By Arwa Mahdawi
The artist’s work has told stories ranging from memories of the Harlem renaissance to disputes with racist neighbours – and at 88, she’s still got plenty to say.
When Faith Ringgold graduated from high school in 1948 she headed to the City College of New York to sign up for an art degree. Ringgold lived around the corner from the campus in Harlem, and used to “see the boys coming out of the subway and going up the hill to the college”. It had never occurred to her that they were all white, and that it was a men-only college. When the bemused college administrators informed her she wouldn’t be able to attend, Ringgold refused to budge. She wasn’t taking a stand, she just didn’t understand why they were telling her she couldn’t do art.
“Art is what I wanted to do,” she says matter-of-factly. “As a child you think you have the freedom to do what you want. You learn later in life that maybe you’re not supposed to do this or that. Then, hopefully, you realise that you can try.” Eventually, a college official helped her sort out a compromise. Women were allowed to teach – that was acceptable; she could get an art degree as long as she minored in education at the college’s teaching institute. She was in, but it wasn’t exactly a breeze from there: she experienced racism and several teachers tried to discourage her. But she never doubted her ability: “Sorry, but I’m here. And I’m going to be here. And you better know it.”
Ringgold has certainly made good on her words. The 88-year-old isn’t just a successful artist: she’s an author, activist and cultural icon. Her career has been prolific and diverse; she’s worked across 16 different media. A survey of her work spanning 50 years is about to open at the Serpentine in London, her first in a European arts institution.
I’m chatting to Ringgold at ACA, the New York gallery that has been representing her since 1995. We’re sitting in leather armchairs next to Tar Beach #2, one of her signature “story quilts”. She turned to quilting out of necessity. She enjoyed sculpting in wood and clay but the dust provoked her asthma, so she started experimenting with “soft sculpture”, combining fabric, painting and narrative. She produced her first such work, Echoes of Harlem, in 1980 in collaboration with her mother, Willi Posey Jones, a fashion designer.
Quilts were practical for other reasons. Ringgold, a vocal feminist, didn’t want to rely on her husband to help her carry her work to a gallery – “That ain’t right!” However large her latest piece, she could just roll it up and take it wherever she needed.