Every artist tells a story, but not every artist can tell one as comprehensive as Faith Ringgold.
On display at the de Young Museum in San Francisco until Nov. 27, “Faith Ringgold: American People” walks viewers through Ringgold’s artistic evolution. Though the exhibition’s concept is simple, its content is anything but. Ringgold’s collection is a peek into her creative vision that reimagines the plight of being a Black woman during the Civil Rights Movement.
“American People” is a collection of paintings started in 1963 that portray different Black realities in the United States. “American People Series #2: For Members Only,” is bone chilling; the dark piece distresses viewers with white ghoulish figures that look dead on at them. The painting is inspired by a traumatic memory of Ringgold’s during her childhood, but moves beyond simplicity and, instead, serves as a haunting reminder of white exceptionalism.
The collection contains many paintings that feature similar white, ghostlike figures. “Early Works #15: They Speak No Evil” spotlights these shapes with uniformity; they have similar facial expressions, outfits and hairstyles. These images are certainly not easy on the eyes, but they are not meant to be — including multiple paintings in this style serves as a reminder of constant white surveillance and the subsequent discomfort of being in one’s body. Their almost hypnotizing nature makes it nigh impossible for viewers to look away.
The initial paintings in the collection are Ringgold’s early works, taking spectators in chronological order from her first to last piece. “Early Works #25: Self-Portrait” is a vibrant, geometric-style painting that illuminates Ringgold’s femininity and power as both an artist and a storyteller. Ringgold appears torso up, with her arms slightly crossed at a 90-degree angle surrounded by bold colors and shapes.
“Black Light Series #12: Party Time” from the Black Light Series is one of a kind. The series was inspired by Ringgold’s desire to depict Black Power through a unique approach to color theory. In observing Ringgold’s exhibition, it’s clear that she was constantly challenging herself by undertaking different concepts and styles. “Party Time” depicts a man and woman; the woman is defined by bright orange and yellows while the man floats in deep blues. The figures’ hands are outstretched and their mouths agape. The disposition and color of these works are meant to express solidarity with newly independent African nations by illustrating self-reliance and determination.
The exhibition best represents Ringgold’s understanding of intersectionality as an artist. One room displays “The Feminist Series” and another “Protest Art,” but all of the pieces in the exhibition intertwine. In a statement delivered by Ringgold at the People’s Flag Show in 1970 she announced, “Black Women Art is Political. Women Art is Political. Art is Political. Women…. Is Political. Black……….. Is Political.” The intersectionality of her works is a powerful testament to Ringgold’s range as a creator.
Ringgold’s quilts are the most dynamic parts of “American People.” No two quilts are the same, and neither are the stories painted on them. The quilts were inspired by Ringgold’s desire to blend her feminist perspective with non-Western art forms. “Dinner at Gertrude Stein’s” from “The French Collection” is a humorous take on Stein’s eclectic taste. Viewers are entranced by each delicate detail of the artist’s living room, including the guests in her home. Quilts from “The American Collection” feature stunning and lively prints that illustrate the impact of Black women on American history. On some of the quilts, Ringgold writes her own narrative in each square — an extra didactic touch and another credit to her devotion to detailed storytelling.
“Faith Ringgold: American People” is a comprehensive, well-designed collection that honors Ringgold’s influence on propelling conversations surrounding race in America. Its compelling pieces successfully expose viewers to the complex realities of the Civil Rights Movement and Ringgold’s artistic prowess.