Faith Ringgold – “Raise Your Voice. Unite. Tell Your Story”

Wow, Faith Ringgold, an amazing artist I recently discovered at The Serpentine Gallery in London. She was born in 1933 in Harlem, New York and this show was all killer, no filler,  packing in 5 decades of her work in quick succession. I loved it, there was so much admire in both the work itself and her approach to life.

001 Portraits that skewer

Calmly painted with titles that skewer. I didn’t know that ‘Mr Charlie’ was a generic name for slave owners.

American People #19. US Postage Stamp Commemorating the Advent of Black Power. 1967

On the Postage Stamp painting, Ringgold said: “This was possibly the most difficult picture I’ve ever painted”. She paints 100 portraits, documents the 1967 statistic that at that time, 10% of the US population was black and hides/shows the message of ‘white power’.

Last up, this portrait feels like a message to herself, or to other  young African American women – ‘Study Now’.

American People #10. Study Now. 1964

002 Beautiful Selves

Works that explore colour and contrast in an artistic and cultural sense. And as Ringgold says, celebrate a feeling of ‘our newly recognised beauty’ that arose during the Civil Rights era.

003 Remembering Women’s Words

Inspired by Tibetan Tankas – hangings, Ringgold started to work in fabric. This made the works both economical to make and easy to move. Traditionally Tibetan Tankas are used for meditation and teaching. It feels like she is drawing strength from the outspoken abolitionist women who have gone before her, in the 1800s.

Men of eminence, have mostly risen, from obscurity, nor will I although, female of a darker, hue and far more, obscure than they, bend my head or, hand my harp upon, willows for though, poor I will, virtuous prove. Maria Stewart 1833
We meet the monster prejudice, everywhere we have no, power to content with it, we are so downtrodden, we cannot elevate, ourselves …… We want light, we ask it, and it is denied us, why are we thus treated? Prejudice is the cause. Clarissa Lawrence 1838

004 Political Maps

Prompted by the killings of 43 people in a prison in Attica in 1971, Ringgold made a map recording deaths in America throughout history.

005 Killer Posters

Simple words. Powerful ideas. Handcut collage posters. Awesome

Woman Freedom Now. 1971
Woman Free Yourself, 1971

006 Talking about Diets

Diets and what women eat is often thought of as the most frivolous topic, despite all the pressure for women to look a certain way. Ringgold not only talks about this head on, but she puts it on a quilt. A quilt – in the 1980’s.  I can only imagine, or not, the art world’s reaction or complete non-reaction. To me it feels like the Art world has only started taking quilts, pottery and other crafts seriously in the last decade or two. Since they decided to give Grayson Perry the Turner Prize in 2003 perhaps?

Anyway back on the subject of Ringgold’s work, I think this is a contender for one of the best self-portraits ever. It talks about life, hope, self-image, food, culture and family.

Close-up

Text from first panel, top left hand corner:

“On the floor/ you may be a professor/with knowledge to burn/ or just a young kid with a lot to learn/ you may be black, white, red, yellow/ or inbetween/ you may be kind or a little mean/ But if you remember this simple phrase/ you’ll be a winner for the rest of your days/ First stand up everyone in this place/ Now put a great big smile on your face/ Everybody ready? Let’s go/ This is the phrase you need to know/ I can change/ I can do it/ Just keep tryin And you’ll do it.

1930’s

My mother brought us up to eat three square meals a day, without eating between meals. When I got old enough to run my own kitchen I ate three square meals a day. And then three or more at night. My mama made me do it.

Mama Made Me Do It (c) 1988

Mama made me do it (repeat 2x’s)/ Told me clean my plate (repeat 2x’s)/ That’s how I gained this weight/ Mama made me do it (repeat 2x’s)/ Told me eat to grow strong (repat 2x’s)/ My mother”

007 Writing the Story.

Perhaps the strongest thing that came through from this show is Ringgold’s love of telling the story, in her own words. Be it of her own happy childhood, as in this quilt based on childhood memories:

Reimagining herself her ancestors and daughters, as in the Slave Rape Series, 1972:

…or reshaping the story of Aunt Jemima, a well known face on American pancake mix.

As well as continuing to reconsider the story of US history.

American Collection #1. We came to America. 1997

Exhibition was at The Serpentine Gallery, London in 2019.

NB. Header image is an excerpt from Jazz Stories: Mama Can Sing Papa Can Blow #1. Somebody Stole My Broken Heart, 2004. By Faith Ringgold.

My personal notes

– I love the [ human and artistic ] meeting the [ statistics  and social structures] of the time. Food for thought. Maybe Economic Historian Artist isn’t totally implausible?!

– She also does quilts and appliqué and takes them seriously. My mind jumps to some of Tracey Emin’s work.

– She studied Joseph Albers work. Me too.

– I want to to be able to paint faces like she does. I see Picasso and Leger in her 60’s portraits.