Its 1968.

The sharp sound of whistles fills the hallways of the Whitney, announcing the arrival of a new wave of artists. A politically charged egg hunt and scattered tampons. The eggs, both raw and boiled, painted black, saying “50%”.

Faith Ringgold led various protests in the late 60s leading into the 70s, one of them at the Whitney Annual Exhibition as a leader of the Ad Hoc Women’s Art Committee advocating for black women artist representation. The eggs and tampons were used as symbolic representations of women, reminders of the missing element within the exhibition.

The slogan and demand came about after Ringgold consulted with her 17-year-old daughter, Michelle, on the matter. In response, she proclaimed: “50 percent women, that’s what you want!”

“Our demand was that the Whitney… should be 50 percent women.”

A couple of years later, during an event called the “People’s Flag Show” organized by Ringgold in the West Village, she and two other artists were subsequently arrested for “desecration of the flag”.  

In response to the inmate uprising at Attica Correctional Facility, Ringgold created one of the most distributed posters of this period: United States of Attica (1971-2). Thirty-three inmates died before the demands were accepted. She cites the many other genocides and murders on the map and uses colors referencing those in the Pan-African Flag designed by Marcus Garvey: red, the blood, both shared and shed; black, melanin and the rich soil of the Nile Valley; and green, the lushness of the fertile African continent.

In 1972, Ringgold seeks to engage with the community and approaches the Institution for Women in Rikers Island about a mural. In conversation with the incarcerated women about what they would like her to paint, one of them says, “I’d like to see a long road out of here.”

Ringgold chooses to paint the diverse possibilities open to these women once released. “I wanted them to realize what they could do and could be.”

Ringgold was bold in her approach and did not shy away from channeling her political perspective into her work, no matter how horrific.

Inspired by Pablo Picasso’s Guernica, the painting American People Series #20: Die (1967) gruesomely depicts, as Ringgold called them, the “spontaneous bloody battles” in the streets of New York at the time. The riots were frequent, widespread throughout the United States, and rarely, if ever, reported in mainstream media.

“Blood ends up on the sidewalk”, Ringgold vividly describes. “It’s very difficult to paint blood. It’s scary, it feels like you’re bleeding.”

Alongside this bloody darkness existed the light emitted by the souls of black artists across the country. In 1971, Ringgold visited the Art Students League of NY as a panelist and, along with other artists, discussed the “The Black Artist “and “Women’s Liberation and the Arts” (as seen below).

The experience of the black artist is given form in the HBO documentary Black Art: In the Absence of Light (2021), which also features Ringgold and her work. As the title suggests, there is much that must be performed in the darkness, absent of the spirit of encouragement, when your very identity is cast out or diminished by those who hold power.

Faith Ringgold was born as Faith Willi Jones on October 8th, 1930 in Harlem, New York City.  Her childhood was colored by the Great Depression and debilitating asthma. Ringgold’s parents were very nurturing and fostered her artistic ability. As much of her time was spent at home, Ringgold took to learning her mother’s craft, fashion design, as well as basking in her father’s storytelling, both of whom directly influenced the trajectory of Ringgold’s work.

In many ways, Ringgold followed in the footsteps of her mother. Willi Posey Jones worked in the Garment district as well as part of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union and participated in labor union activities. After many years of dedicated work in the Garment district, Willi Posey created her own business. She not only designed and created for customers, but also for her family. 

Faith Ringgold’s presence and personality is as vibrant as the work she produces. Having been born in Harlem during the renaissance of black art, the colorful energy of her work comes as no surprise. “There was a tremendous cultural activity going on in Harlem. The first time when black people felt comfortable about showing their own image.” Writers, artists, and musicians alike were embracing their identity through these various forms of expression.

The giants of this renaissance are depicted in Flying Home: Harlem Heroes and Heroines located at the 125th Street Station, “the center of culture in those days,” Ringgold recalls. Reminiscent of Chagall’s various paintings of blissfully floating lovers, Ringgold “levitates” these public figures in the sky.

“I levitate all of them. It’s a certain kind of freedom. Which is, I think the most important thing in the world. It’s also an interesting way to use the space. Inject the people in the space. Have them moving through it.”

The idea of “home” and “freedom” are both prevalent throughout Ringgold’s work. She conveys the duality of life, how the seemingly contradictory can harmoniously coexist: in this case, that of being rooted and the freedom that can be gained from it. Through connection with our ancestors, we can connect to the world around us.

“My great-great grandma Susie [practiced this] art form that slave women used to embellish and beautify useful objects such as quilts … maybe I have suppressed through the years…that all of these things could be a part of my art.”

In collaboration with her mother, and her quality stitching, Ringgold’s first quilt came to be. Echoes of Harlem (1980) is composed of portraits of people from the neighborhood. It was the one and only quilt they made together. Willi Posey passed in 1981.

As tribute, Ringgold continued in the tradition of quilt making. In her “story quilt”, Who’s afraid of Aunt Jemima, she rewrites the story of the mother of America’s sweetest syrup, Aunt Jemima. Ringgold portrays her as a successful entrepreneur, very possibly drawing inspiration from her mother’s own entrepreneurial spirit.

While at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, Ringgold encountered spiritual paintings that would further inform the physical structure of her iconic quilts: Tibetan thangkas.

Thangkas are used for Buddhist spiritual meditation. Often paintings of deities, myths, or mandalas, thangkas are used as a point of focus for both personal and monastic studies. These sacred pieces are constructed using cotton or silk stretched onto a bamboo frame that is then strung onto a wood frame. The cloth is prepared and painted. A technique called appliqué, originally used for patching holes in otherwise worthy garments, was often used to create decorative patterns with varying fabrics. Ringgold applies this technique in her Slave Rape series (1972) and in works to follow.

Tibetan thangkas are kept unframed so they may be rolled up when not on display or in use. This served to inspire an elegantly simple solution for Ringgold’s desire: “I wanted to create paintings that could be as large as I needed them to be, and I needed to be able to roll it up, pack it in a trunk, and send it all over the country.” It served a practical and economic purpose.

For those who use the thangka in meditation, the archetypal energy of the god figure depicted is taken in as part of themselves and inner strength can be drawn from this practice.

Spiritual strength and wisdom can also be drawn from Ringgold’s Slave Rape piece. Both In mythology and in life, brutal events take place. Ringgold reflects this reality back at us, reclaiming and retelling the story of the black woman in the United States.

In addition to quilt making, Ringgold extended her exploration to the making of masks and dolls inspired by her trips to West Africa, Nigeria, and Ghana.

Soft sculptures, such as those produced by Ringgold, have a history of being dismissed by the powers that be of the art world. Within the arts associated with the feminine, you see a representation of home, of ancestral lineage. These techniques create objects that are at once utilitarian and beautifully decorated. It is the soft yielding nature of this art form that is its greatest strength.

This softness is also visible in Ringgold’s tender storytelling, giving rise to more than 20 children’s books.

Tar Beach (1991), Ringgold’s most popular children’s book, gives a glimpse into how class and environment can influence the day to day.

The cover shows a family at the ‘beach’ at night. Anyone who lives in an urban area knows what happens if you decide to step out barefoot on a rooftop on a sunny day.

And yet, at night it’s magic. The twinkling lights, the bridge that can be worn as “giant diamond necklace”. Young Ringgold is so enchanted, she takes flight.

““I can fly. That means I am free to go wherever I want for the rest of my life.”

Within the darkness, the blackness, there is a quiet depth and richness, as can be seen quite literally in Ringgold’s homage to her parents, part of the Black Light series (1967-1969), investigating the dynamic range of the color black.

Within the darkness, the blackness, there is a quiet depth and richness, as can be seen quite literally in Ringgold’s homage to her parents, part of the Black Light series (1967-1969), investigating the dynamic range of the color black.

Through her work and her words, Ringgold reminds us to be courageous and believe in our own strength, vision, and to reflect on our capacity for expansive freedom, within ourselves and in connection to others, in art and life alike.

“I became an artist because I wanted to tell my story as a black woman and of course that was a problem, but I stuck to it.”

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