Faith Ringgold Paved the Way

Faith Ringgold paved the way. For Black women artists, writers, and activists, her legacy exemplifies the possibilities of creativity. She showed us that we could be pensive, radical, tender, sensual, and maternal; that we could experiment beyond expected mediums and topics, communing with culture and politics through cloth, through canvas, through our words.

In the wake of the artist’s death on April 12, tributes in her honor have flooded headlines and social media alike with an outpouring of public grief. Ringgold fiercely reckoned with the status quo, leaving the art world better than she found it through decades of Black feminist activism and a rich legacy of artmaking. 

In 2019, I interviewed Ringgold at her home in Englewood, New Jersey, which also housed her studio. She was warm, brilliant, and thoughtful, still making art at 89. Though perhaps most famous for her artful children’s book Tar Beach (1991), her oeuvre was uniquely expansive. There are few corners of artistry she did not explore. She crafted narratives with paint, text, printmaking, quilts, soft sculpture, wearable art, and more. During our conversation, she elaborated on her inclination to feature race and gender so prominently in her work: “As far as I was concerned, that’s what visual, all forms of art, are. Expressions of … your cultural reality, who you are, how you look, how you move, how you feel.”

Faith Ringgold was a force to be reckoned with. She had a dynamic presence in the 1960s and ’70s artist-activist scene in New York City, co-founding both the Women Students and Artists for Black Art Liberation and National Black Feminist Organization and participating in the famed Art Workers’ Coalition. She faced off with leadership at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), Whitney Museum, and Metropolitan Museum of Art to insist upon Black women artists’ rightful place on their walls. Her advocacy sculpted the art scene in innumerable ways; she and her comrades changed the scope of possibility for the generations of Black artists who succeeded them. Ringgold propelled the art world into the present and willed it to transform into something better than it was. She demonstrated the potential of what an artist could be and achieve.

In her 80s and 90s, after a lifetime of demanding a better, more equitable art world, Ringgold began to enjoy the fruits of her labor with unprecedented mainstream success. In 2022, a retrospective of her decades-long career went on view across three floors at the New Museum in an exhibition titled American People, named after her first solo exhibition in 1967 at Spectrum Gallery in New York. In 2019, her painting “American People Series #20: Die” (1967) was a centerpiece of the highly publicized MoMA rehang, displayed catty-corner to Pablo Picasso’s famed “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” (1907). 

Picasso and Cubism acted as clear influences on Ringgold’s distinct aesthetic language, which diverged from but also venerated European artistic traditions. But as much as she admired and studied the White male artists heralded by the traditional canon, she had as much reverence for the sewing skills she learned from her mother in childhood, the collages of Jacob Lawrence and Romare Bearden, or Tibetan thangka and Congolese Kuba textiles. Though she experimented with a range of mediums throughout her career, her style and handiwork were recognizable and singular, an amalgamation of many influences and informed by her interrogation of the racist culture and history of the United States and her international travel and study. Whether working with fabric or paint, her feminist praxis and Black activism invaded her aesthetic impulses and drew clear throughlines to one another. She explored her own stories and those of her community: womanhood, pan-Africanness, colorism, beauty politics, generational trauma, and war. 

She spoke fondly of her education at the City College of New York despite its dearth of education on African or Black art; she remedied this lack herself. “I took myself to Africa,” she told me in 2019. “I lived in Harlem and I made myself aware of what was going on around me. … I traveled all over, seeing the studios and the art of the people all over Africa. And it inspired me so, because there’s a lot of aspects of art to learn, and they taught me … the materials and this and that. But I taught myself the derivation of my culture, which is Africa.” In turn, she founded the Anyone Can Fly Foundation, “so that the children would not have the same experience that I had of not learning anything about Black and or African art.” Ringgold’s dedication to art education translated into work that engaged audiences across age groups, including children.

Faith Ringgold knew how to tell a story. Tar Beach, decorated with awards since its publication in 1991, was one of few books by a Black artist to be incorporated into the curriculum at my majority-White elementary school. Its importance to my upbringing as a young artist cannot be understated — and I am not alone. Reading Tar Beach as a child is a core memory for many Black children and future artists, and it will no doubt continue to be.

There is a poetic rhythm to her writing, which lent itself to the popularity of Tar Beach and her other books (of which she published over 20). This lyrical prose can be found stitched onto her story quilts, massive figurative artworks depicting scenes from Black lives, many taking inspiration from her childhood in Harlem. On many of her quilts, she stuffs the fabric with a colloquial stream of consciousness. Her story quilts, she explained to me in 2019, were born out of a need to work around the heavy frames of a stretched canvas, which she was reliant on her husband to help move about. “It’s so heavy that I can’t manipulate it,” she said. “And I want to make it bigger and bigger because I have a big story to tell.”

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