“Mhm, that’s right,” Faith Ringgold says, reading the text at the bottom of her 1972 work United States of Attica: “This map of American violence is incomplete. Please write in whatever you find lacking.” We’re discussing one violent event in particular—the massacre that rocked Tulsa, Oklahoma 100 years ago—when it hits me: The massacre almost took place during Ringgold’s lifetime. The artist is now 90, and about as spry as a nonagenarian can be.
Ringgold was born and raised in Harlem, when the neighborhood’s renaissance was in full swing. (Langston Hughes and Duke Ellington lived just around the corner.) She moved into her home and studio in Englewood, New Jersey, in 1995, though not without difficulty. Ringgold knew hers wouldn’t be the only Black family—Eddie Murphy and Whitney Houston were part of the community—but her white neighbors put up such a fuss when she started building an addition for her studio that she had to take them to court. She won, of course, and some neighbors apologized—upon realizing that Ringgold was a star. At that point, it had been years since Oprah Winfrey commissioned one of Ringgold’s signature “story quilts” as a birthday gift for Maya Angelou. And yet, it’s only relatively recently, following the MoMA’s acquisition of a major work by Ringgold in 2016, and a 2017 Brooklyn Museum group show, that the era-defining artist has gotten her due.
For as long as she’s been an artist, Ringgold has been a storyteller, and she sure does have stories. Over the course of three-and-a-half hours, we barely scratch the surface. Like the time she was arrested for organizing a show on desecrating the American flag and was escorted to the Tombs, the infamous detention center in Lower Manhattan. Or when she left eggs and sanitary napkins all over the Whitney Museum of American Art while campaigning for it to exhibit more Black women artists. Once, she almost sold David Rockefeller a painting of an American flag emblazoned—very subtly—with the N word. (Upon tilting their heads to read it, the collector’s reps hastily fled.) And that wasn’t the only occasion in which Ringgold snuck subversive messages into her work. You’ll find, for example, that the words “Black power” in the painting below, from 1967, appear against a white backdrop that spells out “white power”—though only if you crane your neck to the right.
The current survey of Ringgold’s nearly six-decade-long career at Glenstone, a major American art museum that spans 300 acres of Potomac, Maryland, is full of the tales she spins on her story quilts. Quilting has a long tradition in the Ringgold family; the techniques the artist learned from her mother, the fashion designer Willi Posey, go all the way back to their enslaved ancestors. Ringgold came to quilting out of practicality; she was born with severe asthma, and had to rule out sculpture due to the dust. Painting has always been a part of her practice, but transporting a large canvas was nowhere near as easy as rolling up a quilt and tucking it under her arm.
Ringgold uses story quilts to put forth her own narratives. Her first, Who’s Afraid of Aunt Jemima? (1983), was a repudiation of the archetypal “mammy” portrayals of Black women in art. Many of the hundreds that have followed since are personal. For years, Ringgold used works like Faith Ringgold’s Over 100 Pound Weight Loss Performance Story Quilt (1991), which is among those on view at Glenstone, to hold herself accountable for her weight. She says her next series is on aging. (Also up next: a complete takeover of the New Museum, slated for early next year.)
Though she is certainly not scared of confrontation, a significant portion of Ringgold’s practice is purposely family-friendly. She created the app Quiltuduko, an art-making take on Sudoku, and has published 17 children’s books, starting in 1991 with Tar Beach. Perhaps unwittingly, Ringgold practically created a literary genre, which has taken off since last summer’s racial reckoning; Ibram X. Kendi’s Antiracist Baby, for example, is now a New York Times no. 1 bestseller.
In the 1960s, when Ringgold’s activism with the Black power movement became fully intertwined with her practice, she came to a conclusion: Works need to merit their space. American People Series #20: Die (1967), a mural-scale homage to Picasso’s Guernica, certainly deserves the six-by-12 feet it’s taken up at the MoMA since 2016. The figures in it vary in race and age, but they are all splattered with blood. Ringgold says that when she painted such harrowing, chaotic carnage, she was terrified: “I saw Die as a prophecy of our times,” she recalls. “Painting blood is serious. You can feel it. And I’ve seen it. People used to have riots all up and down the streets of New York, and you’d see the blood in the streets and look for where it was coming from, who had it on them.”
To Ringgold, the ‘60s aren’t too far off from the present-day. “Oh yeah, we just keep repeating the same crap,” she says. But she still doesn’t doubt that things will eventually change. “It's a change that's been going on since since the beginning, since the people came up and looked around and saw that each one of them was different. They had to decide who was the best, and they've been deciding and deciding and deciding.” She pauses, then laughs. “And I guess they'll just keep doing that until they find something else better to do.”