Rolling Out

Faith Ringgold taught us to fly for over 60 years

The trail-blazing artist and storyteller began kicking down doors in the art world in the 1960s and never stopped innovating
Photo courtesy of artist, Donovan Nelson

If you are a visual artist and you are Black — particularly if you are a woman and, specifically, if you are a textile artist — you owe your visibility on the world’s stage to Faith Ringgold. She carved and held a space for you on museum and gallery walls for 60 years.

Born Faith Willi Jones in 1930 in Harlem, Faith Ringgold  entered into a household that prized education and oozed creativity and flair. It is no wonder  she became a freedom-fighting multi-media artist, author, and educator who fashioned a career upon telling Black stories and combatting gender and race inequality. She set out to be a landscape painter but was fast to realize that the Civil Rights Era was roiling beneath her feet: There were bigger stories to tell. Ringgold pivoted to create the American People Series from 1963-1967. These stylized paintings explored concepts of Black Power and captured the social and political upheaval of the time.  Her Black Light series followed and challenged the principles of light and dark she had been taught in art school, focusing on the beautiful hues of Black skin. Wedged between the Black Arts Movement of the ’60s and the ensuing Feminist Movement, Ringgold found there was little being done to uplift the Black woman. Her activism took flight.

In the early 70s, Ringgold organized around anti-war art movements and co-founded Women Students and Artists for Black Art Liberation (WSABAL) with her young adult daughter, Michele. The organization ensured that the voices of women of color were equally represented in the art world. Ringgold then became a cornerstone of “Where We At” Black Women Artists Inc. — a collection of 14 Black women artists who sought to control their own representation and narrative and presented the first known group exhibition of exclusively women artists (of any race). And, in 1973, she co-founded the National Black Feminist Organization, also with her daughter and other prominent Black feminist activists.

During this early period in her career, Ringgold made two trips to Europe, spent time in Africa, exhibited in New York, and continued to study, collaborate and expand on her artistry while nurturing her marriage to jazz musician Burdette “Birdie” Ringgold and raising two beautiful, culturally-engaged daughters — Michele Faith and Barbara Faith Wallace – in the neighborhood in which she was born, Sugar Hill, Harlem.

In collaboration with her mother, Madame Willi Posey, who was a prominent local fashion designer, Faith Ringgold produced her first quilt, Echoes of Harlem, in 1980. The quilts built upon her practice as a painter and were extensions of her earlier tankas of the 70s – which were paintings bordered with fabric, inspired by Tibetan tradition. Ringgold’s first story-quilt, Who’s Afraid of Aunt Jemima?, was completed in 1983 in tribute to the women who had served as caretakers in American culture throughout time. It doubled as the artist’s first published writing. Fusing both text and paintings into her quilting process, Ringgold developed a unique style that would pry open the gates for fiber artist and inspire contemporaries and generations to come.

Faith Ringgold became, perhaps, best known for her first children’s book, Tar Beach, published in 1991 by Crown. Tar Beach has won more than 20 awards, including the Caldecott Honor and the Coretta Scott King Award for the best-illustrated children’s book of the year. An animated version, narrated by Natalie Cole, was later produced by HBO. The book is based on the story-quilt of the same title from the 1988 Woman on a Bridge series and captured the wonder of  soaring imagination and childhood life in Harlem.

For six decades, Faith Ringgold innovated, reinvented, inspired, and educated through her diverse media. Although, she relocated to Englewood, NJ in the early 90s, she remained a Harlem sister and queen, keeping her heart, spirit, and sometimes even her home, open to the creative community. Ringgold remains the inspiration behind Broadway Housing Communities’ Sugar Hill Children’s Museum of Art & Storytelling, and was the recipient of over 100 awards and honors and the author of 20 children’s books. Her magnificent life came to an end on April 12, 2024. She was 93 years old.

“Anyone can fly,” Faith taught us,
“as long as you have somewhere to go
that you can’t get to any other way.”

ACA Galleries in New York has graciously represented Faith Ringgold since 1995.  The gallery will present an exhibition of her work — Faith Ringgold: Anyone Can Fly – May 4 – July 27, 2024. ACA Galleries,  173 10th Ave., New York, NY 10011.

One Response

  1. At UCSD, Prof. Faith Ringgold taught us as artists: If you have no plan, you plan to fail. Wise words from a wise woman that resonate to this day. Thank you Prof. Ringgold, for the endless ways you have been an inspiration.

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