Harper's Bazaar (USA)
TOUR de FORCE
With a major new retrospective, FAITH RINGGOLD is finally GETTING HER DUE in the ART WORLD. But as the artist, now 91, recalls, ACCEPTANCE was NEVER the POINT.
Even at a young age, I had this feeling that I had my own vision and it didn’t matter whether other people liked what I was doing or not. I just needed to get it out there. In 1966, I joined the Spectrum Gallery, which was a cooperative exhibition space near the Museum of Modern Art in Midtown Manhattan. At that time, I was the only Black artist who was a member. The director, Robert Newman, was incredibly supportive and gave me my first show there—my first show outside of Harlem, where I grew up. But I’m not sure that the other artists who were part of the gallery back then liked my work, because it wasn’t about what their work was about. I was making these large paintings that would become my American People series, which dealt with the racism, sexism, and violence that I’d seen and felt. My work was about the problems of living and being a Black woman in that era; of being a mother, which I was, and a schoolteacher, which I had been; of being an artist who was all of these things. It was really about me and what I was having to go through to be who I wanted to be. It was about me telling my story.
I always thought it was important for people to tell their stories. When I was a child, friends would visit our home and tell stories about leaving where they lived in the South and traveling up North. They would talk about all the difficulties they encountered, and I would be fascinated. I could see it all through their eyes.
MY MOTHER WAS A FASHION DESIGNER. SHE WAS FEARLESS,
hardworking, and brilliant. But when I was growing up, there were virtually no Black people in the mainstream fashion world, so she did what she could do in the way she could do it. She did her own shows, got her own models, of course created her own designs. The Black women in Harlem became her customers. She just stepped out there and did it. I think that instilled in me the idea that I could have the courage to do whatever I wanted to do, despite what anyone else thought or any adversity I might face.
In the 1960s and 1970s, people didn’t like the fact that I was making political art. I also began to organize protests of museums and institutions for the way they excluded women and people of color. I was arrested. I was detained. I was shut out of certain spaces and opportunities, and I didn’t have the support of a community or an institution. But I felt I had something to offer, and I was determined. The more they didn’t like what I was doing, the more I realized it was what I needed to do. That’s why I started to involve my two daughters in my activism. I knew that whatever they sought to do in life, they were likely to encounter trouble too. And I thought it might be good for them to see what I was going through so they’d be able to understand that there are always difficulties, but you need to see things through.
In 1980, I began to make quilts. I made my first one, Echoes of Harlem, with my mother. I learned some of the skills involved in making quilts from her, and she had learned them from her mother. It was a family tradition that went back to my great-greatgrandmother, who had been enslaved. To me, those skills were like a form of inheritance.
My quilts are really paintings. They’re acrylic on canvas with a pieced fabric border, so they’re paintings that are unstretched, with quilted frames. I’d always considered myself a painter, but I was fascinated by the pictures and images that came from quilts and how I could use them to inspire my paintings. But I was not making quilts in the traditional way the women who came from Africa did. When slavery began, these women who came from Africa could use quilt-making as a way to do art, and it was okay because their owners didn’t think of it as art-making. A quilt was something you put on top of yourself to keep you warm; it wasn’t art. But to these women, the quilts were almost like letters, a form of communication. I loved the idea that they’d developed this art-making system from their imagination, that they were able to create something beautiful out of scraps.
As for my own legacy? I hope my work expresses the life and deeds of Black people and other aspects of the world that have thrilled me. For me, art has always been about seeing. In a way, though, it can also inspire you to dream up what you don’t see—the things you imagine and can make real as a work of art.
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