New museum retrospective shows how Faith Ringgold’s paintings inspired women of color, from art academies to Rikers Island

Tasked with creating a mural at Rikers Island Women’s Correctional Facility, Faith Ringgold met with inmates to decide what to paint. She was struck by their sense of hopelessness, so she portrayed women in roles that few prisoners could imagine performing. She painted doctors and ministers and professional basketball players. Most were black-skinned like Ringgold herself, as she made known by including her self-portrait.

Although Ringgold was already a successful artist when she completed the mural in 1971, she was still more of an anomaly than the majority of her subjects. Black women were almost entirely neglected by galleries and received negligible professional support from most of their male peers. The Rikers Island mural is a tacit acknowledgment of his struggles. “For the Women’s House” also foreshadows her current status, at 91, as one of the most inspiring artists of her generation.

A major retrospective at the New Museum convincingly traces the trajectory of Ringgold’s career. In addition to “For the Women’s Home,” the galleries contain dozens of paintings, sculptures, and quilts—as well as illustrations for her children’s books—created in obscurity and fame over six productive decades.

Like Ringgold herself, much of the work is overtly political, protesting the treatment of women and black people in a nation dominated by sexism and bigotry. The work does not fear violence. “I wanted to show some of the hell that had broken out in America,” she wrote in her memoir, describing the motivation behind “The Flag Is Bleeding,” a mural completed in 1967.

Ringgold’s painted quilts are also political, albeit in different ways. Some are autobiographical and include diaristic writings, such as “Change: Faith Ringgold’s Over 100 Pound Weight Loss Performance Story Quilt”, completed in 1991, which dissects cultural biases about body image through personal history.

Other quilts seem to be more fantastical and the political content is not so obvious. The most notable belong to a series called “The French Collection”, painted in the early 90s, retracing the travels of an African-American painter named Willia Marie Simone in the Paris of the 1920s.

Simone does everything: she poses nude for Picasso and Matisse. She dances with her daughters at the Louvre, watched over by the Mona Lisa. She attends a birthday party for Josephine Baker. She holds a sunflower quilting bee in Arles, maintained by Vincent van Gogh. (The fact that van Gogh would have been dead for several decades is, in a way, explained by the presence of both Harriet Tubman and Rosa Parks; Simone is not a woman to be led by the arrow of time.)

As Ringgold’s fictional alter ego, Simone not only lives Ringgold’s dream, but allows Ringgold to live it vicariously, freeing herself from the story. Dreaming like this is a political act. When she created “For the Women’s House,” Ringgold brought that kind of political dream work to the women of Rikers Island. Her autobiography – painted, written and lived – has compounded the effect, especially for countless women of color.

The flag is still bleeding, and the blood must be seen. Ringgold is always there to testify, but his art also has the ability to bring healing.

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