Who’s Afraid of Aunt Jemima?
As with most stories worth telling, my encounter with Faith Ringgold began auspiciously on a dark and rainy day. Sometime in early 2016 in a museum an hour north of New York City, I stood before a large hanging quilt by Ringgold, entitled “Who’s Afraid of Aunt Jemima?” (1983).
The quilt was composed of alternating grids of illustrated figures and handwritten text. Alone in the museum, I had the luxury of reading each panel closely. The panels told the fictional story of Aunt Jemima Blakey as a successful entrepreneur, upending a familiar derogatory stereotype. Ringgold had imagined an enthralling tale for Jemima and her family, yet the work’s autobiographical undertones are undeniable. This tendency to channel herself and her family through fictional characters in her work recurs throughout her career.
In late 2018, I interviewed Ringgold to learn more about her life and career, which encompasses over 60 astounding years of art making. As late as I was to her work, I was consoled by the fact that MoMA had only recently acquired (in 2016) what is considered her first major painting, “American People Series #20: Die” (1967).
“Die” is an explosive scene that unapologetically portrays the brutality of the 1960s racial violence — bloody bodies are strewn across the monumental canvas in a triangular composition, reminiscent of African Kuba patterns and Picasso’s 1937 painting “Guernica.” Ringgold explained to me,
I want the story to be told so that people understand what’s going on. It’s important to me to express the ills of society that are widely accepted while also delivering the message without only seeing the ill. I try to show both the good and the ill. For example, Picasso’s “Guernica” — all the bad and evil was depicted in such a way that you can deal with it. For me that is key.
The key, in other words, was to make her life stories accessible through caricatured figures, while unequivocally presenting the realities of racial inequalities and societal anxieties. I wanted to know the source of her fecund storytelling.
Explaining her penchant for storytelling, she stated,
As a child, my parents opened their home to friends and relatives, many visiting or migrating from the South. Every evening I heard stories from all the different people who came to visit and stayed at my home. I had to stay quiet and just listen or they would make me go to bed. So luckily I had the benefit of a great oral tradition told in many ways by a diverse group of people where I had the chance to learn about my past and my family’s history.
Faith Ringgold was born on October 8, 1930, amid a cultural renaissance in Harlem, New York. Ringgold grew up surrounded by the great artists, musicians, and intellectuals of the period: W.E.B. Du Bois, James Baldwin, Amiri Baraka, Sonny Rollins, Aaron Douglass, to name a few. For a wide-eyed young artist, they were “living examples of the endless possibilities for creativity that art could offer.”
In the beginning of the 1960s, armed with a Masters degree in Fine Art from the City College of New York, where she was taught to paint like the European Masters, Ringgold sought gallery representation in a bigoted industry dominated by white men. She told me,
When [gallerist] Ruth White said, “You can’t do that” … I assumed she meant that I should paint my own story. I never learned about African-American Art in school but it was she who encouraged me to paint my own experience as an authentic expression of who I was rather than painting from convention. That notion gave me a lot of freedom. At the time it was the 1960s and I could not act like everything was okay. I couldn’t paint landscapes in the 1960’s — there was too much going on. This is what inspired the American People Series. For me it is important to make work about peril if it’s your story. One can find beauty in horror that you can share through your art and ideally effect change.
An impressive synthesis of influences, including her fashion designer mother, Willi Posey, Picasso and Matisse, the writers of the Harlem Renaissance, and traditional African quilters, along with an obdurate resistance to being told what she can or cannot do, forms the bedrock of Ringgold’s art.
With the American People Series, Ringgold matured her characteristic Afrocentric aesthetic. As an astringent commentary on her surrounding society, this early series demonstrated her emphasis on feminism and social justice. In one of her most iconic work “The American People Series #19: U.S. Postage Stamp Commemorating the Advent of Black Power” (1967) she turned to the “Kuba” checkerboard composition, overlaid with the words “Black Power.”
Ringgold is a born activist, gifted at capturing the zeitgeist. Even from our brief chat, I could feel the conviction of her words and beliefs. She instilled her beliefs in her children, including daughter Michele Wallace, Professor Emeritus of English at the City College and Graduate Center of the CUNY, who, in 1970, suggested that 50 percent of Black women and student artists should be included in museum exhibitions. And so began the legendary 1970 protest by Ringgold, Poppy Johnson, and Lucy Lippard at the Whitney Museum. They sang, danced, and sounded police whistles to be heard … and they were: Betye Saar and Barbara Chase-Riboud were included in the Whitney Sculpture Biennial that year, the first black women ever to be shown in the exhibition.
Ringgold’s activism manifested in myriad ways throughout her life. In 1970, she was arrested for her involvement in organizing “The People’s Flag Show” at the Judson Memorial Church. She created an all-female mural, “For the Women’s House” (1971), for the women’s detention center on Riker’s Island, plastered political posters and feminist papers throughout Documenta 5 (1972) venues in Germany, and assiduously curated group exhibitions addressing African-American and feminist concerns.
Her burgeoning interest in performance is evident in the many rarely seen masks and soft sculptures from the 1970s featured in a recent exhibition at ACA Gallery (Faith Ringgold: The 70’s). For example, “The Wake and Resurrection of the Bicentennial Negro” (1976), an elegiac tableau of life-size dolls, was initially used in a performance communicating environmental issues through song and dance.
By conflating visual art, African craft, language, and activism, Ringgold’s various Story Quilts, from the pioneering “Who’s Afraid of Aunt Jemima?” (1983) to notable works such as “Tar Beach” (1988) of the Woman on a Bridge series (which the award-winning illustrated children’s story book was based on), secured her seat in the pantheon of American art. Commenting on the work, she said:
[…] I paint from my experience. This is what I know. I am not a man or European and wanted to learn and express the lives of my sex and people — not others. So it is important to me to include my people in the conversation. These political and feminist works are more relevant today than ever — it’s important to keep the women’s movement and the social justice issues alive — keep it going.
Her multi-faceted career extends to writing — she authored a memoir and 17 children’s books — and teaching: now Professor Emeritus, she taught in the Visual Arts program at the University of California, San Diego from 1987 to 2002.
So, what does an accomplished octogenarian, who has amassed more than 75 awards and been collected by some of the world’s most important art institutions, from MoMA to the Guggenheim, busy herself with these days? She shared her passion for Quiltuduko, a digital game app she recently created that enhanced Sudoku with colors and patterns, and added that she is working on a new project called The Ancestors II:
It is a Story Quilt series that looks back to the people who came before us and tells their stories which might otherwise be forgotten. I’m very inspired by my ancestors and have revisited this subject matter throughout my career from the Ancestors performance pieces of the 1970s to the Coming to Jones Road Part II Story Quilts from the early 2000s. My motivations have remained consistent — I have always wanted my work to reflect me and my experience.
In the back room of ACA Galleries, Ringgold’s painting, “Black Light #2: Man” (1967), presided over our interview. A graphically simplified rendering of a face, divided into zones of dark tints with piercing eyes, it glows with hope, as if the subject is empowered by an inner light. Lips slightly apart, he seems prepared to speak. Perhaps his words would echo Ringgold’s — that nothing in the world can stop you from doing what you want and being who you are. But you have to go do it. Just have some faith.
Faith Ringgold: The 70’s was at ACA Galleries (529 West 20th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) took place October 25–December 21, 2018.