American People, Black Light


“For the Women’s House,” 1971; Courtesy Rose M. Singer Center, New York; © Faith Ringgold 1971A simple definition of the word storyteller is someone who tells or writes stories or anecdotes. When it comes to visual storytellers, however, few are as expressive as the artist Faith Ringgold. Since her earliest paintings, Harlem-born Ringgold has always found it important to weave African-American folklore and tradition with her own political voice. In her work, she shows the influence of history, in this case Black American history, and how it impacts her life and her creative sensibilities. In one of her early interviews, Ringgold said, “I wanted to be a part of the struggle … I wanted to have a voice … I wanted my voice [to be] as a visual artist.”


With the exhibition “American People, Black Light: Faith Ringgold’s Paintings of the 1960s,” now on view at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, in Washington, D.C., viewers can experience for themselves Ringgold’s masterful storytelling. The exhibit “explores the emotional and at times contentious issues that were at the forefront of her experience of racial inequality in the United States during the 1960s.” The exhibit of 49 works will be on display in Washington through Nov. 20, 2013. Though Ringgold is best known for her beautiful and emotive quilt making, the images in “American People” hail from her first fully developed painting series that was completed over a four-year period, from 1963 to 1964. The subjects of Ringgold’s provocative works are stirred by the “racial tensions and disparities that were the fabric of African-American existence,” as noted in the book Creating Their Own Image: The History of African-American Women Artists.


Since the beginning years of her career as a painter, in the 1960s and early 1970s, it is evident that Ringgold’s artwork is inspired by her passions, representative of her surroundings and ignited by her political activism. From those early days, she used both her creative and physical voice to sound out on behalf of artists and people of color, especially Black women. She organized demonstrations for and participated in protests by Black artists demanding their being included in programs and shows at several well-known New York museums, such as the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Museum of Modern Art.


In many of the paintings in “American People,” Ringgold shows the mixture of expressions of people during some of the most tumultuous times in Black American and American history. In the painting “Between Friends,” one can imagine what the two women might be thinking, what had been said, or what they are about to say, as the country was dealing with integration. With “Die,” racial tension and inequality are front and center. And in her 1965 “Self-Portrait,” Ringgold’s self-assuredness is handsomely captured. As Ringgold has once commented, she was concerned with truthfulness in art, which includes truth about her Blackness. A close look at these images, and there are hints of folk art and pop art styles. Yet she has described her style as “super realism” because she wants her audience to make a personal connection with its images and the messages.