A little-known depiction of Harlem literary life and African-American literature by Faith Ringgold is currently on view at the New York Public Library in its exhibition The ABC of It: Why Children’s Books Matter.
Tammi Lawson, assistant curator of the library’s Arts and Artifacts Division, told Hyperallergic that Ringgold created the tapestry maquette for a 1988 citywide contest to design a memorial in the Harlem branch (then under renovations) for Arthur A. Schomburg, the Puerto Rican writer who raised awareness about African-American contributions to society. The competition was put on by the New York Department of Cultural Affairs’ Percent for Art program with the library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.
Out of 150 artists who submitted, Ringgold was one of five finalists that included Houston Conwill, Elizabeth Catlett, Sokari Douglas Camp, and Izhar Patkin. Conwill’s design won. It utilized Langston Hughes’s poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” and now graces the entrance to the Schomburg Center, directly over the interred ashes of Hughes himself.
Twenty years later, the center bought Ringgold’s unrealized work from the artist’s daughter. It consists of four quilts chronicling renowned black writers — people Ringgold read throughout her youth, early working years and into the 1970s and ’80s, when she demonstrated against museums’ failures to recognize black and female artists. Each panel features a central column of text surrounded by patterned green, pink, and blue squares and interspersed with miniature portraits of the authors.
“Nobody has ever asked me about it,” Ringgold said delightedly when reached for comment. “I thought it would be really nice if there would be these big quilts about various writers who I had learned about from reading their books. I made these maquettes but I didn’t win … so I said, ‘Well OK, that’s the end of that.”
Ringgold said she was disappointed when she didn’t get the commission, but she doesn’t plan to ever complete the project because she already realized it in a different form at the 125th Street subway station in Harlem, which contains a mosaic installed by the artist in 1996. “Flying Home Harlem Heroes and Heroines,” which was created by the MTA’s Arts for Transit and Urban Design Program, decorates two platforms and depicts figures like Dinah Washington, Sugar Ray Robinson and Josephine Baker, Malcolm X and Zora Neale Hurston in flight.
“It’s very much what I did for the Schomberg,” she said. “I achieved my goal in another way, in another place. Some of those same people [as the maquettes] are in the subway, and that subway piece that I did will be there forever and ever and ever. It deals with the same people, but even more. Not just the writers. The artists, the musicians, everyone. I started with that maquette and I advanced it and made it mine.”
The first quilt of the original maquettes spans the Harlem Renaissance, from the turn of the century to 1929, beginning with a short biographical sketch of Schomburg and ending with an abridged quote from Langston Hughes’s classic essay “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” (1926): “One of the Negro poets said to me once, ‘I want to be a poet—not a Negro poet,’ meaning … ‘I would like to be white’ … This is the mountain standing in the way of any true Negro art in America … ”
The library told Hyperallergic that while it’s unlikely the maquettes will ever be made into a bigger installation, they’re still a moving tribute to writers who overcame Hughes’s proverbial mountain and rampant racial discrimination. The second quilt quotes from Zora Neale Hurston’s 1937 novel Their Eyes Were Watching God and Richard Wright’s novel Native Son (1940). The third panel covers the civil rights era with Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1947, ’48, ’52) and James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time (1962). The fourth includes Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye (1970) and Alice Walker’s The Color Purple (1982).
Its inclusion in an exhibition about children’s books comes thanks to Ringgold’s vast contributions to children’s literature: she has published 16 highly acclaimed children’s books. The first, Tar Beach (which won the 1992 Caldecott Honor), was based on her seminal quilt of the same name, depicting a semi-autobiographical heroine flying freely over the George Washington Bridge. She also created the Crown Heights Children’s Story Quilt in 1996. Featuring scenes from the folk tales of 12 major cultures that helped settle the area, it’s currently installed at PS 22’s library.
The ABC of It: Why Children’s Books Matter continues at the New York Public Library (5th Avenue at 42nd Street, Midtown, Manhattan) through September 7.
Update, 4/29: This post has been revised to add comment from the artist.