Progression of Art
The American People Series #6: Mr. Charlie
A mature, white American businessman is depicted in bold colors, hard edges, and flat, simplified shapes. He holds his hand over his heart and stares ahead with a blank, but condescending expression. The man's vacant expression suggests someone so fixated on his own point of view that he cannot truly see or hear anyone else's experience. The gesture of his hand pressed to his chest appears to protect and excuse him from any kind of response or responsibility. The figure, too large to be contained within the bounds of the canvas, possesses a sort of looming presence made all the more intimidating by Ringgold's placement of him in the extreme forefront of the picture plane. The two dimensionality of the image suggests that he represents a type of person, rather than a specific man, without human depth or feeling.
The title of the piece refers to the African-American expression "Mr. Charlie," which was used to describe a racist white man. By using primary colors for both his suit and the background, Ringgold suggests the man has a kind of assumed privilege; he and the world reflect one another.
Oil on canvas - Collection of the artist
American People Series #16: Woman Looking in a Mirror
The American People Series, which Ringgold described as "about the condition of black and white America and the paradoxes of integration felt by many black Americans," includes 20 works. Some of the images confront racism and racial violence while others draw upon the "black power" or "black is beautiful" message that came out of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s.
Here, Ringgold depicts an African American woman seated before a window, perhaps at the moment before getting dressed, as she appears to be wearing undergarments. The woman looks into a handheld mirror, while in the background, the window overflows with blue and green geometric trees and bushes. The black branches and trunks of the plants frame the woman and echo the curves and angles of her form. The stylized rendering evokes the work of Henri Rousseau and Picasso's Girl Before a Mirror, with their broad expanses of color heavily outlined in black.
The window behind the woman shows a verdant, light-filled jungle, suggesting an African landscape, and creating the sense that the woman is at home in this setting. Its lushness complements and highlights the beauty of her image. Gazing at herself in her hand mirror demonstrates to the viewer the importance of her own self-regard over those of the male gaze or of white society. The feminist viewpoint combined with one of black power conveys the message that an African American woman is beautiful when regarded by herself.
Oil on canvas - ACA Galleries
American People Series #20: Die
Ringgold had hoped to participate in the first World Festival of Black Arts in 1966 but was rebuffed by Hale Woodruff, who curated the artwork for the festival. Of Woodruff's criticism, Ringgold wrote: "I thought it was insulting that he thought I didn't know anything about rhythm or movement... I decided I'm going to show him I know rhythm and movement because my teachers did teach me those aspects of paintings. They didn't teach me anything about being a black artist; no I learned that by myself. But they did teach me about movement and that sort of thing. And that's when I did DIE - the biggest painting I had done up until then. ...A tribute to these guys who want to try to tell me I don't know what I am doing."
In a style that Ringgold called "super realism," this work depicts the race riots of the 1960s in America as a melee of random violence. The repeating adult figures, African Americans and whites, are injured, and fighting or fleeing, while a white boy and an African American girl huddle together in the center of the canvas, framed by the falling limbs of an African American man and a white woman being shot. The violence contrasts with well-dressed appearances of the figures; the men in black pants and white shirts, the women in fashionable dresses and heels.
The black and white color of the men's clothing visually emphasizes that racism is the origins of the violence, and the well-dressed appearance conveys that no class of society is exempt. The painting is a kind of tour de force of Ringgold's knowledge of artistic style combined with her experience of the violence generated by racism and her fear that racial violence would become endemic.
Influenced by both Picasso's Guernica and the depiction of race riots in Jacob Lawrence's The Migration Series, Ringgold intended to depict the racial turmoil following the Civil Rights movement. As an African American woman, she also wanted to respond to the societal expectations of the art world which, as she said, viewed art as "a conceptual or material process, a commodity, and not a political platform...To be emotionally involved in art was considered to be primitive."
Michele Wallace, the art critic, has said of DIE, "the painting illustrates Ringgold's mastery of the Western canonical strategy of expressing narrative and figurative movement by placing the same group of figures across the picture plane in various stages of the scene. In contrast to act of reading left to right, the artist situates the stampede-like wrestling of forms in the right side of the canvas, almost spilling over to the left portion of the composition. "
Oil on canvas - Museum of Modern Art, New York
The Black Light Series: Flag for the Moon: Die Nigger
The painting's title acknowledges the first moon landing in 1969. Instead of the traditional flag that the American astronauts planted on the surface of the moon, Ringgold has inscribed, "die" in black lettering within the stars and has broken and changed the stripes, so that the white stripes read "nigger."
The work is part of her Black Light Series where Ringgold said that she intended to create a "more affirmative black aesthetic." She also noted how "white western art was focused around the color white and light/contrast/chiaroscuro, while African cultures in general used darker colors and emphasized color rather than tonality to create contrast." Here, she mutes the contrast of the traditional flag image; the stripes and stars are muted, as if overshadowed by racism.
Influenced by Jasper Johns' Flag, Ringgold changes his ambiguous image into an explicit critique of American racism from the viewpoint of the African American community at the end of the Civil Rights era. Explaining why she incorporated the words within the stars and stripes, Ringgold said, "It would be impossible for me to picture the American flag just as a flag, as if that is the whole story. I need to communicate my relationship with this flag based on my experience as a black woman in America."
Oil on canvas - ACA Galleries, New York City
Family of Woman Mask Series: Aunt Bessie and Aunt Edith
In her Family of Women Mask Series Ringgold portrayed thirty-one women and children from her childhood. Here, Aunt Bessie and Aunt Edith are depicted wearing masks, influenced by Ringgold's interest in African art. Willi Posey, Ringgold's mother, made garments for ten of the figures in the series. Although the figures are posed without bodies beneath their garments, they both possess large, matronly bosoms. Both figures depicted here wear colorful, beaded collars, and one wears a whistle around her neck, reminiscent, perhaps of the whistles she used in protest of the Whitney Museum's lack on inclusion of women artists or artists of color. The expressions of the masks are wide-eyed and open-mouthed, highlighted by white lines to emphasize their features, and are surmounted by a braided wig.
As Ringgold said, "Because the mask is your face, the face is a mask, so I'm thinking of the face as a mask because of the way I see faces is coming from an African vision of the mask which is the thing that we carry around with us, it is our presentation, it's our front, it's our face." Even though the women wear African-influenced textiles as dresses and masks, they could also represent two women on a neighborhood stoop, exchanging neighborhood gossip, and turning faces of watchfulness and commonality toward the viewer. As a result, the figures seem familiar, despite their exotic ornamentation.
Cloth sculpture - Collection of artist
Echoes of Harlem
Made with her mother, Willi Posey, this first quilt by Ringgold features depictions of 30 residents of Harlem. Painted in a grid system, the faces appear gazing from various angles set off from each other by rectangular-shaped quilt work in the border. The portraits are arranged in a pattern with twelve blue-background images in the center and a blue-background portrait in each corner. Fourteen depictions with a golden brown background are centered within all four sides of the work.
The 20th century trend of using grid patterns to organize a composition is combined with the traditional piece work of quilt making; the overall effect is reminiscent of screen printing, the replication of images as used by Warhol in his pop art.
With the use of the predominantly blue background, Ringgold creates a sense of a harmonious and diversified community. Racial differences are suggested by the contrasting colors of the portrait squares. The overall effect is to acknowledge the diversity that makes up Harlem but presented as if a harmonious whole in a quilt that provides warmth and a continuation of story and heritage as it would if it were passed down through a family.
Paint on cotton - The Studio Museum in Harlem
Who's Afraid of Aunt Jemima?
This is Ringgold's first story quilt and the first quilt project she made by herself, without the help of her mother, who died the previous year. Squares along the borders depict African American women of varying ages from all walks of life, and the squares in the center depict a variety of different people, each connected to a block of text that tell some part of Aunt Jemima's story. The center square resembles a book title page and declares the piece a "quilt book."
As Michele Wallace, the artist's daughter and art critic, has noted, the work answers the question "what are we (as black women) supposed to do with our lives and how are we supposed to do it?" Ringgold contradicts a common stereotype of an African American woman by here recasting Aunt Jemima as a successful businesswoman and notes that the work is also "a feminist statement about the stereotype of black women as fat. Aunt Jemima conveys the same negative connotation as Uncle Tom, simply because of her looks.'' By focusing on a heroic matriarch, Ringgold also connects to Aunt Jemima's story her own success in overcoming the stereotypes she faced as an African American woman and artist.
Acrylic on canvas, dyed, painted and pieced fabric - Private collection
Tar Beach (Part I from the Woman on a Bridge series)
Tar Beach, Ringgold's best known work, is the first quilt in her Woman on a Bridge series about a young African American girl, Cassie Louise Lightfoot, growing up in Harlem. In 1991 Ringgold published Tar Beach as a children's book for ages four to eight, and the book was named a Caldecott Honor Book, A New York Times Best Illustrated Book, and won the Coretta Scott King Award for Illustration and the Parents' Choice Gold Award. Featured on Reading Rainbow, widely recommended by librarians and read by countless school children, Ringgold became a household name.
The story quilt depicts a family spending time outdoors on the rooftop or 'tar beach' of their apartment building. In the center image; clothes are drying on a clothesline; four people are gathered around a table playing cards, another table has food, and Cassie and her younger brother are resting on a blanket. The background depicts the New York City skyline, where Cassie is also is shown flying over the George Washington Bridge.
The scene is bordered by fabric squares, many of them with floral patterns, and at the top and bottom of the quilt another border of rectangles contains text, telling the girl's story. At top left the story begins," I will always remember when the stars fell around me and lifted me above the George Washington Bridge." Another section reads, "Sleeping on Tar Beach was magical ...only eight years old and in the third grade and I can fly. That means I am free to go wherever I want to for the rest of my life."
Ringgold's use of color and the repeating floral motif creates a garden-like border and a sense of familial warmth. By painting decorative embellishments onto her piecework with the same color she has subtly unified the many and varied color blocks used to create the border. By adopting a 'naive' or 'folk' technique that avoids perspective and shading, Ringgold suggests that the experience depicted in the work is being expressed directly and freely, from within the internal life of her character. Ringgold drew upon her own experience growing up to create the character, but also wanted to convey an empowering feminist message. As she said of the series, "My women are actually flying; they are just free, totally. They take their liberation by confronting this huge masculine icon - the bridge."
Acrylic on canvas, bordered with printed, painted, quilted, and pieced cloth - Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum
Change: Faith Ringgold's Over 100 Pounds Weight Loss Performance Story Quilt
Rectangular blocks of text describe Ringgold's personal and political relationship to food, the social expectations of weight and body image in women, and her undertaking an almost yearlong weight loss program. In alternating rectangles, a collage of black and white images include photos of Ringgold at different ages, family photos, and images of women in terms of body image and weight. Overlaying the quilt rectangles is a quilt square pattern, which creates an x shape across each block of text or image.
Ringgold has said "The reason why I began making quilts is because I wrote my autobiography in 1980 and couldn't get it published, because I wanted to tell my story and my story didn't appear to be appropriate for African-American women, that's what I think, and that really made me so angry." She continued telling that story in Change 2 (1988) and Change 3 (1989).
The profusion of images and texts, personal and political, individual and cultural, are meant to make the viewer aware of the societal messages that are brought to bear upon the individual woman who is influenced by them and tries to live up to them. Yet the x shape drawn across each block of text or image seems to cross out the message each block contains, as if suggesting that trying to follow each message has resulted in failure, just as a dieter may try diet after diet without success. Ringgold connects her own struggle with weight loss with the feminist issue of self-image and societal expectations.
Photo etching on silk - Private Collection
Illustration 2: The French Collection Part I, #4, The Sunflower Quilting Bee at Arles
In 1959 after earning her Master's degree in Fine Art, Ringgold went to Europe to study the work of the masters, particularly the work of the Impressionists and Cubists. She was struck by the absence of people of color except as models or subjects, and years later in The French Collection began looking at the tradition of European art from the viewpoint of an African American artist.
A group of noted African American women from history, seated in a field of sunflowers, is depicted creating a quilt of sunflowers. The setting in the background is Arles, best known for the time that Vincent Van Gogh spent there and the paintings he produced. The women depicted are Madam Walker, Sojourner Truth, Ida Wells, Fannie Lou Hammer, Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks, Mary McLeod Bethune, and Ella Baker. To the right of the women stands Vincent van Gogh, holding a vase of sunflowers, reminiscent of the seven still lifes with sunflowers he painted while at Arles. Here, he offers his sunflowers as a sign of respect and appreciation to these legendary women.
Ringgold represents the tradition of African-American quilt making as a collective effort, passed down through the generations of women in her family, and juxtaposes it with the tradition of the solitary male European painter, represented here by Van Gogh. The quilt they are making with its sunflowers is in harmony with the natural world that surrounds them.
Writing in the New York Times, the critic Roberta Smith noted, "This tribute to female solidarity and individual struggle gets its real force from Ms. Ringgold's contrasting depictions of the quilted sunflowers and the painted sunflower field, which make their own political point in purely visual terms. In short, the artist juxtaposes the solitary, traditionally male activity of painting with the collective, traditionally female one of quilting, while fusing their different visual effects into a single work of art."
Acrylic on canvas, pieced fabric border - Private collection
From the Coming to Jones Road Series: Under a Blood Red Sky
In 1999 Ringgold began working on the Coming to Jones Road Series, which focused on the escape of slaves to the north via the Underground Railroad. Here she combines a contemporary artistic practice, screen-printing with a story quilt that in image and text conveys the story of the slaves' flight to freedom. The use of bright, vibrant colors and flat, simplified shapes are both reminiscent of the work of Henri Matisse. The border is tie-dyed piecework with an outer edge of zebra striped fabric.
In the central image a large number of African-American slaves, men, women, and children, some of them carrying burdens, are making their way from the red foreground into the forest of tall green trees with blue trunks and, ultimately to the house on Jones Road. Just right of the upper center of the image, the sun can be seen. The image is bordered with text conveying the story.
The black figures on the red ground and beneath a red sky suggest the difficult struggle for freedom in a world saturated with racial violence. The small yellow sun is the only bright spot in the image, its yellow highlighted by the yellow sunbursts of the border. Ringgold explained her artistic intention; "I have tried to couple the beauty of this place with the harsh realities of its racist history to create a freedom series that turns all of the ugliness of spirit, past and present into something livable."
Many of the works in this series include landscapes. In 1992, Ringgold moved with her husband, Burdette from Harlem to Englewood, New Jersey, purchasing a home on Jones Road, saying "I came over here and landed on Jones Road - you know my maiden name is Jones, so I just felt that this was where I was supposed to be - and bought this house." Wanting to build a studio behind the new home, however, she met with a great deal of resistance from the predominantly white neighborhood, which fought the proposal, a reaction that Ringgold felt reflected racial prejudice. She responded to the experience by turning her artistic efforts toward capturing the area's natural beauty and built a garden. She said, "art is a healer and the sheer beauty of living in a garden amidst trees, plants, and flowers has inspired me to look away from my neighbors' unfolded animosity toward me and focus my attention on the stalwart traditions of black people who had come to New Jersey centuries before me." By creating Jones Road their eventual destination as her own home, Ringgold is able to enfold herself within the story as well as the history.
Silkscreen on canvas with pieced border - Pasadena City College, Pasadena, CA