Faith Ringgold is an African-American artist and author who was born in 1930 in Harlem, New York City, and who is best known for her large, painted story quilts. As a child, she was taught to sew fabrics creatively by her mother, a professional fashion designer; and to make quilts by her great-great-grandmother. Ringgold's great-great-great grandmother had been a slave in her younger years, and made quilts for her white masters. There has been a strong African-American quilt-making tradition, influenced by the weaving done by the men in Africa, and brought to America with the slaves, where women continued the tradition. Quilts in the African-American slave community served various purposes: warmth, preserving memories and events, storytelling, and even as "message boards" for the Underground Railroad to guide slaves on their way north to freedom. Some techniques common to African-American quilts included patchwork, applique and 'crazy' quilt; some characteristics included asymmetrical designs, bright colors and bold geometric shapes, which were spiritual symbols.
In 1950, she began studying art at New York's City College, concentrating on painting. When she graduated, she began teaching art in the New York City public schools. She had also married, and eventually had two daughters. She received her Master's degree in fine art in 1961. Soon after this, she went to Europe with her mother and her two daughters, to study the masters - Picasso, Matisse, Monet, and others. On her return, she began to paint seriously. This was in the early 1960's, when the Civil Rights movement was becoming a major force in American society, affecting her and her work greatly. In the later '60's, her work also reflected the turmoil and change all over the country, in bold, graphic images in dark colors which reflected both the dark skin of African-Americans, and perhaps the dark times. (See Illustration 1 below.) She became acquainted with feminist ideas during this time also, and worked as an activist for social change for women and blacks, particularly with regard to the American art museum system, which often omitted African-Americans and women from its exhibitions on a de facto basis. In one of her later paintings, of her children in a European art museum (Dancing at the Louvre), the children played under the "masterpieces," not paying all that much attention. Underlying this wry observation, however, was the more serious reality of the absence of black people in the European art tradition, particularly women. The artists and the human images presented were almost all white - where did this leave a serious African-American student or artist, who surely would feel that this tradition, like others in society, blocked his/her entrance to it?
In the 1970's, Ringgold continued to use her art to tell her own story, and in collaboration with her mother, began to sew fabric borders around her paintings, instead of stretching the canvas over wooden stretchers in the traditional manner. (She had seen this done in Tibetan paintings, called tankas.) Eventually, she and her mother produced a quilt together, a grid of 30 portraits of Harlem residents. When her mother died the following year, Ringgold decided to continue the family tradition of storytelling and history through writing, resulting in her first "story" quilt, called Who's Afraid of Aunt Jemima? This piece told the story of a successful businesswoman, Aunt Jemima, in an attempt to reverse a negative African-American stereotype of black women.These pieces combine acrylic painting on canvas, quilted fabric and storytelling, often a handwritten text which frames the painted image. She also began to write stories for children, such as Tar Beach, which told the story of her childhood in Harlem, when her family ate and played cards on the roof on hot evenings. She had first told this story in a quilt/painting in 1988, which was seen by a publisher who suggested that she tell the story in book form, with her accompanying illustrations. This was her first of several children's books. These stories of fictional heroines present images not of oppression or deprivation; rather, they encourage children to 'take flight' and follow their dreams. They are often painted in a 'folk' style - no indications of perspective; two-dimensional patterning, rich colors, and no shading to indicate three-dimensional volume in the forms, such as figures.
She continued to comment on themes of race and gender and their particular relation to the art world, including art history. A story quilt/painting about Matisse, for example, comments on his use of black models, and the associations of dark skin and male desire with such images. A story quilt about Picasso concerns the early modernists' interest in African sculpture, and its influence on such movements as Cubism. Ringgold brings to the surface the irony of using "primitive" African sculpture to create modern "civilized" art. Africans had been considered savages by European civilization - thus enabling no compunctions about buying and selling them - and yet African art could be cited as avant garde and sophisticated, and used as a basis for modernist art - without any awareness of this irony. This series of works, called The French Collection (see Illustration 2 below), also depicted African-American artists alongside the "giants" of modern European culture: Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, and Ringgold herself sit with and exchange aesthetic ideas with Picasso, Gertrude Stein, and Hemingway. Again, Ringgold subverts a racial and gender false assumption with gentle humor, rather than stridency.
Ringgold was one of the female artists who began making art objects in a medium formerly referred to as "women's work" (textiles, sewn fabric, weaving, quilting, embroidery, etc.), beginning in the 1970's, offering their work as 'serious' art, rather than the former label of 'craft.' The folk and communal nature of the quilt medium also lend it to express Ringgold's narrative (storytelling) intentions, rather than purely pictorial intentions. In her Women on a Bridge series, the Brooklyn Bridge image is used to represent the masculine persona - physical size, engineering prowess, etc. The women in these images, however, are not contained by this notion of power; instead they take flight in the sky over the bridge, to freedom and self-realization. In a later quilt and performance piece, Over 100 Pound Weight Loss Performance Story Quilts (begun in 1991), she dealt with another feminist issue - female self-image and how it is influenced by society's expectations. In this piece, she documented her own struggle with weight, and her eventual successful weight loss. Other racist and feminist issues her work deals with are rape, raising children, African-American artists (Romare Bearden, Jacob Lawrence), and the valuable contributions that are made by the many ethnic cultures in America.
In the early 1980's, her work often contained a grid format; this combined the 20th century use of a grid of squares as a device to organize a composition, with the traditional use of grids (squares) in the craft of quilt-making. In the 1990's Ringgold continued to craft images dealing with the issues of slavery, racism, and sexism in her work, but combined with her folk-inspired style some aspects of modern and contemporary painting, such as Abstract Expressionism and Pop art. This included a loosened, more painterly style, and the use of repeated imagery, such as Andy Warhol used in his images of popular culture, for example his soup cans. Her color also became brighter, with rich hues of green, red, blue, as well as black, resulting in color relationships so finely tuned that they 'sing,' as well as dance visually (cause the viewer's eye to move around the painting) as they refer back to each other. Examples of this include her painting Listen to the Trees, and the beautiful Picnic on the Grass... Alone (see Illustration 3 below), where the luminosity of the colors reminds me of Bonnard. She has also created several works which, rather than painted images, are done with the sewing technique of applique (pieces of fabric sewn to the canvas surface to create the image), as well as the technique of photo-etching on silk. In this process, photographic images are transferred to silk fabric and the printmaking technique of etching is used to create the final image.
Ringgold's work of 2000 contained simple, bold, large shapes, with luminous colors, as in her Coming to Jones Road: Under a Blood Red Sky, a silkscreen print on canvas with a dyed border and handwritten text. Like many contemporary painters, she often uses a square format for her images, rather than the rectangular format generally used prior to the 20th century. Her imagery is imaginative, and her forms are highly inventive. Another wonderful image is her 1997 Sunflowers, Cotton Fields, Black Birds and Quilting Bees. As well as her concerns with race and gender, she also uses subjects such as the Oklahoma City bombing, and multi-cultural communities such as Crown Heights, which has twelve different ethnic heritages in residence. Her commissioned mural for the community tells the story of each culture and how the people came to live in the community (from the Algonquin Indians in 3000 B.C. to the Asian population, who arrived in the 1970's). Her work aims to celebrate the uniqueness and commonality of all cultures.
Today, a well known artist and grandmother of three, Ringgold resides in both New Jersey and San Diego, California, where she is a professor of art at the University of California at San Diego. As author and artist, she has won numerous awards, and her work is in the permanent collections of the Guggenheim Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, all in New York City; she is also represented in many other museums and urban spaces around the world. She also has her own website: www.faithringgold.com, where information about her can be found, as well as her visitor survey regarding race - one for whites, one for African-Americans, to fill out.
Her 'motto' on her site is If One Can Anyone Can All You Gotta Do Is Try. Like her work, this motto is joyful, rich and inspiring; in her work's jewel-like use of color, pattern and design, it is often reminiscent of classical Persian miniature paintings. It concerns itself with serious issues of society, but is resplendent with affirmations; it deals with harsh realities, but in the final analysis is connected to following personal dreams and overcoming all obstacles, with a soaring and unstoppable spirit.
Illustration 1: The American People Series #6: Mr. Charlie, 1964, oil on canvas, 42" x 24", WC/P34, collection of the artist. Image shown on this web page with the kind permission of Faith Ringgold.
Here is an example of Ms. Ringgold's work of the 1960's. "Mr. Charlie" was an expression used by African-Americans to describe the white man, who embodied racism in American society. This large portrait, painted in bold colors and simple flat shapes, seems to portray a well-meaning but perhaps "clueless" individual; the gesture of his hand also seems to convey this impression.
Illustration 2: The French Collection Part I, #4, The Sunflower Quilting Bee at Arles, 1991, acrylic on canvas, tie-dyed, pieced fabric border, 74" x 80", WC/Q70, private collection. Image shown on this web page with the kind permission of Faith Ringgold.
In this colorful painted quilt image, a group of African-American women proudly display their sunflower quilt, in a field of sunflowers, with Van Gogh standing quietly in the background, holding a vase of his beloved sunflowers. The buildings of the village of Arles are shown in the background, painted with the bright yellows and blues that Van Gogh loved to use in his paintings.
Illustration 3: From the series The American Collection, #12, Picnic on the Grass... Alone, 1997, acrylic on canvas, painted and pieced border, 79" x 77.25", ACA Galleries, New York. Image shown on this web page with the kind permission of Faith Ringgold.
This beautiful image is one of my favorite Ringgold paintings. Here natural and geometric forms are combined to create a composition of curves and straight lines, which flows easily and is enhanced by decorative patterns and textures throughout the image, from the patterned dress to the tree blossoms. Bright touches of orange and yellow serve to bring to life the blues and greens in the image, which exudes a warm and peaceful feeling.
Illustration 4: From the series Coming to Jones Road: Under a Blood Red Sky, 2000, silkscreen on canvas with pieced border, 41" x 47", WC/Q102, Pasadena City College, Pasadena, CA. Image shown on this page with the kind permission of Faith Ringgold.
This silkscreened image on canvas of 2000 shows a simplified composition of bold, simple and flat shapes, reminiscent of the work of Matisse. The solid red background serves to "set ablaze" the blue, green and black forms placed on it, which appear to be tiny figures under trees and the "blood red sky," and the one small yellow sun which beats down on the scene. The border is a bold pattern of tie-dyed or batiked forms (batik is a fabric dye process developed in India, using melted wax). The spots of bright yellow in the border enliven the entire image. Between the painting and the border is the handwritten text, or "story," which reads both horizontally and vertically around the image. The evocative forms and colors in this image may have a metaphorical meaning as well as the literal story. The central image also reminds me of some of Horace Pippin's work, in particular a painting of a man sitting on a park bench under leafy trees. (This link shows Pippin's painting as the cover of a book about him (I Tell My Heart: Art of Horace Pippin, so the name of the image is not given. This was the only online image of this painting I found. The colors of the image are much brighter than this image shows, such as the red benches.)