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The Serpentine Gallery in London was recently the site of an important solo exhibition dedicated to the American artist and activist Faith Ringgold. The show was a welcome homage to an important figurative painter and craft maker, whose narratives have addressed issues of African American identity and gender inequality for half a century. The exhibition was small but exhaustive, offering examples of Ringgold’s work from the 1960s to the 2010s. By marking the traces of the artist’s commitment through her figurative works, the show enabled viewers to recount the narrative of her experience as a Black American woman in the second half of the twentieth century. The artistic value of her work goes far beyond the mastery of painterly skill and a seemingly limitless ability to invent new possibilities of figurative expression within the medium. Ringgold’s particular use of textiles, linked with the close relationship she shared with her mother, Willi Posey, who was a designer in the fashion industry, reflects this. Her constant questioning of her place in the history of art was palpable in every work in the exhibition, and her response to this query speaks to universal problems while also engaging with issues related to her complex identity as a Black female artist.
In the first room, visitors encountered paintings from the American People series, which Ringgold created in the early 1960s. All the pictures are titled and were arranged in numerical order. Formally, they recall the avant-garde, mainly post-Cubism. There is also an obvious evocation of the dark atmosphere of German Expressionism. The paintings offer a sense of uniformity, but they also suggest a duality. In Portrait of an American Youth (1964), for example, the flattened form that comprises the male Black model’s desperate-looking face immediately attracts the spectator’s attention. The figure looks like it came from a print rather than a painting, and its white profile, marked by a shadow, adds to the portrait’s disturbing strangeness. A downward-pointing arrow highlights the overall feeling of despair that emerges from the picture, and indeed is one of the only pictorial elements that is geometrically correct. This downward arrow of despair is a recurring symbol for Ringgold. It is also present, for example, in The American Dream (1964). In this picture, Ringgold offers a portrait of a seated woman that emphasizes her ample bosom and large diamond ring. Her bouncy hair forms a helmet around her face, where her makeup is noticeable and her nails and lips are painted a deep red. Together all of these elements illustrate what it means to be glamorous. The fact that this subject is one of the few white figures in the exhibition, together with her obvious wealth, raises questions about the relationship between race and financial privilege.
In the same room, The Artist and His Model (1966), also from the American People series, unites two of Ringgold’s main topics: Black identity and female identity. This is exemplified by the figure of the artist, who is Black, and the figure of the model, who is white. The artist’s rendering of the two figures creates a striking opposition by insisting on the reversal of a common racist hierarchy. In Ringgold’s picture, the artist-creator is Black, and the object of his creation is white, rather than the other way around. Similar examinations of entrenched racial hierarchies emerge in several of the other canvases displayed in this first room. For example, in Hide Little Children (1966), which shows a group of two Black and three white children hiding in a jungle, what could be read as anxiety and terror on their young faces testifies to the fact that the anguish generated by racism and violence will touch all generations. There is also a dark art historical humor in Ringgold’s depiction of the jungle and the children it hides. By reducing their faces to mere masks, Ringgold asks the spectator to consider Pablo Picasso’s famous painting Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907). Such a reference to Picasso and the aesthetic use of “primitive art” in modernism gives the canvas a certain importance, because it bears witness to Ringgold’s ambition to become part of the narrative canon of art history by creating a constructive yet critical dialogue with those who, like Picasso, have been designated as masters.
The gallery’s presentation of The American People series continued into a second room just to the right of the first. On the right side of the room, the Serpentine curators displayed Ringgold’s Feminist series (1972–73) next to her Political Posters (1970–72). The posters were then followed by Black Light (1969) and Windows of the Wedding (1974), with the latter hung on the wall at the very back of the space. This particular arrangement revealed the artist’s mastery of several types of formal language. The posters’ graphics express clear and effective messages that call for freedom in the civil rights era. This type of messaging first appeared in Ringgold’s textile art, which she started to work on because it was cheaper and more portable. The Serpentine curators Hans Ulrich Obrist, Melissa Blanchflower, and Natalia Grabowska make clear in their display that textiles have become an important component of her work. For example, they emphasize how the textiles that constitute the Feminist Series reveal the influence of Tibetan art on Ringgold’s oeuvre. This influence is visible in the presentation of the fabric and the choice of motifs, and can also be detected in Ringgold’s patterns, which, although they are not circular, clearly reference mandalas. The series’ title qualifying it as feminist only becomes fully comprehensible, however, when one reads the vertically aligned letters that form quotations from the Black Power movement’s female activists.
The Serpentine also displayed several of Ringgold’s “story quilts” in the third room. Critics have discussed the quilts in depth for some time, and the curators’ arrangement of the effective works makes it clear why. The center of one wall was dedicated to Slave Rape, an early series from 1972. In this series, a naked Black woman hides behind foliage, runs away, and then reappears, pregnant, with an axe in her hand, ready to avenge the man who both enslaved and violated her so violently. The room’s central painting, Tar Beach (1988), is from the series Woman on a Bridge. By contrast, it shows a family enjoying a summer evening together on a New York City rooftop. In a way the work functions as both a quilt and a book, and as such it gives the viewer a sense of the importance of the relationship between textual narrative and images in Ringgold’s practice: The composition is composed of fabric squares depicting either individual figurative characters or black-and-white handwritten texts. Ringgold sewed the squares together in an alternating geometric pattern so that the whole work can be read by the viewer like an open book.
Although the Serpentine’s display revealed the skillfully crafted details of each quilt, unfortunately, because so many quilts were shown, the spectator probably did not get more than a glimpse at this part of Ringgold’s oeuvre. It would have been preferable for the curators to focus on a single quilt series in order to allow visitors to really take in and examine these accomplished textile works within the broader retrospective context.
The last two rooms, located to the left of the central room, were also dedicated to quilts, though these objects are really best described not as textiles but as “quilt paintings.” In these works, Ringgold sewed fabric pieces together and used the finished product as a canvas. This technique elides the works’ textile aspect, making it is easy for the viewer to see them only as painterly narratives. In the last room, the curators chose to display two works belonging to the American Collection series: The Flag Is Bleeding #2 and We Came to America (both 1997). The curators’ decision to save these two works for last offers key insight into the main purpose of the retrospective. In works that consider the complex relationship between race and national identity, Black artists often depict confrontations with the American flag, and here Ringgold is no exception. Her commitment as a Black female artist is indisputably present, but the two paintings that summarize the exhibition also emphasize that her work is always in dialogue with art history more broadly. In these last pictures, as well as in several others in the show, such as the works from the American People series, Ringgold makes a critical argument about the power of figuration.
As a whole, the exhibition invited the spectator to move away from a strictly biographical reading of Ringgold’s art. It demonstrated perfectly that her work deserves to be analyzed both for its commitment to understanding what it means to be a Black American woman and for the rich and complex dialogue it establishes with the practice of modern art and art history. The Serpentine show emphasized that confining Ringgold’s work to an analysis of the history of a singular identity diminishes the potency of her messages and their broad-reaching visual realizations.