Faith Ringgold, the 93-year-old doyen of African American art and a pioneering master who heralded the recent rise of art activism and Black figuration, has her first solo museum exhibition in Chicago.
The exciting and illuminating retrospective “Faith Ringgold: American People,” which premiered to critical acclaim at the New Museum in New York and traveled to the De Young in San Francisco and the Musée Picasso in Paris before arriving in Chicago, is available at will meet the audience: MCA until the end of February. Spanning six decades, the exhibition is perfectly housed in the museum’s fourth-floor galleries; the walls of the galleries are colored with tones taken from “Wedding Windows,” a series of vibrant geometric curtains that Ringgold painted in the mid-1970s. Nobody should miss this.
Born in Harlem in 1930, Ringgold is no stranger to delayed mainstream success. His first painting, which entered the collection of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, was not acquired until 2016, but was painted in 1967 and would become the center of attention in the museum’s 2019 reorganization. It wasn’t until 1987 that he had his first solo exhibition in SoHo, then the center of advanced American art. In 1964, his request to join the influential Black artist collective Spiral Group was rejected by co-founder Romare Bearden. “Being an artist is difficult; Being a Black female artist was hell back then,” Ringgold explains in an interview in the exhibition catalogue. “Who would fight for us other than us?”
Ringgold fought this way, first with paint on stretched canvases, then with textiles in a variety of shapes, from human-sized dolls to her famous story quilts, and in the form of picket lines and political posters along the way. The wide range of his works is arranged more or less chronologically, beginning with the “American People Series” on MCA. Ostensibly portraits, these paintings are depictions of power structures and hierarchies determined by race and gender rather than individuals. 1963’s “Neighbours” features the most hostile white family you could ever want to live next door to; The heavy stylization of these families’ features links them to modern art history as well as racism in general. “The In Crowd,” shot the following year, fits nine businessmen into a vertical frame; The white man on top maintains his position by embracing those below him and pushing them down; it’s a gesture repeated by others; One of them strangles the brown man sitting in the second to last row.
The “American People Series” culminated in 1967 with three of Ringgold’s boldest compositions yet: five-foot-tall murals representing the contemporary racial landscape of the United States. Two of these – “Dying” and “The Flag Is Bleeding” – are missing from the MCA version of the show, a downside to the recent surge in interest in Ringgold’s early work. Third, an imaginary “U.S. Postage Stamp Commemorating the Emergence of Black Power” is here and is a great example of how graphic design can be used to convey critical content. The giant scale has 100 faces in a grid, 10 of which are Black; The lowercase letters spelling out “BLACK POWER” can be seen clearly, but the ones spelling out “WHITE POWER” are so large and structured that they are hard to understand.
Ringgold’s graphic skills served him well when he fully entered activism from the late 1960s onwards. His posters calling for the release of Angela Davis, commemorating the Attica prison riot, and supporting the Black Panthers reveal some of his many political aims. He was the organizer of the “People’s Flag Demonstration,” a legendary display at the Judson Memorial Church in Greenwich Village, New York, that led to his and two compatriots being arrested for alleged flag desecration. She chose the Whitney and MoMA because they failed to showcase and bring together women artists and black artists; not hiring enough black curators; and for enabling board members to invest in companies that supported the Vietnam War. She was often the leader of groups that organized these protests, including the Art Workers Coalition, the United Black Artists Committee, the Provisional Women Artists Committee, and the Women Students and Artists for Black Art Liberation, which she co-founded. their child, Michele Wallace.
In addition to working politically with her then-young daughter, Ringgold also collaborated extensively with her mother, Harlem fashion designer Willi Posey. Posey sewed Ringgold’s brocade borders tankThe painted scrolls she began making in 1972, inspired by Tibetan religious banners, initially consisted of impressionist landscapes and quotes from historical Black feminists such as Harriet Tubman. Indicative of Ringgold’s openness to non-white forms of art-making, it also served the practical purpose of being easy for a single woman to use and carry.
The influx into textiles never stopped. Ringgold’s “Female Family Mask Series” and other soft sculptures featured painted, beaded, and embroidered fabric headdresses and clothing designed by Posey. These full-size structures were based on the Dan masks of Liberia and were often worn in performances that Ringgold would organize. Little seen since, the multitude of their presentations at the MCA (an impressive two dozen are on display) would benefit from descriptions of their original activations.
The entire second half of “American People” is devoted to the form for which Ringgold is best known today: story quilts. These combine the patchwork skills she learned from her mother with a desire to rewrite and repaint history with black women at the center. “Tar Beach,” a story quilt from 1988, uses a combination of images and text to tell the story of 8-year-old Cassie Louise Lightfoot, who flew over the rooftop of Harlem where her family was spending a warm summer night, claiming to be the only girl to have a dream. The George Washington Bridge and an ice cream factory and everything he wanted to be free and in the air. The quilt spawned a children’s picture book of the same name, the first of Ringgold’s 17 books, winning both the Caldecott Honor and the Coretta Scott King Award.
If “Tar Beach” is her favorite story quilt, the “French Collection” series is her most complex and ambitious. It spins the story of Willia Marie Simone, a young African-American artist who moved to Paris in the 1920s, danced in the Louvre, posed for Picasso, and later posed for Picasso, sending her children to America to be raised by her aunt. She owns the Café des Artistes, goes to Gertrude Stein’s salon, and more. Willia is unsettlingly clear-eyed about how both French and Americans treat her color and gender, and Ringgold has no compunction about raising major Black feminist figures from the dead. There are twelve quilts in total, five of which can be seen at MCA, and all make fascinating reading. (The museum helpfully provides transcripts as well as audio recordings on its website, including a Spanish translation.)
Willia is Ringgold’s alternate personality? How could she not, by boldly inserting herself and her work into the tradition of Parisian modernism, her eyes free of racism and sexism, her intelligence and intellect intact, her talent and zeal in full force? “You once asked me why I wanted to be an artist. Because it’s the only way I know to feel free,” Willia writes in a letter to her aunt, sounding just like Ringgold in interviews. “My art is my freedom to say what I want.”
“Faith Ringgold: American People” through Feb. 25 at MCA Chicago, 220 E. Chicago Ave., 312-280-2660 and Visit mcachicago.org
Lori Waxman is a freelance critic.