Pioneering artist, activist and educator Faith Ringgold is best known for her richly referential, painted story quilts, which combine piecework quilting, acrylic painting and written stories to recount African American histories as well as narratives around her own family life. Born in Harlem in 1930, Ringgold grew up surrounded by the creative and intellectual ferment of the Harlem Renaissance and went on to become actively involved in the Civil Rights and Feminist movements of the 1960s and 70s. This experience of “coming up in a period where great changes were being made” has informed a career spanning more than five decades.
Protest and activism still underpin all of Ringgold’s activities—from her politically charged oil paintings of the 1960s, to soft sculptures, performance and public art projects, as well as the often more affirmative story quilts. Her work was included in Soul of A Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power at London’s Tate Modern in 2017, touring to Crystal Bridges in Arkansas, the Brooklyn Museum in New York and The Broad in LA, where it closes on 1 September.
Ringgold is also a prolific author—she has written more than 20 children’s books. All these different strands come together in Ringgold’s survey exhibition at London’s Serpentine Gallery this summer, her first solo show in a European institution.
The Art Newspaper: How do you feel about having your first European solo show around the same time that President Trump is visiting London?
Faith Ringgold: You’ve got to be kidding, I didn’t know that! I’m making portraits of him, but with a little satirical twist. I hadn’t planned to have them in the exhibition, but now maybe I will. I have to make sure he is properly represented. I’m working on these studies in several different forms—he’s a fascinating artistic subject.
Let’s go back to the beginning, more than eight decades ago. What made you decide to become an artist?
The greatest situation in my life that informed my decision to become an artist was that I had asthma as a child. The doctors wanted to protect me from germs of all kinds, so I was home-schooled until I was in the second grade, around eight years old. So I was able to do a lot of work at home that children normally don’t do, which is my art. My father bought me my first easel and my mother made sure I had everything I needed to create art—I had a very special time.
You grew up surrounded by the Harlem Renaissance, with writers, musicians and artists like Langston Hughes, Jacob Lawrence, Duke Ellington and Billie Holiday living nearby and knowing your family. Was that important too?
Yes. I was surrounded by music and dance and art, and I appreciated all of it. All the artists lived in my neighbourhood, so I had all these influences around me from when I was very young.
A turning point was the American People series from the 1960s, which punctured images of the American Dream by dealing often searingly with the racial tensions of the time. Many feature in the Serpentine show. They were made at a time when you were actively involved with the Civil Rights movement. Did you, and do you still, see your art and your activism as interchangeable?
I was encouraged to look around me and to paint what I saw. I painted my story, and it had a lot of angles to it. I was trying to explain how I saw life as a black person living in America, and I put things together that were not acceptable. A lot of people did not want these kind of paintings representing America in any sense, but I wanted to tell my story and what I saw.
The art and the political expression were all together—it was a fantastic time to take part in the growing of America’s sensitivity towards our culture. I was involved in the Civil Rights movement on many levels, and one was in creating art. I’m very happy to have told that story because it doesn’t look quite the same today. Now there are people from all ethnicities living together in America, but unfortunately people still have to find a difference that they can capitalise on, so they can put themselves in a better position than others.
Nonetheless, it was a struggle to get your work shown—even the Black Panthers rejected your posters.
I was just left out, that’s all. I wasn’t invited to be in shows. But even though there were a lot of galleries that didn’t want me, there was always somebody who did. It just took me a little longer to find these people. The first was Robert Newman of Spectrum Gallery on 57th Street in New York City. I joined him in 1966 and he gave me my first show a year later.
Why did you begin working with textiles?
I’ve been all over the world, looking at the art of everybody. I went to Holland in the early 1970s, and in the Rijksmuseum I discovered Tibetan thangkas that were so gorgeous. I used some of their forms to create my own Tibetan style, but mine were painted and theirs were not. I did those before I started making my quilts. But I don’t make quilts the way other people do— my images are all painted. I paint on canvas and then I sew the painting onto other backings. Canvas is just a textile, whether or not it is stretched on stretcher bars.
I wanted to paint big—I had a lot to say. And with no stretcher bars there was no heaviness. So if I made it in quilt form I could pick up a painting that was as big as the room, roll it up and carry it myself. Before then I had to wait for my husband to get home to move my work, and that was crazy.
Quilting also has its origins in slavery and directly in your family history.
My mother was a fashion designer. She made all our clothes and then went into business herself when we got older. She learned how to sew from her grandmother, who had in turn been taught by her mother—they were born slaves and had been quilters all their lives. Quilting was a method of artistic expression that could also be used to cover people, to keep them warm, but which also put designs together to make them beautiful.
My mother taught me, and my first quilt, Echoes of Harlem, was made with her just before her death in 1980. She showed me how to put it together: I painted the images—the faces of all the people—and she constructed the quilt.
Two years later you made your first story quilt, Who’s Afraid of Aunt Jemima?, which combined text with images.
I had just written my autobiography, We Flew Over the Bridge, and I was having a hard time getting it published, because the first publisher I approached was trying to tell me what she thought my story was. I think she felt my experience of being born and raised in Harlem should not have been such a lovely and idyllic story because I am black and therefore all kinds of awful things should have happened to me. Well, a lot of people had trauma, but that was not me, and I wasn’t going to make it up to please her. We knew Aunt Jemima [a brand of pancake mix and syrup that features the face of a woman, Aunt Jemima, whose origins lie in housekeeper-slavery] as some funny old woman who made pancakes, but I took her story and twisted it around my way and made her into a hero, an entrepreneur.
There’s so much freedom in “freedom of speech”. I could write whatever I wanted on my art—no one could stop me. And I have continued to do so.
Since then, your subjects have ranged from Picasso and Matisse’s studios, to the American abolitionist Harriet Tubman, Josephine Baker and Martin Luther King Jr. But storytelling remains at the heart of your works.
I deal with whatever I am feeling at the time—I can’t imagine not painting myself into what I do. I want to glorify and memorialise my imagery—it’s what musicians do. Every quilt I make is a story told. Storytelling was big when I was a child—we just kept quiet and listened to the adults. My paintings are about the American story, and it needs to be told.
It was what was going on in America, and I wanted people to look at these paintings and see themselves… I wanted to create art that made people stop and look. You’ve got to get ’em and hold ’em: the more they look, the more they see.
As well as your quilts and paintings, you have made soft sculptures, mosaics for subways and performances. You have published your autobiography and more than 20 children’s books. You have even created a new app, Quiltuduko, based on Suduko but using colourful shapes instead of numbers. Why is it important to work across so many formats and media?
I have the opportunity, and I can do what I want—and I do. I’m fascinated by all these different means of creative expression; they help me to tell my story in so many ways—I just love it. Now I’m making works about ageing, but for me it’s “ageing-a-ling-ling”: it’s not just going down, but coming on back up again.
Three key works
American People Series #20: Die (1967)
Made in 1967, the year of widespread race riots across the US, this is Ringgold’s response to Picasso’s Guernica. It depicts blood-splattered figures caught up in the turmoil of a race riot. It was shown in her first solo show at Spectrum Gallery in 1967 and was acquired by the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 2018. “I just wanted the riots, the hate, the violence to end,” she says. “I’ve lived through a period in America when violence would just erupt automatically—maybe in a movie theatre or coming down the street—and you didn’t know where it came from. All you knew was you’d just grab your kid and try and get the hell out of there.”
The Flag Is Bleeding #2 (American Collection #6) (1997)
Ringgold first started using the bleeding American flag in her paintings of the 1960s. “I was partially inspired by Jasper Johns’s flag series [because] it presented a beautiful but incomplete idea,” she said. “To complete it I wanted to show some of the hell that had broken out in the States, and what better place to do that than in the stars and stripes?” This quilt is a companion to a painting made 30 years earlier featuring a black man and a white couple.
Tar Beach (Woman on a Bridge #1) (1988)
Tar Beach is the first quilt in Ringgold’s series entitled Women on a Bridge, which depicts the fantasies of its heroine Cassie Louise Lightfoot, who takes flight from the asphalt roof of her house on a summer night in Harlem and flies over the George Washington Bridge. The night flight is a symbol of the potential for freedom and self-possession. “My women are actually flying-—they are just free, totally. They take their liberation by confronting this huge masculine icon—the bridge.” Tar Beach is also the title of Ringgold’s first children’s book.
• Faith Ringgold, Serpentine Gallery, London, 6 June-8 September