Black History Month: Artist and Activist Faith Ringgold

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I only recently heard of Faith Ringgold which, although she is now considered one of America’s best and most influential artists, is not unusual. Her acclaim has been a long time coming – she is now 89 years old!

Faith Ringgold’s story is long and amazing and I can’t fit it into a small article, but I will try.

In the late 1950s, Faith Ringgold couldn’t study art at college because she was a woman. She could train to be an art teacher, but she couldn’t get a job as a teacher because she was black

She carried on painting and in the early 60s felt she had reached a stage where she could expect to be able to sell her work. She went to a top gallery where the owner, Ruth White, agreed her paintings were good enough, but told her ‘You Can’t Do This’. Faith realised she was being told that as a black woman she would not be able to sell her work as an artist.

From that point she started to paint her life experiences rather than what she thought people might have wanted. At that time America was in social turmoil. There had been segregation between black and white communities for many years but in 1963 there were huge protests against this. Martin Luther King gave his ‘I have a dream’ speech when 250 000 people had marched on Washington protesting against segregation. In response, people who supported segregation sparked unrest and violence all over the country.

Faith painted what she saw around her and what she felt.

The Goldberrys, a wealthy black couple who had organised the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured Peoples, invited Faith to stay with them and paint. She was introduced to many liberal minded Americans, but she recognised that the white people that she met did not understand the black American experience.

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She started to paint her ‘American People’ series which became a huge body of work. She painted white people staring.

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This was a particularly powerful subject for a black woman to portray. At the time, white people could gaze openly at black people, but black people in turn had to be very careful as to how they responded to this. A black person could be killed if they looked at the wrong white person. In this painting, Faith reversed the power balance, meeting the white gaze head on and making the white people instead the ones to be gazed at and scrutinised. Is their gaze curious, or threatening?

On 2nd July 1964, President Linden Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act to bring equal rights and violent racists rose up. Faith wanted her paintings to give a female point of view to this period. She realised this was an important time historically.

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She painted constantly. Her daughters have a strong memory of their mother always having paint on her clothes and smelling of turpentine. She was painting pictures of black and white people – together.

In 1967 Faith was offered a solo show in the Spectrum Gallery in New York. It was a very prestigious space. The only proviso was that the painting should be large. She managed to produce 20 large paintings in time for the show. One of them was number 20 in her American People series and it was called ‘Die’. There were riots raging all over America. Faith had been caught up in more than one riot. She explains that people don’t generally know they are going out to riot. She was in peaceful protests which suddenly became riots if violence happened.  She had witnessed violence and blood on the pavement. And she knew none of the things she had seen were reported. She knew because she had been there.

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All the 20 paintings were very political. It was well attended and reviewed, but no one bought any of the paintings and she tried, but couldn’t even give any of them away. She wrapped them up and stored them away.

She continued.

She now realised she needed to turn her attention to protesting about the lack of attention being given to black and minority artists. For two years she ran a campaign. The New York Museum of Modern Art responded by showing two black artists.  Both were male, even though it was Faith Ringgold had spearheaded the protests.

She shifted gear; the Women’s Movement was starting.

In 1968 the women’s movement was protesting that 50% of art in all the museums and galleries should be by women. Faith wanted 50% of that to be by black artists. She approached the Whitney museum of American Art and the protest lasted for 2 years. As a result the Witney Museum displayed art by 2 women. Faith Ringgold was not one of the artists selected.

At that point she stopped painting in oil. She started making puppets and masks and beading. She toured universities and lectured on black and feminist art.

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She had a huge impact on many of the black female students. There were so few examples of black artists.

She asked her mother to teach her about quilt making . She started to paint quilts. She would add pieced patchwork borders and back with fabric.

The art of quilt making had been passed down through the women of her family. Faith’s great-great-grandmother was a slave. Slaves were allowed to make quilts for their masters – and themselves. Faith made a large number of painted quilts often depicting her early life.

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She moved from quilts to children’s books. She wanted to introduce black history to children through stories. There has been very little black history taught in American schools. She began with stories for really young children, not so many checks were made on little children’s books.

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In 2010 a curator called Tom Collins became interested in Faith Ringgold’s quilts and books wondered what had she had made before . He contacted her and asked if she had anything she could show him. She could show him every single one of her paintings, which hadn’t been seen for four decades. He was amazed and exhibited the work and it toured to three other galleries.

At this point, The New York Museum of Modern Art decided to purchase ‘Die’ . It is now on permanent exhibition in a very prominent place. It is visited by thousands of people. Sadly the picture is as relevant today as it was then.

I hope I have sparked your interest in this amazing woman. It is almost impossible to capture such a life in just a few words.

There is a link to YouTube below so you can see her being interviewed and some more of her work.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cU9MpcHfwiA

 

 

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