LONDON — For almost 60 years, Faith Ringgold has delicately interwoven the autobiographical and archetypal, the tragic and celebratory, and told stories which have too often gone untold. A small but punchy retrospective at London’s Serpentine Gallery (the first in a European institution) is a testament to the extraordinary range and power of her works.
Ringgold was born in Harlem in 1930. It was the Great Depression. It was also the Harlem Renaissance. She grew up in a lively creative milieu which included figures like Billie Holiday, Langston Hughes, Duke Ellington, and James Baldwin, as well as her fashion designer mother and jazz pianist father. After graduating from the City College of New York with a degree in arts education (women weren’t allowed to get degrees in fine art at that time), she started creating her artistic oeuvre, drawing on European Modernism, African design, and American folk art.
The Serpentine’s show begins with Ringgold’s painterly survey of American society in the mid-1960s, American People (1963-7). She created the series as a record of the growing Civil Rights movement which played out on the streets but was rarely reported in the news. One painting depicts a “Mr. Charlie” (1964) (an imperious white man), staring creepily out from the canvas, his hand on his chest in a gesture of faux sincerity. Another shows a demure “American Youth” (1964), based on Ringgold’s brother Andrew, who was beaten in a racially biased attack. The works are painted in an ironic palette of red, white, and blue.
In a work from a later series, The American Collection, a dreadlocked Statue of Liberty cradles a Black baby in one arm and holds up her flaming torch with the other. Around her, dozens of slaves flail in the sea, drowning, while the ship that transported them burns in the background. “We came to America” is the title of Faith Ringgold’s painting — a damning portrait of the land of the free.
In the 1970s, Ringgold became an activist — by desire, but also by necessity. “I remember when I was young,” she said in a recent interview, “and I would go into a gallery to show my work, the gallery dealer would look at my legs, but not my art.” In 1970, Ringgold and some fellow demonstrators placed eggs and tampons around the Whitney in protest against the consistently small percentage of women artists on display in its annual exhibition of contemporary art.
Times have changed. Black and female artists are more visible than ever before. And Ringgold, once an art world outsider, now has works in the collections of MoMA, the Guggenheim, and gratifyingly — the Whitney. The second room in the Serpentine’s showcases some of her activist pieces, such as the Feminist Series — impressionistic landscapes with quotes by feminist icons, which she painted on unstretched canvas so that they would be easy to transport and exhibit. Nearby are a selection of her political posters, including her famous map piece, “The United States of Attica” (1972). Printed in red and green, it shows the death tolls of different American wars and conflicts, creating a harrowing picture of the country’s violent history.
Ringgold is probably best known for her colorful “story quilts,” which she began to make in the 1980s. Textiles, dismissed for centuries as “women’s work,” were reclaimed as an art form by many 20th-century women artists, including Anni Albers and Hannah Ryggen. In an American context, they are even more charged with meaning. Not legally allowed to read and write, slaves communicated with each other, instead, through the rich language of the American quilt.
Ringgold’s “story quilts” — painted on canvas with colorful fabric borders — are a vibrant celebration of everyday African American life. “Woman on a Bridge #1 of 5: Tar Beach” (1988), which the artist later turned into a children’s book, is an ode to the summer nights she spent on a rooftop in Harlem as a child, gazing up at the star-studded sky. Other quilts depict a jazz band mid-song and a bustling graffitied subway platform.
Quilt-making, for Ringgold, is an act of empowerment. In “Who’s Afraid of Aunt Jemima” (1983), Ringgold recasts Aunt Jemima — the smiling face of a still-existing pancake and waffle mix brand based on the racist “mammy” stereotype — as a savvy businesswoman. In another, more personal one, “Change: Faith Ringgold’s More Than 100 Pounds Weight Loss Performance Story Quilt,” she discusses her complicated relationship with food and self-image. “In the 1970s food was a feminist issue,” it reads, “and I was a fat feminist.”
From “fat feminists” to unsung heroines, a triptych of luminous portraits in the next room pays homage to some of the key figures in the Black freedom struggle. Alongside Martin Luther King are two, far less lauded, female freedom fighters: Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman. Both women were born into slavery and became important abolitionists and human rights activists. They strike powerful poses and are surrounded by quotations, in which they narrate their own lives in their own words.
“I have always wanted to tell my story,” the artist wrote in the preface to her memoir, We Flew Over the Bridge, published in 1995. In fact, she tells many stories. And the Serpentine’s show proves that they are stories worth listening to.
Faith Ringgold, curated by Melissa Blanchflower with assistant curator Natalia Grabowska, continues at the Serpentine Gallery (Kensington Gardens, London W2 3XA, UK) until September 8, 2019.