human spirit—brilliantly attest to this.

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