BY Edna Bonhomme in Opinion | 15 MAY 24

Remembering Faith Ringgold (1930–2024)

Edna Bonhomme pays tribute to the polymath artist whose legacy goes beyond her contributions to Black Arts Movement

BY Edna Bonhomme in Opinion | 15 MAY 24

In On Violence (1970), the Jewish-German philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote: ‘Violence appears where power is in jeopardy, but left to its course, it ends in power’s disappearance.’ For some artists, violence feels perennial, especially when power mutates and bends against the livelihood of the oppressed. For the African American artist Faith Ringgold, who passed away last month in her New Jersey home at the age of 93, some of her canonical artworks were a visual indictment of American racism. Startling and pressing, Ringgold’s series ‘American People’ (1963–67) is a poignant commentary on the country’s pathological attachment to violence. 

Faith Ringgold, American People Series #19: U.S. Postage Stamp Commemorating the Advent of Black Power, 1967, oil on canvas, 1.8 × 2.4 m. Courtesy: the artist and ACA Galleries, New York. © 2023 Faith Ringgold / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Inspired by Pablo Picasso’s Guernica (1937), which depicted the fascist atrocities of the Spanish Civil War between 1936 and 1939, American People Series #50: Die (1967) is a large-scale realist depiction of racial riots in the United States during the 1960s. Well-dressed white and Black Americans are huddled into the frame fighting, fleeing and spurring their rage. For Ringgold, it was essential to include subjects in lovely business attire to show how even the professional class was responsible for the racial bloodshed in the US. Although Picasso was her creative influence, what sets Ringgold apart from him is that she bore witness directly to the racial strife in America. (Picasso portrayed the Spanish Nationalist assault on the leftist movement in the Basque Country from a distance in Paris.)

Subtlety was never Ringgold’s intention. In a 2020 interview with the New York Times, she noted, ‘I was just trying to read the times, and to me, everyone was falling down. And if it upsets people, that’s because I want them to be upset.’ Ringgold’s artworks were neither superficial narratives of progress nor redemption; instead, they begged the viewer to observe, ponder and feel the images she designed.

Faith Ringgold, American People Series #16: Woman Looking in a Mirror, 1966, oil on canvas, 91 × 81 cm. Courtesy: the artist, ACA Galleries, New York, Baz Family Collection. © 2023 Faith Ringgold / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Faith was born in Harlem in 1930, the youngest of three siblings. During her early childhood, she lived among the most innovative American artists and thinkers of the Harlem Renaissance – Aaron Douglass, Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston. They were fixtures of her neighbourhood, people she could learn from through osmosis. In a sense, Harlem was the fertile ground to fuel her organic talent and resilience. In her nine-decade lifetime, Ringgold was a painter, public school teacher, sculptor, quilter, performance artist and storyteller, often defying the odds of racism in the art world while excelling in the arts. Ringgold earned a bachelor’s in art education and a master’s in fine arts at The City College of New York (CUNY) in 1955 and 1959 respectively. Despite being denied entry into the art studio program me, due to anti-Black racism and sexism, she received her arts education working alongside Japanese American painter Yasuo Kumiyoshi and printmaker Robert Blackburn during her tenure at CUNY.

Faith Ringgold, Sonny’s Bridge, 1986, acrylic on canvas with printed and pieced fabric, 2.1 × 1.5 m. Courtesy: ACA Galleries, New York, High Museum of Art, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Ronald D. Balser. © 2023 Faith Ringgold / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Ringgold’s intellectual muses emerged from her orbit, and included James Baldwin, Amiri Baraka and her mother, Willi Posey Jones, who herself was a fashion designer. Ringgold was part of the Black Arts Movement, which was founded by Baraka and advocated for a Black nationalism foregrounded in arts, music and literature. As an activist, developing community was indispensable to Ringgold’s practice, leading her to co-found the grassroots collective Women Students and Artists for Black Liberation, which set out to increase the number of artworks at art museums in New York City. Throughout her career, she often advocated for Black women artists to have their work featured at the Whitney Museum and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. However, her intervention was not solely in art. She also sought to bridge the gap between the incarcerated and the free. Her mural, For the Women’s House (1971), made possible by receiving a Creative Artists Public Service Program grant, was installed in a corridor in the Women’s Facility of Rikers Island. The work depicts women in atypical roles and occupations – a bus driver, a basketball player, a musician. This work eventually led to Art Without Walls, where she and other volunteers would go to NYC prisons once a month to create art, perform theatre and provide career counselling. 

Faith Ringgold, The Flag is Bleeding #2: The American Collection #6, 1997, acrylic on canvas with painted and pieced fabric, 1.9 × 2 m. Courtesy: ACA Galleries, New York, Glenstone Museum, Potomac, Maryland. © 2023 Faith Ringgold / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Her transition from painting to quilting in the early 1980s was a radical shift, one grounded in feminism, and which, more broadly elevated quilting from craft to art. She learned the skill from her grandmother, who acquired the technique from Faith’s great-grandmother, a woman born enslaved. Her first quilt, Echoes of Harlem (1980), was a collaborative work with her mother. For Ringgold, quilting was about storytelling, documenting her history while illustrating the expansive possibilities for Black women. Ringgold’s quilts rewrote history; not just through the aesthetic landscape. They were accompanied by embroidered texts, laying out a narrative beyond the visual landscape for the viewer. Another quilt, Who’s Afraid of Aunt Jemima? (1984), turns a stereotyped figure – the overweight Black woman whose visual origins derive from minstrel shows – on its head. For Ringgold, it was essential to rewrite Aunt Jemima into her image and leverage her into an exuberant Black woman. At the same time, the quilt is an homage to the Black women she knew, stating in a 1991 interview with Fresh Air: ‘I wanted to pay tribute to all of these Aunt Jemimas that we have in all of our families – these strong and very powerful women who sometimes don’t pay attention to their weight because they’re so busy nurturing and feeding the whole family.’

Faith Ringgold, Black Light Series #12: Party Time, 1969, oil on canvas, 1.5 × 2.2 m. Courtesy: ACA Galleries, New York. Glenstone Museum, Potomac, Maryland; photograph: Ron Amstutz. © 2023 Faith Ringgold / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Her illustrated children’s book Tar Beach, an extension of her 1991 quilt of the same title, documents the tale of Cassie Lightfoot, an eight-year-old Black girl. Carefree, she undergoes an awakening in her NYC neighbourhood. Flying over the rooftops in Harlem and across the Hudson River, Cassie boldly exalts, ‘I can fly. That means I can go wherever I want for the rest of my life.’ Ringgold’s work was committed to Black excellence, not as a lucrative endeavour, but as a quiet act of moving through the world freely, without psychological and physical burden. In a sense, Cassie and the many Black children that appeared in Ringgold’s dozen children’s books she published echo the sentiments of Hélène Cixous who once surmised: ‘We should write as we dream; we should even try and write, we should all do it for ourselves, it’s very healthy, because it’s the only place where we never lie.’ Dreaming was routine for Ringgold, possibly because she lived the many lives that many of us envy. She found tenderness in Black women when they were mocked; she advocated for marginalized artists at elite art museums even if it could have jeopardized her own career. Though she was well aware of racism’s shackles, she never let them hold her down. Her legacy will continue to bloom because she demanded as much of art institutions as she did herself.

Main image: Faith Ringgold, Black Light Series #9: The American Spectrum, 1969, oil on canvas, 46 × 183 cm. Courtesy: ACA Galleries, New York, JPMorgan Chase Art Collection, New York. © 2023 Faith Ringgold / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Edna Bonhomme is a historian of science and a writer based in Berlin, Germany. Her work has appeared in Al Jazeera, The Atlantic, The Guardian, the London Review of Books and elsewhere. Her forthcoming book explores contagion in confined spaces.