Faith Ringgold on the complexity of the American experience

Faith Ringgold is an artist of humble manners, though her impact on art history is none of that. Born in Harlem, NY, in 1930, Ringgold is one of the most important political artists of our time. With powerful and iconic narratives, she has spent five decades uncovering the many subjectivities of history, challenging historical stereotypes and false truths of African American identity, championing underrepresented narratives, and draw attention to gender inequality. Ringgold’s bold and indelible impact on art history and the lives of black Americans, black women, and black people more broadly can never be erased.

With a major retrospective currently on view at the de Young Museum in San Francisco, Ringgold is pleased with the recent response to her work. “My mother always said that I should work twice as hard to go half as far. I believed in myself – like my family – and continued to work, regardless of the answer. I am delighted to see my work appreciated by so many people,” says the artist, whose work falls intellectually within the framework of his position in the Harlem Renaissance.

Artwork by Faith Ringgold as a postage stamp

Faith Ringgold, The American People Series #19: US Postage Commemorating the Rise of Black Power1967

(Image credit: © 2022 Faith Ringgold / ARS member, Courtesy ACA Galleries, New York)

Ringgold’s work in narrative quilting made her a pioneer in the medium. Her “story quilts” are actually paintings – acrylic on canvas – with pieced fabric borders. Unduly associated with craftsmanship, the medium has been adopted into the contemporary art narrative in more recent times. Although Ringgold did not consider herself a pioneer at the time. “Throughout my professional life, I felt free to do whatever I wanted to do – and use whatever material suited my vision. I did not feel any limitation.

In addition to his tapestries, his narrative scenes – such as the Americans series, at the center of Young’s exhibit – confronting race relations in 1960s America. A mural-scale painting concludes the series, culminating in violent chaos with riots breaking out across the country. Street fights and undocumented killings of African Americans were common. Blood is drawn and splashes evenly; the fight affects everything. Businessmen dressed and buttoned represent the heart of the struggle; a battle within the middle class to secure its social position.

Artwork by Faith Ringgold, Free Angela

Faith Ringgold, Free America Angela1971

(Image credit: © 2022 Faith Ringgold / ARS member, Courtesy ACA Galleries, New York)

“The images I created reflect my experiences and what was happening around me. In the 1960s, I embraced the civil rights movement because black artists were neglected. In the 1970s, I embraced the women’s movement because female artists were more ignored than male artists. I think the same issues are relevant today. Many key works of the black arts movement were uniquely focused on black masculinity, which often threatened to drown out the voices and messages of black women artists in the movement. Indeed, Ringgold would realize after joining that the movement would serve to give men power over women. Ringgold’s work is an expression of freedom , as an African-American, as a woman, and especially as a black woman.

“I hope people will be inspired by my art and find the courage, like me, to do what they feel compelled to do – whether in art, science or any discipline. It takes courage to be free and express your own vision. Each is important and has a unique story to tell.

We live in a time when purpose is reinvented and historical narratives are uncovered and given the attention they deserve. How far are we and how far do we have to go? To this, Ringgold muses: “We have made some progress, but there is a long way to go. There is a lot of work to be done before our society achieves true social justice. The past few years have revealed the extent of prejudice in our society. There is a lot of catching up to do before there is real equity.

Who's Afraid of Aunt Jemima?  artwork by Faith Ringgold

Faith Ringgold, Who’s Afraid of Aunt Jemima?, 1983

(Image credit: © 2022 Faith Ringgold / ARS member, Courtesy ACA Galleries, New York)

Ringgold allows us to believe in the possibility of freedom; his work is deeply personal yet universal. He unveils an experience shared by many through his unique perspective. Arguably, some of the best art is created through the exploration of one’s own experience. Ringgold agrees: “It is essential for an artist to find their voice. What distinguishes a great artist from a mediocre one is his artistic vocabulary. One can be influenced or inspired by another artist’s vision, but finding your own distinct voice is the goal. You can’t make art about something you haven’t experienced. Ringgold’s work appeals to you because faith is central; to look at his multi-faceted work is to enter into a relationship with history, his story and yours.

Ringgold is rightly credited with expanding American history; but at the heart of his work, his own deeply nuanced story resonates, a story we all share. Art is a unique expression of life, and Ringgold’s expression challenges us to consider a bigger story, more American people, and a more expansive humanity.

Artwork by Faith Ringgold, American People Series #10 Study Now

Faith Ringgold, American People Series #ten: study now1964

(Image credit: © 2022 Faith Ringgold / ARS member, Courtesy ACA Galleries, New York)

‘Faith Ringgold: American People’, through November 27, 2022 at the de Young Museum, San Francisco.

Sharon D. Cole