February 17 through June 5, 2022
By PRIYA GANDHI, February 2022
From February 17 to June 5, 2022, the New Museum presents Faith Ringgold’s first retrospective in New York. An artist, author, educator, and organizer, Ringold’s artistic practice has been intrinsically tied to her activism throughout the civil rights movement and on. Fifty years of works are spread across three floors of the New Museum, from paintings to soft sculptures to her famed quilt works. Below are some highlights.
The first section of the exhibition pairs Ringgold’s early painting with various ephemera. Posters advocating for the Black Panthers hang on the walls, and in vitrines are flyers and letters from Ringgold’s work protesting MoMA with the Art Workers Coalition in the late 1960s. The ephemera enforces the depth of Ringgold’s position as a leader in the Black Arts Movement and worker’s rights during major historical moments. The summer of 1967, referred to as the “long, hot summer”, saw violent conflicts between black communities and overwhelmingly white police forces. In Ringgold’s famed painting Die, created that year, the contrasts of blocked colors provide a searing depiction of racial violence in America. Recently juxtaposed with Pablo Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon at MoMA, in Die, wide-eyed black and white men and women lacerate each other with weapons and brute force. White flesh is viciously pink and blood-shot eyes stare. Two children, one black and one white, hug each other in a feeble attempt to keep each other safe. The urgency of the political pulses through the piece; death is a possible outcome for all of these figures. There is no tension left; only unadulterated brutality.
The New Museum is dimly lit and feels hot for a February afternoon, and for a fleeting moment it is just like the quiet haze of a New York summer night, the night I imagine is illustrated in Ringgold’s Woman on a Bridge #1 of 5: Tar Beach, 1988. Situated on the third floor, the quilt shows two children cooling off with family on the roof of their Harlem apartment, their own “tar beach”, while a child flies over the George Washington Bridge. The quilt served as an inspiration for Ringgold’s subsequent children’s book, Tar Beach. The first time I asked myself what freedom meant was while reading Tar Beach as a child; freedom is to be loved, to be safe, and to be able to fly over the George Washington Bridge. Inspired by the non-western canons of African art, Ringgold frames her quilts with hand-written ink text. Black historical figures such as Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Truth Sojourner, and Martin Luther King appear within new narrations, sewn into history. A quilt is a powerful story-telling tool tied to both American history and women’s history. Quilting was often thought of as a women's craft, and Ringgold was influenced specifically by quilt-making practices in African American communities in the South. In these ways, quilts carry the burden of tradition, making them the perfect medium to display Ringgold’s work as both historically embedded and intimate.
Ringgold’s first public art commission, the mural For the Women’s House, was created for the incarcerated women at Rikers Island in New York City in 1971. Inspired by African Kuba designs, the mural depicts women in different career paths that move society forward. Freedom takes on a new meaning within a jail; freedom is the thing being denied. The mural imagines paths that could be taken if people were given equal opportunities for success, something that institutionalized/systemic racism denies an individual. The mural was on view at the Correctional Institution for Women until 1988 and Ringgold’s focus on incarceration in America continued in her activism in the years to come. On the fourth floor sits the French Collection, quilts that illustrate the fictional Willa Marie Simone’s story. Simone is painted as a model for Matisse, a Picasso muse, and as a visitor in the halls of a grand museum. The French Collection continues to track Ringgold’s commitment to imagination and the importance of history in the process of re-imaging the world.
One of the tasks of great art is to not only respond to the world but to illuminate it, to make obvious the ways in which people feel things and why those feelings matter. In Ringgold’s works, bodies ail, minds wish and dream, and a child can fly through New York City among the stars. In the process of capturing a portrait of history, Faith Ringgold has become history herself, her works encapsulating the continuous struggle to move forward within and around white spaces as a woman and as a black person. Stories of police brutality against Black people in the United States are not novel, and protest is a lifestyle that comes with an immersion into a history of fighting. None of the players, black or white, are new, but built upon throughout time, from the historicized Harriet Tubman to the fictional character of Willa Marie. The world changes and continues to change, but reckonings continue. Politically-aware art is not hard to find these days, but to be moved by the patterns of history re-imagined is a rare experience, and one that Ringgold provides, making Ringgold’s retrospective one you should not miss. WM
Priya Gandhi is a writer located in New York City. She has held positions at Creative Time and the Smart Museum of Art, and has been published in Hyperallergic and MODA Magazine.view all articles from this author