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Faith Ringgold: the queen of quilts and political paintings

The ideological Black Arts Movement brought the art world and politics together to reflect the anger expressed over continuous oppression of African Americans, and powerful events occurring in response to the Civil Rights Movement in 1960s USA. Within this movement the painter, poet and activist, Faith Ringgold produced some of the most radical artworks to reflect her personal and emotional connection with oppression as a black woman, and the effect of the Harlem Riot of 1964 on all New York residents.

Born October 8th 1930 in Harlem, New York, Faith Ringgold was surrounded by the bustling and dynamic art scene and was engulfed in a world of influential figures to include the infamous jazz musician Duke Wellington and poet Langston Hughes.

Ringgold’s creativity was fed by her mother’s profession as a fashion designer and her father, a storyteller. Exposure to creativity from a young age certainly impacted Ringgold as she began the creation of her celebrated quilts. Ringgold began quilting her stories in response to a lack of interest from publishers in her autobiography. From this she produced her first story quilt, the renowned Who’s Afraid of Aunt Jemima? in 1983, depicting the story of Aunt Jemima as a successful restaurateur and conducting an investigation of Jemima as a trope. Through these quilts Ringgold also projects her negative thoughts on the male gaze. Employing a simplistic style, her storytelling co-opts a childlike quality to convey the strength of the message. Animated illustration inspired the artist to write children’s books such as The Dinner Quilt in 1988. But it wasn’t until 1995 that her autobiography discussing her childhood, marriages and accomplishments, We Flew Over the Bridge, was finally published.

Before her quilts came her paintings, including the emotive American People and Black Light series. The American People series remains significant today in its presentation of the emotional impact of the 1964 Harlem riots on New Yorkers. The riots saw multiple murders of African-Americans throughout the 1960s. There is an overriding theme of teamwork and solidarity within the series. For example, Ringgold’s infamous 1967 work, #20: Die, uses dynamic arrested movement and cropped figures to suggest more action outside the scene. In addition to this, large spots of red paint are splattered across the canvas to represent blood. The artwork expresses the violence and disruption to the lives to all races in response to the Harlem Riots. Moreover, a black girl and white boy hold each other with a look of terror amongst the commotion. Thus, presenting the solidarity and impact of the Civil Rights riots in Harlem on all races, genders and ages.

In the 1970s Faith Ringgold participated in several feminist and anti-racist organisations and worked with art critic Lucy Lippard in Women Artists in Revolution (WAR). Ringgold also marched and protested outside the Whitney Museum of American Art to demand better female representation in the art world. Specific demands included 50% exhibitor representation and increased promotion and visibility of black artists. Alongside this, Ringgold founded a women’s art collective in association with the Black Arts Movement called ‘Where We At’ in 1971 and the National Black Feminist Organisation with her daughter in 1974 as well as numerous other organisations. Over her lifetime she has accumulated 80 awards and 23 honourary doctorates.

Faith Ringgold’s feminist and anti-racist activism, her ability to “self-publish” her autobiography on story quilts and the production of some of the most radical and engaging political paintings, makes it evident that she is an inspiration to all.

By Keisha Frimpong