Faith Ringgold is an artist of incomparable range. A major retrospective of her work on view through November 27 at the de Young Museum brings together five decades of her rich and varied output. The show, which was originally organized by the New Museum in New York, has everything from moody canvases and political posters to soft sculptures, children’s books, and painted story quilts. Although diverse in style and technique, each piece is informed by her life experiences.
This essay was adapted from the Alta newsletter, delivered every Thursday.
Ninety-two-year-old Ringgold was born in Harlem and came of age at a time when women were relegated to the margins of the art world and Black female artists were even rarer. She graduated from the City College of New York with a degree in art education because women weren’t allowed to major in fine art. This was merely the first of many obstacles Ringgold would encounter—and overcome—throughout her long and prolific career.
While the exhibit presents an extensive survey of her work that shows her development through several distinct phases, a lot can be learned by looking at two pieces from different eras. The American People series painted in the 1960s—from which the exhibit takes its name—portrays the reality of racial tensions in America. These early paintings reflect a modernist aesthetic with a sophisticated, almost sober palette. Tight compositions of groups of mask-like faces represent the unfriendly stares she received from her white neighbors and the dominance of white faces in all spheres of society.
One work from the series, U.S. Postage Stamp Commemorating the Advent of Black Power (1967), is among her most detailed, large-scale paintings from this period. It presents a grid of faces in extreme closeup, 100 total, meant to show racial representation. Running diagonally through this grid are 10 Black faces representing 10 percent of the population. Along the other diagonal, the words “Black Power” are prominent; together the two form a large X across the canvas.
Tilt your head to the right and you’ll see the much larger words almost subliminally embedded: “White Power.” In this clever composition, Ringgold tells us that while Black Power may announce itself, white power is taken for granted, a default that’s hardly noticed, let alone questioned.
The postage stamp is a subversive choice, since these state-sanctioned mini-portraits usually commemorate a sanitized, official version of history that recognizes activists and agitators only when they are safely in the past. In her stamps, Ringgold dares to celebrate the contemporary Black Power movement at a time when it was widely considered a threat to social stability. (Malcolm X, for example, died in 1965 and was not commemorated on a postage stamp until 1999.)
Ringgold’s career is a tale of resistance and resilience. Being Black, a woman, and a figurative artist at a time when the market favored abstraction, Ringgold found limited success. But despite being excluded by major institutions, she became even more committed to her own style, saying that working outside the mainstream gave her more freedom.
The somber realism of the American People series contrasts with the dreamy, imaginative scenarios depicted in Ringgold’s story quilts. Displayed in the final rooms of the de Young exhibit, they represent the culmination of Ringgold’s development of a highly personal aesthetic that draws inspiration from her mother (a seamstress and fashion designer), her daughters, and a rich lineage of Black female artisans for whom quilting was a domestic skill forged in community. While not overtly political in the way of her protest posters and flag paintings, Ringgold’s story quilts are still inspired by the material conditions of Black life and confront a painful history while reaching for joy.
The French Collection (1990s) is a series of quilts that tell the story of Willa Marie, a fictional stand-in for Ringgold who visits France to learn about European art history. Willa Marie is shown in a variety of Parisian settings hobnobbing with famous (but anachronistic) residents such as Picasso, Matisse, Josephine Baker, and Gertrude Stein. In The Sunflowers Quilting Bee at Arles (1991), Willa Marie is joined by Black female ancestors, including Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Ida B. Wells, and Rosa Parks, who are assembled around a table making a quilt covered with sunflowers as a pensive Van Gogh observes from the sidelines. This vision of Black female empowerment and community is both an homage and an act of restitution. Quilting represents the intertwined, collective work of these leaders and activists in creating a more just world.
Ringgold’s audacity in writing herself into the art history canon in the French Collection is hugely inspiring. These images moved me in the same way that seeing Wakanda in Black Panther made my heart leap. Both Ringgold and Panther director Ryan Coogler dared to ask the question, What would the world look like if history had been different? What would it look like if Black artists—and Black people—could exert their full power without white interference?
This uplifting vision is one of the reasons she’s found success as the author of children’s books, as well as earning more and more recognition for her art later in life. Throughout her extraordinary career, Ringgold has not only documented the struggle but helped to visualize the dream of liberation.•