Work of its own: the publication of Faith Ringgold: Politics Power
Aug 29, 2022
As we welcome another new season, I look back on an evening of mid May, when I finally went to see Faith Ringgold’s critically acclaimed exhibition Faith Ringgold: American People (Feb 17 - Jun 05, 2022), at the New Museum, New York. It was truly a unique retrospective, mainly because unlike most retrospectives, covering an artist's entire life and work, Ringgold is still alive and making work at the age 91, and is still able to look back and reflect on key moments and works in her career. The works that everyone cannot seem to stop talking about are her spectacular quilts that she began to make in the 1980s. While these works are important and a feast for the eyes, there were other works that caught my attention that night which I keep thinking about even now.
At 91 years old you expect much of her work to be amazing - or possibly archaic - reflecting social norms and styles that today seem outdated and old fashioned, especially works made early in her career. Yet, the complete opposite seems to be true. It was her works from the 1960s through the early 1980s that stunned me. They are confrontational, at times uncomfortable and force the viewer to evaluate their stance in society today, and what that stance can be.
Faith’s work however is the exact opposite, and her early work, particularly of the 1960s through the early 1980s is powerful, moving, and feels current in its message. A gut punch of clarity and focused intention, her works from this time were powerful and the messages they held felt current. Ringgold reminds us that it is work that has its own distinct voice and message that stands up to time because her works at their core, the original drive to create these difficult pieces, is still relevant today over 30 years later. For example, the frustration, anger, and overwhelming sense of tragedy that one has looking at the US legal and justice system, like the often ignored murders of people of color in striking patterns and how because of the color of their skin, their murders are ignored until the evidence is so large, we have to question ourselves, how did we let this go on for long? Why did no one pay attention? Where was the police? Whether it is children in Atlanta that were murdered in the 1980s (a case that is still not solved) or today with the Chicago Strangler, an unconfirmed serial killer in Illinois that has killed over 50+ women of color since 2001. The lives of People of Color are still not given the weight and attention they deserve, and a change needs to happen.
When leaving the exhibition and going through the museum bookstore (of course), I was thinking about the powerful set of works I just saw, of The Screaming Woman and Atlanta Children, (1981). Heartbreaking, breathtaking, and in their own way an artistic beauty. Memorializing a tragic period of time, and the emotions that were overwhelming.
It was works like those that I wanted more time to spend time with and learn about. In a museum setting though, it is hard to let yourself go completely and emotionally. In the sanitized clean space, with its white walls devoid of personality and crowds of people, oftentimes crowded around one work making it not possible to actually spend time with a piece without feeling like you are blocking someone else’s view. It feels disconnected from the subject of many of the works, the setting too professional. In a way it feels inappropriate, restraining the emotion these works bring to make them more palatable for a museum viewer.
I was wishing there was a catalog, just of her works from 1967-1981. Works that reminded me that as an artist, you should not be afraid of confronting and contemplating challenging subject matter into your art practice and to create work that makes people sad, angry, even at times forcing a viewer to confront their own guilt and complacency within history. It is this type of art that often is not fully appreciated in the time it is made, and only with the distance of time fully appreciated. Imagine my delight when perusing the museum store, I discovered the publication Faith Ringgold: Politics Powerful.
Instead of a long intro by a single writer, there are descriptions for each work written by two writers, which are accompanied frequently with enlightening and at times bald honesty with self awareness of the artist. Ringgold can identify the dark parts of life that are affected by her own personal world, as well as society as a whole. Whether it is the Attica Prison Riots of 1971, the injustices suffered by incarcerated women, and especially how women, in particular women of color, but continually have to fight to be recognized and valued in the art world, to be seen just as their fellow artists that are white and/or male.
The publication is organized and designed efficiently; straight to details I want to know and learn about. The catalog is set-up as seriously as the subject matter it contains. No nonsense, no silly fonts or out of place essays. Each entry about a work is pure and to the point. Presented chronologically from 1967-1981 and approximately every two pages focuses on a key work from this time period accompanied by a description of the piece. Each entry adds fascinating and important information that an average viewer may not know, and answers questions that a sensed art viewer will appreciate. What ties each entry about a work together, is at the beginning of each entry a quote by Ringgold reflecting on the work. For example for her Atlanta Child Murder series she states, “As a result of feelings that were getting out of control, I began making work that I called wild. The works were about the slain Atlanta children. I wanted to recapture the mothers’ pain when they identified their dead children”.
The writing is what you want to know when viewing these works; it adds context, providing an extra layer of intimacy to her works that enforces their already rich history. Now that you know, it reinforces the special quality that makes it art, rather than detracting. The text for each work that is illustrated is concise, to the point, interesting, with an undertone of respect. What makes this catalog enjoyable and important is that it describes what was going on in Ringgold’s life in that moment when each work was being created. It feels like I am getting a peek into how the artist’s brain works. It answers the questions I will never be able to ask her in person. What influenced her in creating a work, how did these moments in history affect her and what she was doing, that eventually made their way into her art.
She turned feelings of helplessness, the knowing feeling of being out of control in the situation you are in, these overwhelming feelings of powerlessness, and took those feelings to make herself stronger, and through that created work that strikes you and touches not only your mind but your soul, your humanity. Through her activism and continual desire to give back and help others grow, she has become an artist whose work and legacy will stand the test of time.
Faith Ringgold: American People was on view at New Museum in New York from Feb - Jun, 2022. For more informatin about the exhibiton please click here. You can find out more about the publication and purchase it here.