That’s one of the many messages in the comprehensive survey “American People, Black Light: Faith Ringgold’s Paintings of the 1960s,” opening June 21 at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. They are paintings of a nation convulsing from civil rights and feminist ideals. They are the faces and bodies of people going through massive social change during a time when the abstract traditions of Pollock and De Kooning held sway, and minimalism and pop art — cubes and commercial imagery — were ascending. It is a message that has come back around, though it’s taken decades.
The 49-piece exhibition unfolds chronologically, taking up eight galleries and provoking visitors with paintings of enormous size, arresting intimacy and unsettling intensity. They are marked by large, emoting eyes, her signature U-shaped line descending from the eyebrows around the nose, and “high-keyed” blues, reds, and greens, colors that dominate not with brightness, but with depth. It is a style she calls super-realism — one that demands that viewers engage.
The pictures are of people alone with their thoughts, alone with their mirrors, or using other people as mirrors. They are blacks and whites together in crowds, silent, or smug, or alienated. Or, as in the case of 1967’s “Die,” dripping blood, and savaging one another. There are words painted inside American flags, black and brown faces alight with the beauty of self-love, along with posters of revolution:Free Women, Free All Political Prisoners, All Power to the People.
“Every time people struggle, they survive, they do better and then they forget and they end up back where they started from,” Ringgold says. People learn to speak up, to make themselves seen and heard and counted, then suddenly they stop doing those things. “It has happened over and over again. It is so sad that it takes so long for people to understand what needs to happen in order to be free.”
Ringgold, 82, a Harlem native, was an icon of the Black Arts Movement, a conscious, community-connected, politically engaged artistic aesthetic that shared philosophical corollaries with the black power movement of the 1960s and 1970s. But she is most celebrated for her revival of African American story quilts beginning in the late 1970s. After the early 1970s, Ringgold says people didn't want to show her early paintings, “and I mean they didn’t show it,” she says. “It was a political time, but not with art,” which was “beautifully abstract, but abstract. And here I come with these images of black and white people and a lot of people got angry at me.”