In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Ringgold’s art and activism became more organized and took on more of an overtly feminist bent. She organized protests by black artists demanding their work be shown at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art and Museum of Modern Art.
“I started out trying to open up museums to African Americans, because we weren’t getting any opportunity to show our work,” Ringgold says. But she noticed the curators would invite only the men in to talk. She worried that all her agitating seemed to make it easier for black men alone to walk through doors that were once closed. That’s when she became a feminist, Ringgold says. “I don’t need to be struggling for something that’s against me. I’m for others, but I’m also for me.” A protest at the Whitney museum led to exhibitions of works by artists Betye Saar and Barbara Chase-Riboud in the museum’s 1970 Sculpture Biennial, the first black women ever included. Ringgold herself has never had an exhibition at the Whitney.
Even all these years later, Ringgold says she’s excited to be showing her early work. “I’m excited because it’s in Washington D.C., and it’s the only women’s museum [dedicated to women in the arts] in the country.” From 1969 to 2010, she says she didn’t show her ’60s work at all, which is why much of it remains in her possession. But “I did not stop working,” she says. She has constantly reinvented herself, writing her autobiography in words, or writing her autobiography in quilts. She’s written 17 children’s books. From 1987 until 2002, she taught at University of California at San Diego. Her publicly commissioned work “People Portraits,” 52 mosaics, was installed in the Los Angeles Civic Center subway station in 2010. She’s created a deck of Obama family playing cards. And she is working on a series of acrylic paintings that will be the illustrations for a forthcoming book “Harlem Renaissance Party,” to be published by Harper Collins.
In her autobiography, she wrote: “I have always wanted to tell my story, or, more to the point, my side of the story.”
To do that, “you have to stay in the game,” she says. You can’t be turned around, or turned out, or stopped. “People don’t mean any harm,” Ringgold says. “Don’t let them do you harm.”
“Just keep working.”
American People, Black Light: Faith Ringgold’s Paintings of the 1960s
at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, 1250 New York Ave. NW, June 21-Nov. 10. For more information, call 202-783-5000 or visit www.nmwa.org.