Exhibition review of the survey of Faith Ringgold at the Serpentine Gallery in 2019.
Faith Ringgold at Serpentine Gallery, London
6th June – 8th September 2019
By Rafael Powell
On the 8th of October 1930, in Harlem Hospital New York, Faith Ringgold was brought into the world, presumably kicking and screaming. Since then, she’s been trying to return the favour by pulling us kicking and screaming into hers. The youngest of Andrew Louis Jones’s and Willi Posey Jones’s three children, Ringgold grew up in the slow setting glow of the Harlem Renaissance, a period defined by an eruption of creative production across the New York neighbourhood. At its core, it challenged notions of White Supremacy by eking out an African identity, independent of the racial notions of the USA. As a reaction against the Jim Crow era (a political and social White Supremacist administration), the Harlem Renaissance allowed for the communication of a positive, self-defined black identity, clearly inherited by Ringgold.
But, as history has shown, for each social movement there tends to be an opposing movement. Jim Crow laws continued to be enforced in the South until 1965 and Harlem was, until recent gentrification, one of the poorest neighbourhoods in New York. While almost all of her work on show concerns the USA directly or indirectly, Ringgold’s attitudes towards the nation are understandably complex. In American Collection #1: We Came to America (1997), an African American statue of liberty watches as a sea filled of black bodies drown at her feet. In another from the same year, The American Collection #6: The Flag is Bleeding, a red-eyed mother, bleeding from the waist, clutches two children at her feet. The flag of the USA, also bleeding, is imprinted over both mother and children. These quilts do not condemn nor absolve. They give image to a legacy of state-sanctioned suffering.
Ringgold’s survey is almost inappropriately relevant, considering much of her work was created during the Civil Rights Movement, one of the greatest nexuses of racial tension in the history of the US. Cast along the current political climate of uncertainty – identity politics, social media political influence, polarised but equally visceral responses to the Trump administration, Brexit – Ringgold’s survey of work displays an entire career of an artist coming to grips with many of the challenges we still face today. Ringgold’s understanding of American society seems most evident in American People #19: U.S. Postage Stamp (1964). In the painting, 100 pairs of eyes look out from a massive postage stamp. African American faces and the words “Black Power” intersect the stamp with an X. Hidden across the stamp, like a cypher waiting to be cracked, are the words, “White Power”. Here, the White Supremacist is everywhere, but hidden from plain view. They Speak No Evil (1963), is comprised of six white-faced men in suits standing in front of a Gothic rose window – missionaries of a new world order. They stare blankly outwards, homogenous, but not similar enough to be clones of one another. Rather, they are manifestations of the same ideal, a sinister cabal of ghouls staring immortally from their altars of power. The 60 years that have past and the contemporary relevance suggest futility in resistance – as it was so it shall ever be.
Inspired by the various social tensions of the Civil Rights Movement, Ringgold produces a symbolic portraits of the people she saw in her American People series. The ambiguous relationship of whiteness and its socio-political power appears throughout Ringgold’s American People series. In American People #14: American Youth (1964), a lazy-eyed boy sits on a chair amongst geometric shapes floating behind him. From the mélange looms an abstracted profile of a face in white, with sharp, silhouetted features. Reflecting the sentiment of the Postage Stamp, the spectre of whiteness is everywhere.
Yet for all of this, there really is a warmth to the American life, a warmth that is conveyed in Ringgold’s work. In one of her most recent pieces, Jazz Stories: Mama can Sing Papa can Blow #1: Somebody Stole My Broken Heart (2004), a jazz band and dancing woman are surrounded by bright oranges, reds and streaks of blue. It borders on exoticisation, but misses the mark. It’s fun. It’s life. It’s Jazz.
In perhaps Ringgold’s most well-known work, Who’s Afraid of Aunt Jemima (1983), Ringgold tells the story of a fictional Jemima Blakely, Aunt Jemima, stitched on a quilt. The story tracks Jemima’s family through several generations. Starting with her grandparents, moving onto Jemima’s death and ending with the continuation of her line through her grandchildren. The quilt is constructed of regular but unique patches, manifesting how we stitch ourselves into the lives of one another, creating a tapestry of our intersecting lives. The narrative of Jemima Blakely’s life is stitched in writing along portraits of key member of her life. The power of the piece is really twofold. Firstly, it contextualises the life of an ‘Aunt Jemima’ – the idea of the the domestic African woman who cooks and cleans – but also demonstrates the rich tapestry of connections present in all lives. The unnamed women that border the quilt suggest this continuation. Each person’s life stitches itself into the lives of others and so on, so that the interconnected web of human associations create an endless cascade of collapsing, dividing branches, a quilt of lives. Ringgold first learnt free-hand quilting techniques from her mother, Willi Posey, a fashion designer. Willi, in turn, learnt quilting from her grandmother Betsy, who learnt it from her mother Susie Shannon. In this way, the use of quilting is subversive in Ringgold’s work. It is a personal skill that is learnt through familial channels, not through the institution.
This exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery is the first review of Ringgold’s work in the UK, bringing together artworks from over 40 years. Arranged chronologically, the show tracks the development of the artist, from her early paintings and first quilts, to her paper cut-outs and mixed-media narrative artworks. As an artist who is critically established, but unforgivably unknown, the show ensures that Ringgold’s legacy is stitched into the canon of future generations. Although, as noted by Ringgold, her artistic trajectory has had an upside; “(t)hey did me a favour by ignoring me, that way I could do what the hell I wanted…”
 Ringgold, Faith, ‘Faith Ringgold, Who I Am and Why,’interviewed by Melanee Harvey, IRAAA Museum August 7, 2013, http://iraaa.museum.hamptonu.edu/page/Faith-Ringgold%2C-Who-I-Am-and-Why.July 6, 2019