Faith Ringgold is an incredibly impressive woman. An artist of many techniques, her story quilts, soft sculptures, and masks always contained strong themes of identity and women’s strength. She was an enthusiastic participant in the black activist community and in the feminist movement from the 1970’s onward.
Considering her fervor for the feminist movement, it’s interesting to note that she did not always enthusiastically support feminism. In Ringgold’s own words:
In the 1970’s, being black and a feminist was equivalent to being a traitor to the cause of black people. “You seek to divide us,” I was told. “Women’s Lib is for white women. The black woman is too strong now—she’s already liberated.”
Eventually Ringgold came to disagree with those rejecting feminism, recognizing that in some ways sexism negatively affected her life and career more than racism, as sexism was present not only in the outside world but in her own family and community. Ringgold became very vocal about the need for equality in the art world, both racial equality and equality between the sexes, establishing a theme we see running throughout her artwork.
"The Flag is Bleeding" 1967
"Woman Freedom Now" 1971
Ringgold’s activism is fascinating to learn about. For the sake of simplicity here are the three events she’s most well known for presented in convenient bullet point form!
Read more after the jump!
- The Liberated Liberated Venice Biennale: Ringgold refers to this as her first one of her “out from behind the men actions”. The Biennale-in-Exile, or the Liberated Venice Bienneale was a protest of US policies of oppression in Vietnam and Cambodia. A “superstar” group of artists, including Warhol, Rauschenberg, and Jasper Johns withdrew their work from the Venice Biennale and brought their portion of the show back to America claiming their new show would emphasize equality rather than oppression. However, the show was comprised of the artists who were originally in the Venice Biennale, only white men. Ringgold and her daughter formed Women Students and Artists for Black Art Liberation (WSABAL) and demanded full equality in the show, insisting on 50% women, 50% of those women be black, and 25% be students. After much protest and negotiation between the Biennale-in-Exile and WSABAL the demands were met and the Liberated Liberated Venice Biennale was held, although many of the “superstars” withdrew their work claiming the show was too disorganized.
- 1970 Whitney Annual: Ringgold continued to demand 50% women be included in many prominent shows, later joining an ad hoc women’s group to protest the small percentage of women in past Whitney Annuals. The group protested in creative ways, leaving eggs and sanitary napkins in the halls and galleries of the Whitney Museum. Ringgold’s eggs were boiled, painted black, and had “50%” written on them. Ringgold went further, championing Betye Saar and Barbara Chase-Riboud as two black women sculptors who deserved to be in the show. Due in large part to her perseverance, Saar and Chase-Riboud became the first black women artists to show in the Whitney Museum. However, this was not enough. The total percentage of women in the show only totaled 23%, and the group demanded fifty. To protest, they printed forged tickets, organized at the show, and chanted “Fifty percent women, fifty percent women” once a week every week the show ran.
- People’s Flag Show: Ringgold played a large role in The People’s Flag Show, a show which used flag art to protest American oppression and repression at home and abroad and came to the defense of artists who had been charged with desecration of the flag. Ringgold and her daughter were heavily involved with this show, promoting and contacting artists to participate. This was the first truly dangerous action Ringgold participated in; the threat of arrest was more than a possibility. While the opening went without a hitch, Ringgold and two other artists were arrested later in the week by undercover cops. While the trio known as the Judson Three were heavily supported by the art community, they were found guilty and fined $100 each, and although the New York Civil Liberties Union said they would appeal to the Supreme Court and pay for all fees, they failed to show at court on the trial date.
Ringgold speaking at the People's Flag Show in 1970
"Flag for the Moon: Die Nigger" 1969
"The People's Flag Show" 1970
As you can see, Ringgold was completely awesome.
Later in her career, Ringgold began to experiment with new media, including watercolor, posters, murals, masks, soft sculptures, dolls, and performance pieces. During the 70s she created the Political Landscapes series, in which she combined text and art. The text used included writing by her daughter, quotes by black feminists, and eventually her own writing. Involving text within her artwork at this stage seems to have helped her with her later explorations in written work, paving the way for story quilts, her many children’s books, and her autobiography. Ringgold especially used the story quilts to impart her messages, depicting famous artists and leaders with black artists and leaders, telling the fictional stories of her community, and creating stories for children such as Tar Beach, which introduces children to the concepts of racism and equality at an early age.
"Tar Beach" 1988
Ringgold remains active in the artistic and activist community even today with groups such as Coast to Coast, a community of women artists of color. Fostering community and promoting racial and gender equality continues to be important as she travels and teaches students what has happened and is happening with inequality and how these same students can help. Ringgold is an inspiring figure for those who strive for equality and want to act to change things in the art world.
Here’s some more of her fantastic work:
"United States of Attica" 1971
“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.”
"Mrs. Jones and Family" 1973
"Who's Afraid of Aunt Jemima?" 1983
"Weight Loss Performance Story Quilt" 1986
"The Two Jemima's" 1997
Check out her website for more information about Ringgold and to see more of her work!