Faith Ringgold (born 1930) was known for paintings, sculpture, and performances which expressed her experience as an Afro-American woman.
Faith Ringgold was born Faith Jones on October 8, 1930, in Harlem Hospital, New York City, the daughter of city truck driver Louis Jones and Willi Posey Jones, a dress designer. She lived all her life in Harlem, where she studied education at the City College of New York in the 1950s. Yasuo Kuniyoshi and Robert Gwathmey, two exponents of figurative painting at that time, were her teachers. Ringgold taught art in the New York City public school system from her graduation until 1973. Married twice, she had two daughters and divided her time between New York and a teaching position at the University of California at San Diego after the mid-1970s.
In the early 1960s Ringgold began to make overtly political paintings, in part inspired by reading James Baldwin and Amiri Baraka (then Le Roi Jones), who wrote of their lives as black men within a white American culture. She made a series of paintings entitled The American People, followed by the mural The Flag Is Bleeding and a large painting, U.S. Postage Stamp Commemorating the Advent of Black Power, which consisted of 100 frames of human faces cropped to reveal only eyes and noses. Presented in a grid, like a sheet of postage stamps, ten percent of the faces were black, reflecting the percentage of black Americans in the population at large. In the early 1970s Ringgold completed a series of Slave Rape paintings in which female figures, the victims of rape, were presented in lush brocade frames, inspired by Tibetan wall hangings. All her work of this period was figurative, executed in a simplified, cubist-like style which Ringgold claimed to be a derivation of African art.
By the mid-1970s she was making masks, heads of women she had known, which then evolved into large full size portraits made of stuffed fabric entitled The Harlem Series. These were of prominent Harlem residents such as politician Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. and basketball player Wilt Chamberlain, as well as southerner Martin Luther King, Jr., who was by then dead. Her mother helped her sew these portrait-sculptures made of foam rubber, coconut heads and yarn wigs, which later became props and characters in performances she created in collaboration with her two daughters, who wrote stories and scripts. In 1981 Ringgold made an assemblage sculpture about the chain of slayings of Black children in Atlanta, Georgia, in which she placed small stuffed figures bound in wire, each with the name and photo of a victim, against a white background, suggesting a chess board on which the children were pawns.
Later she made a series of narrative quilts, in appreciation of traditional women's handiwork, which contain pictures accompanied by texts telling their stories. One is titled "Who's Afraid of Aunt Jemima?" and another "Street Story," which tells the story of a ghetto boy who goes through a series of family tragedies to finally become a wealthy writer in Hollywood, accompanied by pictures of the physical decline of the apartment building in which he grew up. She also worked on performances to accompany her story quilts.
Throughout her career as an artist Faith Ringgold was always politically involved in black and feminist issues. In 1966 she participated in the first black art exhibition in Harlem after its renaissance in the 1930s along with Romare Bearden, Ernie Crichlow, Norman Lewis, and Betty Blayton. In 1968 she joined the Art Workers' Coalition with critic Lucy Lippard and sculptor Carl Andre and demonstrated for the inclusion of Afro-American artists in exhibitions and purchases by major New York museums. In 1970 she participated in the Ad Hoc Woman's Art Group, which successfully pressured the Whitney Museum of American Art to include for the first time in its history the work of two black women artists—Barbara Chase-Riboud and Betye Saar—in its Sculpture Biennial. During that same year she was arrested for organizing "The People's Flag Show" at the Judson Church, which protested against laws governing the use of the image of the American flag. In 1985 she participated in the Guerrilla Girls all-woman exhibition at the Palladium in New York.
Although she always lived in New York and was knowledgable about contemporary art, Ringgold's work, like her life in Harlem, remained decidedly apart from what was generally considered mainstream American art. Because she was intent on using her life experience as a black woman living in a black subculture as the basis for her work, she was often overlooked or excluded by the art establishment, which was primarily white and male and whose aesthetics most often express these characteristics either directly or indirectly. This was especially true in the late 1960s when abstract art was the prominent manifestation of the notion of mainstream art.
The political ferment of the late 1960s caused considerable upheaval in the New York art world, and many artists collectively demanded that public institutions and museums expand their programs to include a broader range of art, to show and purchase artwork by artists outside the "mainstream." New galleries opened, often publically funded, whose intention was not to sell or buy art but to show significant art that existed outside of the established system of commercial galleries and museums, which were often closed to outsiders.
Faith Ringgold participated in many of these protest activities and usually showed her work in alternative places. In 1967 and 1970 she had one-person shows at Spectrum Gallery in New York, an artist-run gallery in which she was the first black to participate. She was the subject of a ten-year retrospective exhibition at Rutgers University in 1973 and of a 20-year retrospective at the Studio Museum in Harlem in 1984 and at the College of Wooster Art Museum in 1985.
She received numerous awards, including the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation Award in 1987, and the Moore College of Fine Art's Honorary Doctorate Award in 1986. In 1991 Crown Press published her book Tar Beach, which she wrote and illustrated, and the following year published her book Aunt Harriet's Underground Railroad in The Sky.
While there is no complete monograph on her work, a short catalog was published in conjunction with her show at the College of Wooster titled Faith Ringgold: Painting, Sculpture, Performance (1985). Chapters about her were included in Lucy Lippard's From the Center (1976) and in Eleanor Munro's Originals: American Women Artists (1979). Ringgold published an essay, "Being My Own Woman," in Confirmation: An Anthology of African American Women (1983), edited by Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones) and Amina Baraka, and has been included in many documentary videotapes, including "Art Protest Movement," made by the Archives of American Art and the Smithsonian Institution, and "Black Artists in America," made by Oakley Holmes, Jr. Perhaps because of her position as an outsider in the art world and due to the fact that most of her exhibitions and performances have happened outside of established galleries and museums, critical response to her work is found in the general press rather than in art magazines. Articles on Faith Ringgold have appeared in The Washington Post (1979), Ms. Magazine (1979), the Village Voice (1981), the New York Times Magazine (1982), and the Christian Science Monitor (1984). □