“As an artist, I want to tell my story of the times – what I’ve lived through; what we’re going through now. Often, people don’t want to see that… but I don’t do what people want to see; I do what I can.”
These days, crowds at major galleries clamour to see the work of Harlem-born painter/sculptor/writer and performance artist Faith Ringgold – but she has fought hard for that platform. Ringgold’s art is vivid and far-ranging (embracing over a dozen media, from her trademark narrative-based ‘story quilts’ to iconic masks and stained glass); it captures the soul of the US – its pop culture and politics – and lays it bare. It is fantastically vivacious, but also frequently speaks deeply uneasy truth to power.
Over the past decade, there has been a kind of mainstream awakening; Ringgold has proved a stand-out at acclaimed group shows including Tate Modern’s Soul Of A Nation: Art In The Age Of Black Power (2017), and inspires dedicated exhibitions. Her high-profile fans include Oprah Winfrey, Bill Clinton and the late Maya Angelou. A celebration of Ringgold’s art – with many previously unseen works – has just opened at London’s Serpentine Gallery; it is, Ringgold says, “a survey, not a retrospective”. Pieces from decades ago still feel intensely pertinent, and close to home.
A Man Kissing His Wife by Faith Ringgold, 1964 (Credit: 2018 Faith Ringgold/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, Courtesy Pippy Houldsworth Gallery, London)
In the 2004 book A View From The Studio (with Curlee Raven Holton), she explains: “I grew up in Harlem during the Great Depression. This does not mean I was poor and oppressed. We were protected from oppression and surrounded by a loving family.” Her neighbourhood was also home to the visionary jazz artists and poets that had fuelled the Harlem Renaissance; local legends like Langston Hughes and Duke Ellington were family friends. Ringgold’s mother, a talented seamstress and fashion designer, would later help her to develop the concept of ‘story quilts’: a portable alternative to large heavy canvases, ornately decorated, and updating a US folk-craft tradition with sharply modern statements.
Mama Can Sing, Papa Can Blow #1: Somebody Stole My Broken Heart by Faith Ringgold, 2004
Now aged 88, Ringgold speaks in warmly upbeat tones; she’s elegant yet steely, and also unmistakeably no-nonsense, exclaiming with a laugh: “In my family, there was no such thing as: ‘you can’t do that’… ‘yes, you can!’” In 1950, Ringgold became the first black scholar and woman to study art at the City College of New York (before her, only white men had been admitted to its ‘liberal arts programme’).
There was so much creativity around me: music, art, dance. But there was also the fact that as black people, we were denied a position in the art world – Faith Ringgold
Mainstream exclusion – and an eloquent, fearless response to it – has been a defining theme of Ringgold’s art. At school, she’d been struck by Horace Pippin’s 1942 painting John Brown Going To His Hanging, before finding out that Pippin was an African-American artist: the only one featured in her history books.
“There was so much creativity around me: music, art, dance,” she tells BBC Culture. “But there was also the fact that as black people, we were denied a position in the art world. Why was that happening? And are you going to let other people decide, or persevere?”
American People #9: The American Dream by Faith Ringgold, 1964 (Credit: Faith Ringgold/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, courtesy Pippy Houldsworth Gallery, London)
The 1960s brought crucial turning points – including the 1964 US Civil Rights Act, which finally ended segregation in public spaces – and that creatively febrile, socially turbulent era also sealed the activist spirit of Ringgold’s art. “The ‘60s were so vibrant,” she enthuses. “It was a period where everything was happening, every day. I caught everything I could – but I also got left out of all the shows.
“It was very difficult, but I didn’t know anything else. And I was able to create my art without any restrictions. Once you create an image, even if not many people see it, it’s a permanent form of expression.”
Ringgold’s expressions became increasingly visceral, in reaction to the US struggle for racial equality. There’s a devastating blend of beauty and brutality, and a righteous fury to key works such as Die (1967): its sprawl of bodies is reminiscent of Picasso’s Guernica (which Ringgold would often visit at NY’s Museum of Modern Art); in the midst of the violence are two kids – one black, one white – sheltering each other in a terrified embrace.
“Oh my God, I’d think about what upsets me about these riots that they weren’t even reporting,” recalls Ringgold. “I’d get home, and people would be listening to the radio, but they hadn’t heard anything – and there’s blood on the streets!” She admits: “When I started painting the blood, it was scary. I knew that I was painting death.”
The Flag is Bleeding #2 (American Collection #6) by Faith Ringgold, 1997 (Credit: 2018 Faith Ringgold/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, Courtesy Pippy Houldsworth Gallery)
At the same time, her art has presented an irrepressible life force, even if mainstream institutions were initially closed off to it; she mentions that she (unsuccessfully) tried to donate Dieto museums – it eventually sold, in 2011. Back in 1971, Ringgold endured a racial slur from a white male passer-by outside NY’s Whitney Museum, where she was participating in an anti-discrimination protest – she painted Hate Is A Sin Flag (smartly subverting the confederate design) in response; decades later, the piece was purchased and proudly displayed by the Whitney. In fact, Ringgold has never really adhered to any conventions; her ‘Free Angela’ poster (1971) for activist party the Black Panthers was never produced – though she did eventually give a print to Angela Davies in person. “Just because they were political in their way, doesn’t mean that they accepted my visual expression,” she says.
American People #15: Hide Little Children by Faith Ringgold, 1966 (Credit: 2018 Faith Ringgold/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, Courtesy Pippy Houldsworth Gallery, London)
There’s a current trend for socially conscious kids’ storybooks; Ringgold was writing and illustrating her own decades ago, including the autobiographical Tar Beach (with its recurring motif of a young girl with unconstrained dreams – soaring high above New York’s rooftops), and historical epic Aunt Harriet’s Underground Railroad In The Sky (paying homage to heroic slave abolitionist/activist Harriet Tubman). We Came To Americaportrays the racial diversity and immigrant experience that really shaped the US.
Even through its most unsettling themes, Ringgold’s art has always been pitched at the heart of the nation – whether she’s using a postage-stamp design to commemorate black power (1967), or displaying her work in public spaces: her larger-than-life jazz-dance frieze Groovin’ High(1987, inspired by Dizzy Gillespie) was shown above NYC’s High Line, and the joyous mosaic design of Flying Home appeared inside 125th Street subway station (depicting Harlem luminaries soaring past landmarks such as the Apollo Theatre). Her multi-media flair has extended to indie-games design (the lushly-hued Quilt Sudoku app), and she’s already working on her next new show, an irreverent celebration of ageing due to open at New York’s ACA Gallery in 2020.
“Old is phenomenal today!” she declares. “There’s so many old people in the world, and I’m one of them – I wanna be out there, producing art!” The power of perseverance is timeless; for Ringgold, the soul of America remains boundless.
Faith Ringgold is at the Serpentine Gallery, London, until 8 September 2019.
And if you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter, called The Essential List. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Culture, Capital and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.