ACA Galleries celebrates its long association with Faith Ringgold in the upcoming exhibition, Faith Ringgold: The 70’s.
The exhibition focuses on the artist’s notable works from the 1970s, a period of Ringgold’s heightened cultural and political activism, and features several works not previously displayed, including a number of her influential soft sculptures. Though the materials and textiles were indeed “soft,” the issues Ringgold addressed in these works continue to bring the hard truths of African American and female experience into broader and deeper public consciousness, issues as searingly relevant today as they were over forty years ago.
Ringgold’s art had been entwined with her political and cultural activism since the 1960s, when her oeuvre engaged with the ascendant Civil Rights Movement and the nascent Women’s Movement. Turning from her formal training in more traditional styles of art, Ringgold embarked on a twenty painting cycle of images called “The American People.” Employing a palette and motifs referencing African painting and sculpture, “The American People” series at once calls out the racism and violence which threatened African American and female empowerment and equality while also holding out hope that the American experiment could overcome these biases.
The Peoples Flag Show, 1970
By 1970, however, though the Civil Rights Movement was gaining strength, racial justice was far from a reality and women’s equality was even further behind. These attitudes were just as stubborn in what was still a white male dominant art world. Thus, Ringgold, together with artists Poppy Johnson, Brenda Miller and art critic Lucy Lippard, led the Ad Hoc Women’s Art Committee in protesting the lack of women included in that year’s Whitney Museum Sculpture Annual. The group’s dramatic sit-ins and theatrical actions demanding that fifty percent of the art in the exhibition be by women, and fifty percent of those works by African Americans, led to a substantial increase in female and minority representation in that show and subsequent shows.
United States of Attica, 1972
Though Ringgold’s activism on behalf of African American and women artists has remained a driving force in her work, it has not rendered her work as mere polemic. At its core, Ringgold’s work is grounded in a sensitive humanism reflecting her fascination with the variety of human experience and her belief in humanity’s ability to right our wrongs, particularly through the strength of America’s unique foundational values and multicultural society. This expansive attitude is clear in the soft sculptures she created through the 1970s. These figural works, sometimes featuring actual historical or political figures such as Adam Clayton Powell, female archetypes such as the Mother and Child pairing, or the direct African reference in 1974’s Gold Face Mask, broaden the cultural conversation regarding race, gender and class. Adam Clayton Powell, for example, is not presented strictly in his political persona as the powerful United States Congressman he was for over twenty-five years, but as the Baptist minister he was before he entered politics. For Ringgold, Powell’s religious identity and his political identity were intertwined, grounding—even legitimizing—his sometimes controversial political power in the centrality of African American church culture.
The Judson 3, 1970
Handmade dolls, long a fixture in rural or impoverished American families in general and African American family experience in particular, are another clear influence on Ringgold’s soft sculptures. We see this in figures such as “Willa” and “Wiltina,” among others. Moreover, the concept of family exists in the most fundamental way in Ringgold’s soft sculptures with direct input from her mother, Willi Posey, a dressmaker and designer who not only taught her daughter how to sew but often designed and stitched the clothes worn by Ringgold’s soft sculpture figures. According to a July 29, 1984 article by Grace Glueck in The New York Times, the Ringgold-Posey seamstress partnership was not always a smooth one. Each woman had their own strong aesthetic ideas. But Ringgold recognized and respected her mother’s artistic talents, and recognized, too, that the results arrived at by their spirited aesthetic debates made the work stronger in the end.
It is this combination of political activism, cultural awareness, and human expansiveness which gives Ringgold’s soft sculptures their power. Often life-size, the figures also exert an authoritative sense of presence. With “Fish,” for example, viewers can’t ignore the Africanized, sexually exposed and vulnerable figure, a banner spelling out “Attica” across a chest dotted with political and protest buttons of the 1970s. There is rage in the figure, rage in its creation, rage shared with viewers who were becoming aware of the inhumane conditions at New York’s Attica State Prison by the riots which resulted from those conditions. And yet, Fish’s wide eyes in his African masklike face are not belligerent. They are sensitive, quietly pleading to have his humanity recognized, a humanity Ringgold insists must be shared with the viewer.
Adam Clayton Powell, 1975
Ringgold’s soft sculpture work further addresses women’s historical art and craft traditions in her quilts and tankas, the latter a Tibetan textile form. Often telling a story, as in Ringgold’s heralded and monumental “Who’s Afraid of Aunt Jemima,” the quilts and tankas also utilize abstract forms; their colors, textures, shapes, fabrics and weave uniting Ringgold’s cultural and political expressions with her mastery of the concepts of modern American art. The “Window of the Wedding” group, for instance, places brilliantly colored abstract geometric shapes in a quilt-like pattern against textiles of more traditional designs, often floral. The heritage of the past and the dynamism of the present co-exist in exquisite tension in these wall hangings, their cultural and political statements brought to fruition through Ringgold’s rich aesthetic vocabulary.
“The heritage of the past and the dynamism of the present co-exist in exquisite tension in these wall hangings, their cultural and political statements brought to fruition through Ringgold’s rich aesthetic vocabulary”
Faith Ringgold’s place in the sweep of American art history is assured. With her breakthrough epic cycle of paintings, “The American People” in 1963, which brought her critical attention, through her powerful paintings, posters, soft sculptures, quilts and tankas of the 1970s and beyond, Ringgold’s message of the need for a more just world, free of bigotry and inequality, continues to resonate into our own time. The visual cultures of African Americans and women have provided underpinnings to her art, grounding her work in traditions and creative expressions as timeless as humanity itself.
But these visual expressions are not Ringgold’s only creative voice. She is an acclaimed author and illustrator of children’s books, notably the award winning “Tar Beach,” “Aunt Harriet’s Underground Railroad in the Sky,” “If This Bus Could Talk, The Story of Rosa Parks,” and many others. Nor has her creative practice been limited to canvas, fabric, or the printed page. Experimenting with the heritage of mask making, Ringgold expanded her use of masks into performance art. Her creative reach has thus become boundless.
ACA Galleries’ exhibition, The 70’s , exemplifies why Faith Ringgold remains one of the most influential voices in the ongoing story of American art. She continues to create, write and exhibit. Her work is represented in prestigious collections across the country, including New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Guggenheim Museum, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, the National Museum of American Art in Washington, D.C. and others. She has been the recipient of significant accolades and awards, among them twice winning the National Endowment for the Arts award for painting, a Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship Award, Moore College of Art and Design’s Visionary Women Award, a Peace Corps Award bestowed by President Barack Obama, among many others. She continues to garner honors for her work, most recently awarded the Chubb Fellowship from Yale University’s Timothy Dwight College.
A native of New York City’s historic Harlem, where she grew up, lived and worked for much of her life, Faith Ringgold now resides in New Jersey, where she maintains her studio and continues to create art still in demand by museums, galleries and collectors.
Anne Aptaker, ACA Galleries