Artist Faith Ringgold Brings An American Story to London

The editor of Editions Lifestyle magazine chatted with the outstanding Faith Ringgold at the launch of her exhibition at The Serpentine Gallery in June. As the exhibition comes to a close Editions Lifestyle remembers her legacy.

Her works are haunting. One has to stop and deliberate over the detail of every piece to understand the depth and breadth of Faith Ringgold’s artworks. A selection of this artist’s pioneering works have been on show at the Serpentine Gallery in London. After five decades of painting, writing and teaching she continues  to challenge perceptions of the American Dream as seen in the eyes of many.

Faith Ringgold – Portrait

She deals with African American identity, documented through her paintings revealing a truth that most dare not confront whilst dealing with issues of gender inequality, prejudices and openly displaying her feminist attributes.

Having grown up in Harlem, she bore witness to many injustices and tribulations which are aptly depicted through her works.

Her spectacular artworks depict an untold history of the lives and suffering of the African American in a climate where many of the underlying troubles leading up to the formation of the Civil Rights Movements of the 1960s were not featured in the media. We recognise through her work, a source of news in its own right, how little we know of the backdrop to the suffering caused by race related laws and underlying issues. Ringgold, is self assured yet humble, possessing an humility which is complemented by temerity that comes with maturity.

Now 88 years old, Ringgold walks and talks through a tour of her artworks with a rigour that one tends to completely forget her age.  She has lived through some of the most turbulent times in modern history and it is articulated in her works and discussions.   As one muses over the details of her “quilts” she goes to great pains to explain that her works are on canvas, clearly not recognising the genius of painting on canvas, carefully stitched to resemble a (padded) quilt before even beginning to absorb the details of the scene itself. “They are canvas she says” as though there was nothing extraordinary about canvas, after all it is the most conventional medium for artists to use.

Ringgold explains that as an artist she has a responsibility to tell the truth and in every work there is a detailed story against a backdrop of generic social injustices, the period and hope, not to mention her own personal life and experiences.

In practice Ringgold draws upon a wide range of visual and cultural sources, from the traditions of quilt-making and its position within the history of slavery to early European Modernism, to tankas – richly brocaded Tibetan paintings – and the graphic symbolism of African masks. In the 1960s, for her ‘American People’ series (1963-67) Ringgold took the American dream as her subject to expose social inequalities.

Jazz Quilt

By the 1970s, Ringgold, along with her daughter Michelle Wallace, was leading protests against the lack of diversity in the exhibitions programme at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art, and 2018 saw her work included in an exhibition there on the subject of protest.

Ringgold’s quilts dating from the early 1980s weave together her personal stories and writings with the history of African Americans – a tradition passed on to her by her great-great grandmother Susie Shannon who was born into slavery and was made to sew quilts for plantation owners. A vital figure in the canon of American art, Ringgold has also written a much-read autobiography, We Flew Over the Bridge (1995) She says “I have always wanted to tell my story, or, more to the point,        my side of the story.”