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Anne Azzi Davenport
Anne Azzi Davenport
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Faith Ringgold’s work can also be viewed at ACA Galleries in New York, in an exhibition titled “Prints and Multiples,” through June 17, 2022.
A major retrospective at the New Museum in New York looks at the remarkable life and work of artist Faith Ringgold, 91, who has fought for change in the art world and beyond for 60 years. Jeffrey Brown visited with the artist and has this profile for our arts and culture series, "CANVAS."
A major retrospective looks at the remarkable life and work of artist Faith Ringgold, who has fought for change in the art world and beyond for 60 years.
Jeffrey Brown has this profile for our arts and culture series, Canvas.
In 1967, Faith Ringgold painted a work called Die, a large work capturing the violence and chaos of the era.
Faith Ringgold, Artist:
You can't necessarily change what's going on, no, but I can say what I think about it. I'm free to do that. And I will.
Sixteen years later, she exploded Black stereotypes in a work called Who's Afraid of Aunt Jemima?
You turned her into a powerful woman.
Well, she was powerful in a way. She was doing something with those pancakes and stuff that nobody else had ever done.
At 91, Faith Ringgold is having a big moment. Six decades of her art are on view in a retrospective exhibition at the New Museum in New York titled American People, paintings, sculptures, works on fabric, and the story quilts, a mix of writing, painting, and quilting, for which she is best known.
Across the Hudson at her home in New Jersey, we had a chance to visit the artist, on this day signing prints in her large and bright studio surrounded by the tools of her trade, archives, posters, and artworks. Of her life's work, she says this:
I wanted to make a contribution to America. I thought, I have something to say about the American people. And what's great about it is, I could say it. Got freedom of speech.
You could say it through your art.
Her paintings from the early '60s portray Americans, Black and white, looking at one another, at themselves, at the artist, and at us, seeming to raise questions of power, as in one titled For Members Only.
Later, in larger paintings, came a more head-on confrontation, U.S. postage stamp commemorating the advent of Black power and a work that might have been painted in our own time, The Flag Is Bleeding.
I felt that I needed to record some of what was happening at that time.
Is that the right word, recording it through art? Is that what you were doing?
Yes. It felt powerful that I could express it, that I could have my say.
Ringgold grew up and spent most of her life in Harlem, encouraged in her art by her mother, Willie Posey, a seamstress and clothing designer. Years later, she captured a memory of her early life in Tar Beach, summer nights on a Harlem rooftop.
She studied art at City College and set out to find her place.
I thought I had a right to, and I thought I should and I could.
But there were barriers.
And I did.
Oh, yes, lots of barriers. Your art is not welcome here. And you're not welcome here.
And people have different ways of saying that, you know? But I found my way.
One way was through activism, protests and posters for civil rights and Black empowerment, demands for the art world to open up to women and artists of color.
Women, she says, were literally out of the picture. So she put them back, including in a mural-sized painting for the Correctional Institute for Women at Rikers Island, which has now been restored and appears in the exhibition.
And did you feel like you needed to make some noise?
Yes, you got to be heard some way. You got to have some courage somewhere for being a woman and for being Black, too. I just can't accept rejection on that level.
She challenged art trends by using craft techniques like quilting and art history by adding women and African Americans into the story, as in her 1990s series The French Collection, a family dancing in the Louvre, a quilting bee amid van Gogh's sunflowers at Arles, a Parisian cafe.
Well, I was giving myself the freedom to take another look at the possibilities of what life could be. I didn't have to just settle for what I was given, especially when it was so unsettling.
New Museum artistic director Massimiliano Gioni is one of the exhibitions curators.
Massimiliano Gioni, Artistic Director, New Museum:
She's opening doors and windows and making the house of art much more complex and hospitable.
The great thing about seeing this work together, seeing 60 years of this work is, you understand how many times Faith Ringgold was right before her time.
The story quilts contain literal written stories around their edges, and those beginning with Tar Beach would lead to a way for Ringgold to reach new generations, through children's books. She's now published more than 20 books with beautiful art and stories of history and inspiration.
Tar Beach has the famous, anyone can fly, right?
Right. All you got to do is try. Yes, indeed, you can do it.
In 2020, Ringgold lost her husband, Burdette, known as Birdie, after nearly 60 years together. And the pandemic has been tough on this socially active woman.
But she continues to be surrounded and supported by two loving daughters, Michele, a writer and cultural critic, and Barbara, a linguist and educator, both of whom help run Ringgold's Anyone Can Fly Foundation.
Ringgold herself is now working on a project about aging, but, always in charge, she wasn't ready to show it yet. She was willing to say how she felt seeing her life's work on display.
I'm glad I can look at it and not say, oh, I wonder why I didn't do this and that? I did.
You look at it with pride and…
I look at it with pride, yes, because I have a right as an American to create the kind of art I want. So, why not use that?
Faith Ringgold's American People exhibition is at the New Museum in New York through June 5, and then travels to the de Young museum in San Francisco.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown in New York.
Just wonderful to look at all of that art.
Thank you, Jeff Brown, and thank you, Faith Ringgold.
Watch the Full Episode
In his more than 30-year career with the NewsHour, Brown has served as co-anchor, studio moderator, and field reporter on a wide range of national and international issues, with work taking him around the country and to many parts of the globe. As arts correspondent he has profiled many of the world's leading writers, musicians, actors and other artists. Among his signature works at the NewsHour: a multi-year series, “Culture at Risk,” about threatened cultural heritage in the United States and abroad; the creation of the NewsHour’s online “Art Beat”; and hosting the monthly book club, “Now Read This,” a collaboration with The New York Times.
Anne Azzi Davenport is the Senior Coordinating Producer of CANVAS at PBS NewsHour.
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