Today Ringgold is known as one of the most significant artists to challenge systemic racism and sexism. The first European retrospective of the artist, activist and author opens at the Serpentine Gallery which features paintings, story quilts and posters spanning across five decades of Ringgold’s politically-charged oeuvre. The exhibition is as angry and harrowing as it is colourful and joyous. Rich textures and intricate embroideries leap out at you from the walls making it doubly jarring to note that such beautiful works narrate such a fractious national history.
Born in Harlem in 1930, Ringgold would grow up in the creative flourishing of black arts and literature known as the Harlem Renaissance (the poet Langston Hughes was a neighbour). But, of course, Ringgold would only encounter European masters whilst studying fine arts at the City College of New York: ‘Picasso, Matisse, Rembrandt. The college didn’t teach me anything about any black or African artists’ she explains.
Ringgold made it her mission to fill in the gaps of her art history knowledge through travel. ‘I wanted to know the art of the world’ she says. Scanning each room, you can see an impressive synthesis of non-Western influences throughout Ringgold’s work as she found inspiration in everything from Japanese paintings to Tibetan thangkas (brocaded silk hangings).
But it seems that Ringgold was still on the hunt for an authentic African American medium, and it was not until the 1980s that she first began her quilt works. 'Quilts', the artist explains, ‘were a way for Africans to bring their art over with them to America in disguise. Masks, sculpture and painting - those were all dropped. But quilt making continued’.
Faith Ringgold,The Flag is Bleeding #2 (American Collection #6), 1997. Private collection, courtesy Pippy Houldsworth Gallery, London © 2018 Faith Ringgold / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
These patchwork pieces are apt canvases for America’s checkered past. It is with these that Ringgold most vehemently waves the flag of social injustice, violently turning American iconography on its head; black slaves drown in the water next to the Statue of Liberty and red paint runs down chillingly on the star spangled banner. More cryptic works need longer to decode and indeed invite viewers to spend time reading their patterned surfaces. In Who's Afraid of Aunt Jemina (1983), Ringgold reimagines the story of Aunt Jemima, a fictional, stereotyped character who was the face of a pancake brand, with episodic texts telling of her entrepreneurial success. Above all, these fabric narratives wonderfully highlight Ringgold's adeptness as a storyteller.
With the opening of her retrospective coinciding with President Trump’s state visit to the capital, Ringgold’s work is a hot reminder that the fight for equality is far from finished. But the artist seems optimistic for the future: 'America is a great country and I believe things can and will get better’ – words which instil us all with a bit of faith.
|What||Faith Ringgold exhibition, Serpentine Gallery review|
|Where||Serpentine Gallery, Kensington Gardens, London, W2 3XA | MAP|
|Nearest tube||South Kensington (underground)|
06 Jun 19 – 08 Sep 19, 10:00 AM – 6:00 PM
|Website||Click here for more information|