In general, I’ve found that artists tend to bear little resemblance to the work they make. Faith Ringgold is a big exception. As I walk through the Serpentine Gallery’s retrospective of her 50-year career I can’t get Faith Ringgold, the person, out of my mind. The works on display, despite many of them depicting horrific scenes of physical and social violence; the riots that took place during the civil rights era of 1950s and 60s America; gender inequality; the Black Power movement and the manipulation of black bodies in white consumer-capitalist culture, are permeated with the same warmth and affirmative energy that emanates from the artist in her interviews. This is an unusual brand of ‘political’ art; the works are critical, incisive and defiant, yet the tone remains warm and positive, even joyful - much like the artist herself.
This attitude is both key to understanding Ringgold’s work and her ability to sustain such a long and prolific artistic career through periods where, as a black female artist living and working in America in the 50s and beyond, many may have given up or grown bitter. Her works seem to me to have served as devices, allowing her to navigate the stacked up disappointments and miseries of life in a way that was transformative and empowering. Her ‘Story Quilts’, a major feature of this exhibition and for which Ringgold is best known, were made after her autobiography was repeatedly rejected by publishers. She decided instead to write her story through her work, splicing text and image together in large, haptic textile works. In ‘Whose Afraid of Aunt Jemima?’ (1983), dissatisfied with the creation of a stereotypical black female character used to sell pancake mix, Ringgold reimagined her as an entrepreneur, giving her thoughts and emotions, making her human.
Ringgold’s ability to deliver direct political messages in a sophisticated manner is evident. Her painting is poetry. In ‘The Flag is Bleeding #2’ (1997), there is a push-pull between background and foreground as a mother floats in front, between and behind the red horizontals of the American flag, her children gathering around her skirts. The substance holding all these elements together, the coagulant if you will, is blood. The flag bleeds into the woman, the woman bleeds into the flag.
Ringgold’s form of personal politics is interesting; she controls only what is within her control, that is, she has always been determined to get her story out, to express herself on her terms, and has used the means available to her to do so. Through the consistency of this process, she has lifted herself up above her circumstances and been able to create something beautiful. Her position, it seems, has always been for herself, rather than focused on being against those who were in turn against her. In the end we learn that there is power in realising that joy cannot be given or received but is a choice to be made, and that choice is often a hard one.