Down here in Georgia, we have a great artist and she is still alive today. I remember briefly studying her work while in art history and theory. She expressed so much social issues going on in her era and the surpassing beauty and energy in her works. Not only is she a writer, she is also an artist in painting, mixed media, performance art and also a quilt narrative.
Of all the works of art that I studied, hers just stayed there in my mind. She was born in Harlem Hospital in New York City 1930. She was brought up in a way to learn how to express her creativity and wow, did she ever. Her mother was a fashion designer and her father a storyteller. She was inspired that it helped her to excel in her craft. Seemed like after the Harlem Renaissance her childhood home became central station for the arts scene. Her expression drew me in to her works and her works connected me to her soul. She was just a person set out with a mission to change how people thought and start a visual dialogue.
Ringgold's artistic practice is extremely broad and diverse, and includes media from painting to quilts, from sculptures and performance art to children's books. As an educator, she taught in the New York City Public school system and at the college level. In 1973, she quit teaching public school to devote herself to creating art full-time.
Ringgold began her painting career in the 1950s after receiving her degree. She took inspiration from the writings of James Baldwin and Amiri Baraka, African art, Impressionism, and Cubism to create the works she made in the 1960s. Her early work is composed with flat figures and shapes. Though she received a great deal of attention with these images, galleries and collectors were uncomfortable with them and she sold very little work.:41 This is because many of her early paintings focused on the underlying racism in everyday activities. These works were also politically based and reflected her experiences growing up during the Harlem Renaissance. These themes grew into maturity during the Civil Rights Movement and Women's movement.:8
Taking inspiration from artist Jacob Lawrence and writer James Baldwin, Ringgold painted her first political collection named the American People Series in 1963. It portrays the American lifestyle in relation to the Civil Rights Movement and illustrates these racial interactions from a woman's point of view. This collection asks the question "why?" about some basic racial issues in American society.:145 In a 2019 article with Hyperallergic magazine, Ringgold remarked that "... it was the 1960s and I could not act like everything was okay. I couldn't paint landscapes in the 1960s – there was too much going on. This is what inspired the American People Series." Oil paintings like For Members Only, Neighbors, Watching and Waiting, and The Civil Rights Triangle also embody these themes.
In 1972, as part of a commission sponsored by the Creative Artists Public Service Program, Ringgold installed For the Women's House in the Women's Facility on Rikers Island. The large-scale mural is composed of depictions of women in professional and civil servant roles, representing positive alternatives to incarceration. The women portrayed are inspired by extensive interviews Ringgold conducted with women inmates. The design divides the portraits into triangular sections, referencing Kuba textiles of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It was her first public commission and widely regarded as her first feminist work.
Around the opening of her show for American People, Ringgold also worked on her collection called America Black, also called the Black Light Series, in which she experimented with darker colors. This was spurred by her observation that "white western art was focused around the color white and light/contrast/chiaroscuro, while African cultures, in general used darker colors and emphasized color rather than tonality to create contrast." Because of this, she was "in pursuit of a more affirmative black aesthetic".:162–164 She also created larger than life murals such as The Flag Is Bleeding, U.S. Postage Stamp Commemorating the Advent of Black Power People, and Die, concluding her American People series. These murals helped her approach her future artwork in a new way.
In the French Collection, Ringgold explored a different solution to overcome the rough historical legacy of women and men of African descent. Ringgold made this multi-paneled series that touches on the truths and mythologies of modernism. As France was the home of modern art at the time, it also became the source for African-American artists to find their own "modern" identity.:
Ringgold stated she switched from painting to fabric to get away from the association of painting with Western/European traditions.
Ringgold went to Europe in the summer of 1972 with her daughter Michele. While Michele went to visit her friends in Spain, Ringgold continued onto Germany and the Netherlands. In Amsterdam, she visited the Rijksmuseum, which became one of the most influential experiences affecting her mature work, and subsequently, lead to the development of her quilt paintings. In the museum, Ringgold encountered a collection of 14th- and 15th-century Nepali paintings that were framed with cloth brocades. These thangkas inspired her to produce fabric borders around her own work, so when she returned to the US, a new painting series was born: The Slave Rape Series. In these works, Ringgold imagined what it would have been like to be an African woman captured and sold into slavery. She invited her mother, Willi Posey, to collaborate on this project since Posey was a popular Harlem clothing designer and seamstress during the 1950s who had taught Ringgold how to quilt in the African-American tradition. This collaboration eventually led to the making of their first quilt, Echoes of Harlem, in 1980.:44–45
She quilted her stories to be heard, since at the time no one would publish the autobiography she had been working on. In an interview with the Crocker Art Museum she stated, "In 1983, I began writing stories on my quilts as an alternative. That way, when my quilts were hung up to look at, or photographed for a book, people could still read my stories." Her first quilt story Who's Afraid of Aunt Jemima? (1983) depicts the story of Aunt Jemima as a matriarch restaurateur and fictionally revises "the most maligned black female stereotype." Another piece, titled Change: Faith Ringgold’s Over 100 Pounds Weight Loss Performance Story Quilt (1986), engages the topic of "a woman who wants to feel good about herself, struggling to [the] cultural norms of beauty, a person whose intelligence and political sensitivity allows her to see the inherent contradictions in her position, and someone who gets inspired to take the whole dilemma into an artwork".:9
The series of story quilts from Ringgold's French Collection deals with historical African-American women who dedicated themselves to change the world (The Sunflowers Quilting Bee at Arles), the redirection of the male gaze, and the immersion of historical fantasy and childlike imaginative storytelling. Many of her quilts went on to inspire the children books that she later made, such as Dinner at Aunt Connie's House (1993) published by Hyperion Books, based on The Dinner Quilt (1988).
In 1973, Ringgold began experimenting with sculpture as a new medium to document her local community and national events. Her sculptures range from costumed masks to hanging and freestanding soft sculptures, representing both real and fictional characters from her past and present. She began making mixed-media costumed masks after hearing her students express their surprise that she did not already include masks in her artistic practice.:198 The masks were pieces of linen canvas that were painted, beaded and woven with raffia for hair, and rectangular pieces of cloth for dresses with painted gourds to represent breasts. She eventually made a series of 11 mask costumes, called the Witch Mask Series, in collaboration with her mother. These costumes could also be worn, but would give the wearer feminine features like breasts, bellies and hips. In her memoir We Flew Over the Bridge, Ringgold also notes that in traditional African rituals, the masks would have feminine features though the wearers were almost always men.:200 In this series she wanted the masks to have both a "spiritual and sculptural identity",:199 emphasizing the fact that the masks could be worn and were not merely objects to be hung and displayed.
After the Witch Mask Series, she moved onto another series of 31 masks, the Family of Woman Mask Series in 1973, which commemorated women and children whom she had known as a child. She later began making dolls with painted gourd heads and costumes (also made by her mother, which subsequently lead her to life-sized soft sculptures). The first of this series was her piece, Wilt, a 7'3" portrait sculpture of basketball player Wilt Chamberlain. She began with Wilt as a response to some negative comments that Chamberlain made on African-American women in his autobiography. Wilt features three figures, the basketball player with a white wife and a mixed daughter, both fictional characters. The sculptures had baked and painted coconuts shell heads, and anatomically-correct foam and rubber bodies covered in clothing. They also hung from the ceiling on invisible fishing lines. Her soft sculptures later evolved even further into life sized "portrait masks", representing characters from her life and society, from unknown Harlem denizens to Martin Luther King Jr. She carved foam faces into likenesses that were then spray-painted—however, in her memoir she describes how the faces later began to deteriorate and had to be restored. She did this by covering the faces in cloth, molding them carefully to preserve the likeness.
As many of Ringgold's mask sculptures could also be worn as costumes, her transition from mask-making to performance art was a self-described "natural progression".:206 Though art performance pieces were abundant in the 1960s and '70s, Ringgold was instead inspired by the African tradition of combining storytelling, dance, music, costumes and masks into one production.:238 Her first piece involving these masks was The Wake and Resurrection of the Bicentennial Negro. She described it as a narrative of the dynamics of racism and the oppression of drug addiction, in response to the American Bicentennial celebrations of 1976. She wished to voice the opinion of many other African Americans that there was "no reason to celebrate two hundred years of American Independence…for almost half of that time we had been in slavery".:205 The piece was performed in mime with music and lasted thirty minutes, and incorporated many of her past paintings, sculptures and installations. She later moved on to produce many other performance pieces including a solo autobiographical performance piece called Being My Own Woman: An Autobiographical Masked Performance Piece, a masked story performance set during the Harlem Renaissance called The Bitter Nest (1985), and a piece to celebrate her weight loss called Change: Faith Ringgold’s Over 100 Pound Weight Loss Performance Story Quilt (1986). Each of these pieces were multidisciplinary, involving masks, costumes, quilts, paintings, storytelling, song and dance. Many of these performances were also interactive, as Ringgold encouraged her audience to sing and dance with her. She describes in her autobiography, We Flew Over the Bridge, that her performance pieces were not meant to shock, confuse or anger, but rather "simply another way to tell my story".:238
Ringgold has written and illustrated 17 children's books. Her first was Tar Beach, published by Crown in 1991, based on her quilt story of the same name. For that work she won the Ezra Jack Keats New Writer Award and the Coretta Scott King Award for Illustration. She was also the runner-up for the Caldecott Medal, the premier American Library Association award for picture book illustration. In her picture books, Ringgold approaches complex issues of racism in straightforward and hopeful ways, combining fantasy and realism to create an uplifting message for children.
For some reason her work has always drawn me into her quilts and paintings and has done so much to change and I think she's done a great job through her art and her passion.
You can see the richness and the lively colors of her works that give us a brief moment of time in her works of art.