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It is no exaggeration to deem Ringgold the consummate American artist. The retrospective Faith Ringgold: American People at the New Museum is a thrilling turn through nearly seven decades of artmaking. Curators Massimiliano Gioni and Gary Carrion-Murayari, with curatorial assistant Madeline Weisburg, staged over one hundred artworks in roughly chronological order. Invested in the artist’s range of material experimentation, American People is a celebratory and rigorous display of Ringgold’s practice that claims the entire three floors of exhibition space in the museum and a devoted reading room on the top floor.
The exhibition is bracketed by two of the artist’s most well-known works: Ringgold’s American People series, made between 1963 and 1967, and the twelve-part quilt series The French Collection, made between 1991 and 1997, are displayed together for the first time in twenty-five years. While the sixteen paintings included from American People (there are twenty total in the series) capture and critique the psychological torment and physical chaos of the United States’ Civil Rights Movement, The French Collection evinces the artist’s commitment to narrative and craft traditions. As the show’s introduction and final word, these two series highlight the breadth of Ringgold’s interests, practices, and material methodologies.
Born in Harlem in 1930, Ringgold has resided in the neighborhood her entire life while experimenting across media as a painter, writer, storyteller, sculptor, performer, activist, and educator. The artist interrogates the Western art canon, recasting it in curious and capacious ways. Ringgold explores self-representation via storytelling, harnessing childlike wonder and hopefulness to meditate upon what a past, present, and future that centers Black women would look and feel like. This is not to say Ringgold’s works are all easily digestible: the artist’s Slave Rape (1972), a tripartite series of oil paintings, marks the first collaboration with her mother Willi Posey, a well-known couturier in Harlem, and Ringgold’s last use of oil paints before she switched to acrylics. These three portraits represent individual women situated amid colorful florae and set against quilted fabric sewn by Posey. Inspired by Tibetan Buddhist thangkas, Ringgold’s works similarly allude to the sexual exploitation of enslaved women and attest to the artist’s fear for and outrage at the position of women, especially Black women, in both American history and contemporary society. A staunch feminist, Ringgold’s politics are inseparable from her practice. Figures throughout the entirety of her oeuvre possess similar features, including large graphic eyes, with some intentionally bearing analogous traits as the artist and her daughters and other women she is close with, all of which serves to blur the temporal gap between historical and contemporary trespasses on Black bodies.
The breadth of work displayed is significant—indeed, American People offers the most comprehensive display ever of Ringgold’s work—and the show’s focus on the most well-known parts of the artist’s oeuvre, especially her paintings, celebrates the artist’s increasing, and deserved, reverence in the American art canon. But it comes at the cost of lesser-known works remaining unseen or ignored. Ringgold’s harrowing and beautiful soft sculptures The Screaming Woman (1981) and Atlanta Children (1981), for instance, are situated in a somewhat obscure position. Together the sculptures react to a series of murders of at least twenty-nine Black children and young adults committed in Atlanta, Georgia between 1979 and 1981. A highly original work, Atlanta Children takes the form of a chess board with original photographs of the murdered Black children serving as the chess pieces. The Screaming Woman stands in as the children’s mother; she holds a newspaper that reads, “SAVE OUR CHILDREN IN ATLANTA.” The contents of her purse, set beside her on the ground, reveal to the audience a life ripped open by senseless tragedy. The unfortunate positioning of these works in the stairwell between the museum’s third and fourth floors exclusively rewards those able-bodied visitors who either fortuitously happen upon the pieces or have advance knowledge of their installation in the stairway nook. The desperation of The Screaming Woman becomes all the more palpable as her physical placement reperforms the very silencing to which the mother figure responds; her echoing cries for an answer to her horrors can only be heard within the concrete chamber of the stairwell.
Storytelling, both visual and linguistic, is at the center of Ringgold’s practice. While American People celebrates the artist’s visual triumphs, the exhibition could attend more to the artist’s literary practice. Accompanying the exhibition is an extensive catalog that marks the most comprehensive gathering of scholarship on the artist to date. With contributions from Amiri Baraka, Diedrick Brackens, LeRonn P. Brooks, Julia Bryan-Wilson, Jordan Casteel, Bridget R. Cooks, Mark Godfrey, Lucy Lippard, Tschabalala Self, Michele Wallace, and Zoé Whitley, the publication elucidates some of the most compelling parts of Ringgold’s practice left unaddressed by American People. Cooks casts Ringgold first and foremost as a storyteller who uses institutional critique as her scaffolding. Lippard notes that Ringgold plays a highly regarded social role in the African American and Indigenous communities, aspects of whose cultures Ringgold both harnesses and addresses in her artmaking. This is most evident in the artist’s books for children (of which she produced over twenty) that are treasured by teachers and librarians. In the exhibition, however, Ringgold’s children’s books are displayed as an afterthought to her paintings and sculptures, a maneuver that distances these areas of practice from one another, despite the centrality of children and their promise of futurity in Ringgold’s artworks, regardless of media. Whitley’s essay attends to Tar Beach—a children’s book published in 1991, after Ringgold’s 1988 quilt of the same name—asserting that these two types of art making are twinned modes of Ringgold’s practice that deserve to be taken seriously, an argument not wholly realized in the exhibition’s presentation.
Lippard and Brooks both focus on Ringgold’s activism in the art world in the 1960s and 1970s, a period when she routinely protested the lack of inclusion of women and Black artists in major New York art institutions, such as the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Museum of Modern Art. These writings, attending to Ringgold’s activism both inside and outside of the art circuit—including her graphic design and concurrent organizing efforts for the Black Panther Party and various anti-Vietnam War efforts—offer insight into the aesthetic conventions deployed by the artist in service of her politics explicit in sculptures from the Family of Woman Mask Series (1973) and works on paper, such as All Power to the People (1970) and Woman Freedom Now (1971). Lippard asserts that Ringgold is the “unacknowledged mother of it all,” who defied expectations in both the art and political realms by relentlessly pursuing her own voice (12). Bryan-Wilson also focuses on Ringgold’s politics, but through the lens of her dual investment in Black motherhood and young people as revolutionary forces. Similarly, American People invests in Ringgold’s commitment to figuring familial networks as porous and generative spaces of both radical thought and empathetic communion through the display of works that vary in media and period, including Black Light Series #4: Mommy and Daddy (1969), Mother’s Quilt (1983), and The Flag is Bleeding #2: The American Collection #6 (1997).
Laying the groundwork for the most thoroughly articulated theme in the exhibition, Baraka’s essay illuminates Ringgold as a “critical realist” who scares polite society because she reveals the violent and supremacist underbelly of our democracy and problematizes any idea of simple benevolence attached to American power. Godfrey focuses on Ringgold’s practice in the 1960s and 1970s, with emphasis on her three largest, mural-like paintings from the American People series (American People Series #18: The Flag is Bleeding; American People Series #19: U.S. Postage Stamp Commemorating the Advent of Black Power; and American People Series #20: Die, all 1967). Godfrey contends that the artist is best at imaging the “general conditions” of her time, as opposed to specific events, and for that reason these works remain moving today. Ringgold herself called her style of painting “super realism,” signaling an interest in the recurrent traumas that continue to scar the American psyche anew. Wallace, Ringgold’s daughter, contributes a beautiful biographical and historical account of how the quilted series of The French Collection and The American Collection came to fruition. Finally, Brackens, Casteel, and Self offer creative accounts of Ringgold’s impact on their own artmaking. Reverberating through the diverse chorus of writers is the exhibition’s guiding principle that Ringgold’s symbiotic aesthetic and activist practice is the example par excellence of an artist devoted to excavating and reimagining American history.
While the exhibition privileges Ringgold’s most well-known works, overall, the sprawling installation is a triumph that aptly mirrors the vast range of Ringgold’s abilities. And though the curatorial trajectory does not focus on the artist as a writer or storyteller, the exhibition attempts to offer more information about the written narrative of some of Ringgold’s works through the deployment of QR codes. This didactic strategy, however, distracts from the experience of viewing the paintings, instead forcing the viewer to toggle between analog looking and digital reading. Future presentations of Ringgold’s practice might instead consider displaying certain works, especially narrative-forward pieces like those comprising The French Collection, on an interactive screen that allows viewers to zoom in while studying the images. Or, perhaps, the artist, or a narrator speaking on her behalf, could read aloud the narrativized scenes in a recording that accompanies specific pieces.
Faith Ringgold: American People is both a stunning collection of works by an American master, and a toolkit for generations of viewers. The exhibition offers insight into Ringgold’s practice of critically engaging with her own experiences, which she in turn uses as materials to maneuver, manipulate, and ultimately contextualize within broad social notions of labor and authority. Ringgold’s works evoke sadness and rage, elation and wonder. They provide fertile ground for understanding the artist’s own community and for daring the viewer to imagine a world more just and magical than our own, one that prioritizes people over power.
Ph.D. Candidate, Department of Art History & Archaeology, Columbia University; Mellon-Marron Research Consortium Fellow in Media and Performance at the Museum of Modern Art