In the early 1960s, when New York galleries were fighting over Warhol’s soup cans and Lichtenstein’s comic panels, Harlem artist Faith Ringgold was quietly making some of the most revolutionary art around. Though she was snubbed by galleries at the time, her early paintings, which depict the personal side of the civil rights movement, are now on display at the National Museum of Women in the Arts exhibit “American People, Black Light.”
“I wanted to tell my story, being an African-American woman living in America at this time,” says Ringgold. “I was determined to do it, not realizing what it would cost me.”
That included being overlooked by critics, snubbed by dealers and running afoul of the police. In 1970, Ringgold and two fellow artists were arrested and charged with desecrating the American flag byputting on a show featuring a variety of flag art — including Ringgold’s painting of a flag with the words “Die N—-r” hidden in the stars and stripes.
She lost the case but raised about $60,000 to help other artists and protesters with their legal fees. “We … were able to contribute that money to young people all over the country who were fighting for their freedom of speech,” Ringgold says.
Ringgold eventually found critical acclaim with her “story quilts” — grids of fabric sewn to canvas, painted and sometimes captioned. With this exhibit, however, the 82-year-old artist’s early work finally gets its due.
‘American People #18: The Flag Is Bleeding’, above
It “felt creepy” to depict blood on the American flag in this 1967 painting, but she had to do it, Ringgold says. After all, civil rights protesters were being beaten on the streets and blown away by fire hoses. “We didn’t get to see the violence that was going on in the cities. We didn’t get to see it in the newspapers, they didn’t make photographs of it, and we weren’t getting the true story of how much blood was being shed.”
Ringgold’s daughter Michele Wallace calls this 1966 painting “an uncanny self-portrait in disguise” in the exhibit’s catalog. The absence of a black woman in the painting highlights the fact that, at the time, many people expected artists to be male and models white, Wallace writes. Ringgold remembers being discouraged from depicting black people at all. “When I painted my first black face in college, my teacher said, ‘What is this exotic painting you are doing?’ And I said, ‘What’s exotic about painting a black face? I have them at home, in my house, on my mother, my father.’ ”
‘American People #1: Between Friends’, right
Inspiration for this 1963 work struck Ringgold as she watched interracial crowds gather for card games at her neighbor’s house. In this painting, Ringgold illustrates the intangible divide between apparent friends by separating them with beams of wood. “They were friends, but there was a cross between them. They went to separate churches … they could only get so close,” Ringgold says.