“I wanted to do art that reflected my American experience,” Faith Ringgold has said of her decades-long career portraying racial oppression in America. A commitment to personal vision has consistently led the artist to challenge negative stereotypes of the African-American community, building alternatives out of new materials.
Entering the Serpentine, you are met by the gazes of 100 pairs of eyes – “#19”, from Ringgold’s American People collection, is a large oil painting with a postage-stamp border, showing a host of black and white faces, each one unique. In between, one can just make out the phrase “white power” etched alongside the more obvious “black power”, diagonally running across the canvas. It is an apt opening to a show demonstrating Ringgold’s lifelong commitment to identifying and challenging white supremacy, work that nevertheless remains playful and hopeful for a future racial equality.
Ringgold was born in Harlem in 1930, in the wake of the Harlem Renaissance. Surrounded by talented black artists – she recalls the painter Jacob Lawrence – Ringgold was inspired to become an artist. Her earliest works consist of oil-paintings and posters in the 1960s that carry political messages in support of the civil rights movement, such as the American People collection (1963–1967) and Black Light (1967–1971). These paintings – along with her later quilts and textiles – make great use of green, red and yellow, colours representative of the Pan-Africanist movement, which supports solidarity between all indigenous ethnic groups of African descent.
” I wanted to do art that reflected my American experience.”
The 1980s marked Ringgold’s shift from oil-paintings to story quilts. Historically, quilt-making was the only artistic practice black slaves were permitted to perform, as the products were seen as practical, and could be sold. Ringgold’s quilts were both an homage to an artistic medium traditionally associated with enslaved black communities, and a skill central to her own family’s history. Ringgold’s mother had herself been a couturier in Harlem, employing a skill for sewing that had been passed down through the family’s maternal line, charted all the way back to Susan Shannon, an enslaved 19th century dress-maker.