Re-patching Black Identities: Faith Ringgold’s ‘Story Quilts’
By Lara X. Mashayekh
Faith Ringgold has been instrumental in weaving African-American lives and artworks into the fabric of the Western art historical canon. During the late 1960s and 1970s Ringgold served as a key leader in the activist movements; protesting in proto-feminist artist campaigns and producing works that promoted Black Power in order to redefine and reclaim her African-American identity.
By the 1970s and beyond, much of Ringgold’s work was inspired by the non-Western traditions of African mask making and Tibetan thangkas, whereby she began to explore the medium of fabric to create three-dimensional forms and enliven her figures. Through the mediums of sculpture and painting on fabrics, Ringgold wilfully revolted against the mainstream advents of art, making haunting figurines of masks and bodies that expressed the horrific nature of racial oppression in America, especially vis-à-vis stories of drug abuse, physical violence, and female oppression.
Beginning in the 1980s, Ringgold began to create her notorious ‘story quilts’, for which she gained international recognition. The story quilts served as vehicles for merging together the narrative components of her family’s oratory tradition with the historical content of the African-American experience from various female perspectives. Through her artistic sensitivity to the integral role that fabric and quilts has played in women’s history, as well as perhaps the relationship to the African storytelling tradition of the ‘Dilemma Tale’, Ringgold dramatically refabricates the past and presents histories of black women’s tales within American social history; promoting the optimistic possibility for future change in the process. Through the combination of the quilt format, stitchery, photo-etching, and the interweaving of traditional folktales and contemporary stories, she gives power to women’s voices, while men lose their dominant position in the composition. As argued by art historian Thalia Gouma-Peterson, Ringgold reinterprets the ‘Dilemma Tale’, whereby problems are posed but left unresolved, by ‘integrating ironic details’ and reinforcing black people’s nuanced viewpoints and their ‘full humanity’. Ringgold thus is reinstating her identity as a successful African-American woman in the United States.
Ringgold integrates various techniques that derive from the African-American quilting tradition to convey her experience as a woman of colour. In the last of her five-series quilts from the 1990s, Ringgold produced a series called Woman on a Bridge, which highlights the dreamlike idealism of women claiming ownership over bridges in New York and San Francisco. The text is embedded within the sky as the figures soar above the bridge and buildings. Her quilting pattern of using eight triangles derives from the designs of the people from the Kuban Kingdom in Central Africa. The juxtaposition of the triangular forms in the bridges met with the African polyrhythmic and geometric patterns in the quilt and floral motifs unify the composition, while the folk-art aspects convey the importance of the narrative content over the technical qualities.
Ringgold’s childhood memories of growing up in Harlem during the Great Depression are made manifest on the canvas through the silkscreened and crafted quilt figures. Ringgold introduces the subject-matter of female liberation by taking flight and overcoming the patriarchal obstacles (as envisioned in the form of a bridge and the female body in motion). She perceives bridges as being divisive ‘masculine’ structures, just as quilts are traditionally affiliated with women. The George Washington Bridge is used frequently in the background and story of the series,Tar Beach I and II. The young and courageous eight-year-old heroine, Cassie Louise Lightfoot, embodies this desire, for she ‘claims’ the bridge as her own and offers her father the Union Building, in order to quell his financial troubles. She wistfully encourages her brother that ‘anyone can fly’ and lives completely at peace in her magical world. Women thus take on powerful roles in each of the compositions, as being in active motion rather than passive subdued positions, thus dominating the canvas. Ringgold’s expressivity and personal inspiration for creating such female characters further imbues the work with feminist significance and emotive qualities.
Upon visiting Europe and familiarising herself with the works of Impressionists and Cubists, she felt compelled to rectify the fact that people of colour were abjectly excluded within the European tradition of art, leading her to create The French Collection series. This 12-part ‘story quilt’ saga reflects her interest in breaking the boundaries of social art with her pictorial narratives. Ringgold creates her alter-ego, Willia Marie Simone, a 16-year-old black girl who runs away from the cotton fields of Georgia and moves to the streets of Harlem in the Roaring Twenties. Willia miraculously ends up in Paris as a model and artist, encountering key figures by the likes of Gertrude Stein, James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, Nora Zeale Hurston, Matisse, and Hemingway. Her willful merging of famous European artists with famous Americans of colour exemplifies that black people have an essential role in Western cultural life.
This quilt pays homage to eight African-American women as they boldly present a vibrant flower quilt to commemorate their achievements. The noteworthy figures include Madam C.J. Walker, Sojourner Truth, Ida Wells, Fannie Lou Hammer, Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks, Mary McLeod Bethune, and Ella Baker. Set in Arles, the focal point of Van Gogh’s artist colony in the South of France, Ringgold deliberately references the traditions of ‘primitivism’ in Western art and the exoticisation of foreign places and people in Post-Impressionist works and beyond. Van Gogh stands passively with a vase of flowers, as if he were presenting them with a gift. By quilting in famous figures, she also introduces the notion that the American quilt tradition may have played a critical role in paving the way for the social reforms of the American late-twentieth century; just as Van Gogh’s sunflowers dramatically changed the development of modern European painting. The blurring between historical fact and fiction is paramount in this collection, as it also memorialises to the role of the artist’s mother, Willi Posey. Posey collaborated with her daughter on multiple occasions, and was at the heart of her inspiration for creating her ‘story quilts’. What’s more, the fact that Ringgold’s distant great-great-great-grandmother was a Southern slave who quilted for her ‘slave masters’ suggests that such works have a deeper intrinsic value of being inextricably linked to the artist’s personal and artistic experience. Thus, Faith Ringgold mythologises her own story a lot in her work (similarly to what Warhol did), and viewers can grasp a sense of her artistic evolution and raw honesty.
One of Ringgold’s greatest contributions to the arts is the manner in which she blurs the distinction between the separation of craft and fine arts with her medium-multiplicity. Quilts bear a deep significance for women, particularly with regards to African slaves who would intricately create symbolic codes to communicate biblical, and informational meanings. Thus, the self-biographical aspects of her work reflect her role as a distinguished, independent woman of colour who redefines what it means to be an American, by re-evaluating her cultural and political history. Continuously breaking down social constructs and political barriers, as well as always remaining involved with politics, protest, education, and feminism, Faith Ringgold is undoubtedly one of the most controversial, relevant, and commendable contemporary artists in America.
Cameron, Dan. Dancing at the Louvre: Faith Ringgold’s French Collection and Other Story Quilts, University of California Press, Ltd., Berkeley and Los Angeles, California: 1998.
The Guggenheim Museums and Foundation, ‘Faith Ringgold’, 5 October, 2018. https://www.guggenheim.org/artwork/artist/faith-ringgold.
Haugland, H. Kristina. Philadelphia Museum of Art: Handbook of the Collections, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia: 1995. [Accessed online] 5 October, 2018, http://www.philamuseum.org/collections/permanent/86892.html.
Ringgold, Faith. We Flew Over the Bridge: The Memoirs of Faith Ringgold, Duke University Press, Durham: 2005.
Smith, Sidonie. ‘Bodies of Evidence: Jenny Saville, Faith Ringgold, and Janine Antoni Weigh In’ in Interfaces: Women, Autobiography, Image, Performance, edited by Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson 19-42, 132-159, University of Michigan Press, Michigan 2002.
Witzling, R. Mara. Voicing Our Visions: Writings by Women Artists, Universe Publishing, New York: 1991.