Faith Ringgold was born in Harlem, New York, in 1930, and grew up among creative family members – her mother was a fashion designer – in the cultural wake of the Harlem Renaissance. She studied art at City College, and taught art in NY schools as she began her painting career in the 1950s. In the 1960s, her work took a political turn: half a century before the latest protests at the Whitney Museum of Art, Ringgold was there, in front of the museum alongside other activists demanding equitable representation of women and black artists in the institution’s exhibitions. In 1970, she was arrested for desecrating a flag as a participant in the Judson Memorial Church’s The People’s Flag Show.
It wasn’t the first time she had dealt with the American flag, and it wouldn’t be the last: the motif appears in several works selected for the simply titled Faith Ringgold, the artist’s first institutional solo show in Europe, which closes this weekend at the Serpentine Galleries in London. Ringgold’s Die (1967), now in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, was exhibited in London two years ago as part of the Tate Modern’s Soul of a Nation, a powerhouse of a group show currently touring internationally. Die, which takes equal inspiration from Picasso’s Guernica and the Kuba textiles of the Democratic Republic of Congo, depicts a bloody, chaotic riot of violence and panic. “Unfortunately,” Ringgold has said, “it remains a relevant painting.”
There is nonetheless a vocabulary of comfort in her work, in its depictions of home, maternity, and community, and in its use of textiles and quilting. That language is both disturbed and developed by the social realities that surround and pierce her domestic world. Her first story quilt, Who’s Afraid of Aunt Jemima (1983), reclaims Jemima’s image by giving her a background, a story – one of entrepreneurial success. Another quilt work, Tar Beach (1988), was eventually published as a children’s book that won a Caldecott Medal, sold hundreds of thousands of copies, and effectively educated a generation of young American readers about where they came from – and about the oppressive structures the country was built on.
Ringgold’s best known works involve text and painted images, but she also made performances about the American bicentennial, or about her 100-pound weight loss. Some of her interventions incorporated soft fabric portrait sculptures resembling public figures and old friends, or elaborate masked costumes that she worked on with her mother. Consistently, her work gets to communal experience through personal trials, to politics through private life.
Ringgold was influenced, as the European modernists she studied in college were, by the abstractions she saw during her time in Africa in the 1970s. She traveled with her daughters, then her granddaughters, as part of their education, and as she did, other inspirations – Tibetan thangkas, tribal masks – diffused her formal training and the influence of Harlem Renaissance institutions such as Romare Bearden, Hale Woodruff, and their Spiral group. (Ringgold wrote to Bearden asking to be in the art collective; Bearden wrote back something like “No, but keep painting.”) What also become clear to her is that she would never wear a mask herself.
Interview: Victoria Camblin
This is your first institutional solo show on this side of the Atlantic. Does it feel different to show in Europe?
Faith Ringgold: If there is a difference, I couldn’t tell you what it is – it’s always people looking, and asking questions that are pretty much the same, I would say. What is warm and wonderful about it is the reception that you get, and that has been here. I have to remind myself that I’m not in America.
You also traveled to Europe in the 1960s and 1970s, and made work about it.
I did a series called the French Collection. I had studied so many French artists in college, then I went to France, to Matisse’s chapel and Van Gogh’s place – places I wanted to see, because I knew so much about these people. But I also went to Africa. They didn’t teach us about African art, so I had to go there to see it myself. Nigeria, Ghana, Egypt, Morocco – those were fascinating trips. The African American artists, they lived all around me in Harlem, so I could deal with that. The African art, I had not witnessed. There was so much to learn and see there, and I incorporated it into my vision of what I was doing. I was really delighted to see that Picasso had looked at those masks and changed the whole way we do body structures. Coming from Africa, Cubism just changed everything. I was excited about that, and definitely got influenced by it.
Was it ever a problem for you, I mean did it ever piss you off, the way African abstraction had come through European modernists like Picasso, rather than directly from artists of African origin?
Well, we did have slavery. Why should I get angry about Picasso?
Modernism is not the worst thing to have happened.
No. And I wanted the knowledge. Traveling was the way to really get that. Then, I wanted to develop my way of seeing. What do I want to use in my art? What I learned, eventually, was to tell my story. That was the way to develop my art: inspired by some Europeans, but always back to me.
My mother gave me Tar Beach when I was little.
I grew up on your books, and one place they really paint a picture of is New York. I went to college in New York, but my definition of New York still comes from Tar Beach.
So is your work really about New York, too? Tar Beach is Harlem, the sweltering hot summer on the roof…
That’s gone. No more. Air conditioning – that’s what we didn’t have.
Also you’re probably not allowed on the roof anymore.
The roof is locked. Isn’t that something? What do they think, you’re going to jump off? Can you imagine? We did not lock the door. When people came to visit us and we were on the roof, one of the neighbors would open their door and say, “Look, they’re upstairs on roof.” And they would send them up. Or they’d say, “Ms. Jones” – my mother – “has just gone to school to pick up the kids.” Because my mother picked us up from school. “Do you want to come and wait in my house?” They would take a complete stranger into their house, sit them down, and give them some coffee. Everybody knew people. It wasn’t strangers running around anywhere. That’s over.
Has your work changed as a response to Harlem or New York changing? Or maybe as a response to your leaving the city?
Oh, yeah. I was so happy about moving and living on Jones Road. Except for the problem: there was a problem of housing discrimination. Coming from Harlem, I didn’t know anything about that. What I moved there for was to build a studio, because in New York, you’re limited in how big a space you can get. In Inglewood, it seemed easier to get a one-level house and build a studio on top of it. That’s what I decided. The last thing I was thinking about was discrimination in housing. If I had, I wouldn’t have done it. And I would have been sorry that I didn’t, because I love my studio. I’ve been able to create so much more work that I would not have been able to create otherwise. I just love everything about the idea of moving to Englewood, except the neighbors. I just keep away from them.
You’re still neighbors?!
Oh yeah. The woman who sold me the house, she was wonderful, and she was an artist. She wanted it to happen as quickly and quietly as possible.
“It’s a great neighborhood.”
Yeah! I was going to bring my architects to measure and do all kinds of stuff in the garden, because that’s what I needed done. I had discussed that with her. She didn’t want me coming over with all of that. I thought maybe it was because her little grandchildren were trying to have a visit with their grandmother that day. I was wrong – it was the neighbors. Anyway, what can I say, except that I went on in. I said, “We’re not interested in a mortgage. We’re going to pay cash.” That really lifted her husband, really knocked him off his ass, because they’d had a lot of people coming and looking, and not doing anything! Everybody was very happy. We went to the lawyers signed all the papers. They got their cash. I said to them, “I noticed a lot of stuff in the basement. Now, what are you going to do about that?” They said, “Oh, that’ll be gone. Don’t worry about that.” When we got there, I went down there to look, and the basement was clear. You know where all the stuff was?
In the attic?
In the garage! (Laughter.)
And the neighbors’ prejudice and that getting in the way of your building a studio – that plays out in your work?
In Coming to Jones Road.
And here I thought it was all about the Great Migration.
It is, the slaves moving from the South to the North – I wanted to mix those two, because the whole Jones Road experience was so wild.
Of course your works have multiple meanings, layers, messages. The work that greets you as you walk into the Serpentine is a commemorative stamp that says “Black Power” and “White Power” –
You saw the “White Power.”
I guessed that people were missing it because I read all these reviews before coming here that don’t mention it in their descriptions, even though those words are bigger than anything else in the piece. That got me thinking about how your work is read in different ways. With your children’s books, one layer is about a girl and her family, which is what I saw when I was a kid, and one is about a big picture – motherhood, society.
And you can choose to get deeper, or you can just stay on the periphery.
How intentional are you with how you message and who you are addressing each time?
Well, there’s levels of intent. You get part of it. Then, if you keep looking, you get more. You shouldn’t just glance and walk away. Stay there, because there’s a lot to be picked out. There’s more than one way to look at anything. There’s more than one message to deliver as well. So I’m intentional, definitely. I like to hold people there, to look. I don’t want them to go to the door and peek in, look around, then go. No – you’ve got to come in and see what’s going on.
There’s so much text in the larger works. You have to stand and read them. The text holds you there. When did you start incorporating that?
The writing came about as a result of having written my autobiography, We Flew Over the Bridge, and not being able to get it published. The publisher didn’t like the fact that my autobiography was not about some poor, destitute black woman who got raped, beat up, thrown out the window, and this and that. When she had said, “Bring it to me. I would love to publish it,” she thought she was going to read about suffering. I had a whole different story. She couldn’t fit it. So I started writing in my quilts, so people could read my stories.
There’s still a paradigm of black artists being expected to represent trauma all the time, with the work being marketed through a lens of suffering. No room for picnics on the roof, for the rest of life.
The horror of it all.
You are trying to tell a different story.
I’m trying to tell my story. I didn’t have a horror story, so why should I make up one and put myself in it? I’ll bring you the horror that I saw – it’s in Die. I was standing there in the 1960s when a number of riots broke that were never reported on the radio or on TV. I know all about that. I wanted to reveal that information. But Die also had to do with the rhythm thing.
The rhythm thing?
Something this guy said to me: that my art didn’t have enough rhythm in it. Man, these guys were something. [Romare] Bearden, [Benny] Andrews – they were all sexist. They kept me out of everything they were doing. I thought, “You want rhythm? I’ll show you rhythm. I know about rhythm. I just didn’t know I was supposed to put it in everything I do.” Then I thought, “I’m going to make something for this guy.” So it also served to my advantage. I had been doing this American People Series – there would be 20 of them – and I was coming up on the last three. I did The Flag is Bleeding, and US Postage Stamp. For the last one, I said, “Hey, I think I’ll do Die. I’ll show him one of those spontaneous street riots. Maybe he can see some rhythm in that.”
That’s an incredible painting. Bearden didn’t let you into Spiral, but they weren’t making paintings like Die in Spiral.
They were men’s groups. They also didn’t want me because I was too political. The idea was don’t do political art, and don’t do art where people can look at it and tell that you’re black. I heard one woman say, “One thing that’s so great about being an artist, they see your work, and no one can tell whether you’re Black or White.” Well, I hope they know I’m a black artist. I’m doing the vision of Blackness in America. I’m not trying to hide anything. I can’t imagine any artist trying to hide their identity. It’s crazy, I think. If they get to know you, they’re going to find out you’re black. Are you going to wear a mask or something? And I think if you get to be known, they’re going to find out you’re a woman. That’s what I want. I want you to know me, to see me. See my work. I can’t worry about hiding, because that’s going to take everything out of what I’m doing. I don’t want to think about that while I’m creating. That would hold me back.