Faith Ringgold is an American artist whose work transcends generations with timely and timeless pieces that speak volumes on the Black identity in the United States that still resonates with young and old audiences. But it was only last year — in 2022 — that she finally received the exposure she had long deserved. At the age of 92, she was suddenly “everywhere” due to the blockbuster exhibit American People shown first at the New Museum in Manhattan and then at the de Young Museum in San Francisco.
The American People exhibition — a massive 3-floor compilation of some of Faith’s most thought-provoking work from over 50 years — allows viewers to experience the transformation of her artistry over dramatic epochs of 20th & 21st century history. The exhibition captures how Faith’s work has evolved throughout her career by highlighting her multi-disciplinary background.
The first floor of the exhibition showcases many of Faith’s earliest works, showing her craft in painting, and connecting her with the women of the Harlem Renaissance (in particular painter/educator Loïs Mailou Jones and author/ethnographer Zora Neale Hurston).
Faith’s work is almost an extension of the same creativity prevalent during the Harlem Renaissance due to her upbringing in Harlem as a product of the Great Migration. Faith’s early work (1963-67) provides poignant insight into the racial and gender divide showing itself in the USA during this time, which led to the creation of movements such as Second-Wave Feminism and the Black Power.
American People Series #20: Die, 1967
The American People Series #20: Die, 1967 is one collection piece that showcases the violence and bloodshed that was evident during this tumultuous time. This painting depicts a bloody scene that involves violence between Black and white Americans, emphasizing the children who are often caught in the middle of bloodshed. The Black and white male figures are seen bloody, with many on the ground, lifeless, while some are still gearing up to fight with guns and knives in hand. The painting offers commentary on the women who are forced to act as peacemakers during times of unrest — women trying to intervene against the violence and keep the children safe as possible. Faith forces us to pay attention to these women who are never given the credit they deserve when discussing how violence erupts in cities; she shows us how they are put on the front line to protect their loved ones.
American People Series #18: The Flag Is Bleeding, 1967
Another piece highlighted in the collection, American People Series #18: The Flag Is Bleeding, 1967, highlights the illusion of the American Dream of the USA. We Americans often claim we live in a place where different identities come together in harmony, while in reality, our differences often collide leading to lives lost. Depicted within this painting is an American flag where the red stripes are bloody, dripping with blood. In the flag’s background, a Black man, a white woman, and a white man’s arms are interlocked, staring at the viewer, seemingly showcasing how they are together in peace in making the USA a better place.
It is important to note that the Black male figure is the only one who has his right hand over his heart, pledging allegiance to the flag, while donning a knife in his left hand — highlighting the violence against Black individuals and how they feel the constant need to be on alert while showing their allegiance to a country that built upon their labor. Tragically, Black women are not seen in this painting, thereby depicting how the efforts of Black women in the USA are often overlooked or deemed unimportant… not worthy of even being noticed.
For the Women’s House, 1971
During the 1970s — during the height of the Second-Wave Feminist movement — Faith’s work took a bold approach to discussing the importance of highlighting women’s accomplishments in American society. The mural For the Women’s House, 1971, fits this narrative by being dedicated initially to the Correctional Institution for Women on Rikers Island (NYC) in 1972. It remained on view until 1988 when the prison became male-only. For the Women’s House, 1971 was Faith’s first public commissioned piece.
The mural showcases women as active members of society — in dramatic contrast with how women inmates were actually being treated; it’s essential to highlight that Faith took suggestions from the inmates, treating them as members of a society that had turned its back on them. Ranging from teachers and students to women basketball players, these women are actively living their lives and showing the contribution they make to society.
In a 1972 interview with her daughter, Michele Wallace, Faith discusses the significance of creating the piece for the women of Women’s House:
“If I hadn’t done it for the Women’s House, then it probably would have been more political; but these women have been rejected by society; they are the blood guilt of society, so if this is what I give them, then maybe that is what we should all have. Maybe all that other stuff we’re talking about is jive because these women are real. They don’t have anything to be unreal about.”
Faith Ringgold is a powerhouse in her own right, through making her name during Black Arts Movement, highlighting the well-overdue recognition that Black artists — particularly Black women artists — deserve, while continuing conversations around race, gender and the Black experience in the USA. Although her career may span decades, her work inspires a new generation of artists through her ability to strike emotion in them, creating a new spark for using art to enact change.
© Jessica Bond (2/1/23) Special for FF2 Media®
How proud I am to post Jessica Bond’s insights into the work of Faith Ringgold — our 2023 Black History Month Super-SWAN! One of the most meaningful experiences of 2022, for me, was working my own way through this extraordinary exhibit and then sharing the experience with Jess in a steady stream of emails & texts.
We are deeply grateful to Pomegranate for introducing us to Faith’s work when we began our series on PomCom’s 2022 calendars at the end of 2021. By the time the exhibit opened at the New Museum, I was ready!
Here is the link to PomCom’s 2023 Faith Ringgold collection… a joy to behold! And yes, they already have a 2024 calendar promo labeled “Coming Soon” 🙂
LEARN MORE/DO MORE
Follow these links to read more of my posts on the work of Faith Ringgold.
Anna Nappi’s post on Maya’s Quilt of Life — the quilt Faith made for Maya Angelou — commissioned by Oprah Winfrey & delivered to Maya on her birthday.
CREDITS & PERMISSIONS
Faith Ringgold’s 1965 Self-Portrait based on a photograph taken by Jan Lisa Huttner on 4/8/22 on the first floor of Manhattan’s New Museum.