In this, her most comprehensive exhibition to date, the viewer experiences Faith Ringgold’s historic series one at a time, from the civil-rights era paintings of the early American People series that gives the show its title, to the renowned “story quilts”: intricate, visually rich pieces weaving together autobiographical and cultural histories with fictional narratives. Each work merits its spotlight; it would be remiss to rush through the space. Those who do not take the time to absorb the nuances of Ringgold’s work will miss a great deal. But its impact is instant: her portraits so often seem at first to glare at you, before Ringgold draws you further into her immersive worlds.
Now 91 years old, the artist, author, activist and educator—who was born in Harlem but now lives and works in Englewood, New Jersey—is among her generation’s most visionary and influential figures, relentlessly challenging social hierarchies, racial prejudice and gender norms. Ringgold’s six-decade career began in the wake of the Harlem Renaissance and still influences the work of emerging artists, while continuing to shed light on social justice and identity issues. The works gathered here tell the story not just of a career, but of the artist’s life—so much is drawn directly from her own experience.
The show begins with the American People series, made between 1963 and 1967. The 20 works—16 of which are in the New Museum show—depict subjects Black and white, male and female, wealthy and poor, in a graphic style that has been described as post-Cubist, though she called it “Super Realism”. The atmosphere is tense throughout: in the first picture, American People Series #1: Between Friends (1963), a Black woman and a white woman are pictured together in what Ringgold’s daughter Michele Wallace has described as “dynamic alienation”, and it sets the tone. The series culminates in the three large-scale paintings Ringgold calls murals, made at the heart of the civil rights struggle, which are shown together in New York for the first time in more than 30 years. Here, tension spills over into violence: in American People Series #18: The Flag Is Bleeding (1967), the title says it all, as drips fall from the Stars and Stripes, and American People Series #20: Die (1967) is full of guns, knives and blood. Die hung next to Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907) in the 2019 Museum of Modern Art rehang, though it directly refers to a later Picasso masterpiece, Guernica (1937)—it shares the latter’s atmosphere of catastrophic horror.
Black Light, no white
The Black Light series, made between 1967 and 1969, followed, and features mask-like faces that honour Ringgold’s interest in African art, set amid geometric fields of colour with a palette that omits the colour white. They overtly reference the events that shaped the era, from race riots to the Apollo missions—Black Light Series #10: Flag for the Moon: Die N***er (1967) features the racial slur set amid the US flag, in protest at the cost of the space race while millions lived in poverty.
This activism in relation to racial injustice appears across her series, in different eras and media, including the 1970s life-sized masked sculptures and the early textile works—among them her tankas, unstretched canvases adorned with fabric, inspired by the Tibetan Buddhist art form—that directly preceded Ringgold’s more famous quilts. One brief tanka series, featuring lone black women surrounded by patchwork borders, is called Slave Rape (1972).
She began crafting the story quilts in the early 1980s, and they are her most pioneering concept. In them, she takes the tradition of oral and written folk tales a step further—embracing a technique long associated with domestic labour and Black female craftsmanship to tell often vibrant stories of African American life, weaving together historic and personal narratives. They are essentially paintings, canvases rendered in acrylic and embellished with additional fabric and other adornments. Most consist of a central panel, a large-scale painted scene, surrounded by text panels through which the tale, inscribed beautifully in Ringgold’s hand, unfolds. The quilts manifest through multiple discrete series and their episodic form also led to her children’s books; a prolific writer, Ringgold has published around 20 children’s stories to date.
Among the early story quilt sequences is the five-part series The Bitter Nest, a multi-generational tale of a complicated family. Starting with a schoolyard romance and a Harlem Renaissance party, the series culminates in a transatlantic love story, a fostered child and, ultimately, reunion. The Bitter Nest, Part III: Lovers in Paris (1988) is among Ringgold’s most sensual quilts, depicting the naked, star-crossed lovers at the heart of the story, who share a brief moment together in Paris before going their separate ways. Ringgold captures the moment where the woman undresses in front of a mirror, gazing upon her body, before her lover’s reflection appears in the glass, wearing nothing but a beret. The quilt captures the narrative—a brief moment of happiness for a young Black couple navigating difficult familial obligations—in stunning colour.
The most complex quilt series are the interrelated, 12-part sequences The French Collection and The American Collection. The French Collection uses the character Willia Marie Simone to re-centre the story of Modern painting; she visits the Louvre, meets Van Gogh in Arles, sits for Matisse and Picasso and ultimately ends up a successful artist herself. The American Collection, meanwhile, imagines the paintings of Marlena, Willia Marie’s adult daughter, herself an artist, but in the US, and looking at African American cultural history including, among other things, slavery.
Born in a Cotton Field: The American Collection #3 (1997) overlays the Biblical story of the nativity with the Black experience in the American South, linking the voyage to Bethlehem to slaves’ journey through the Underground Railroad—the work shows the moment that the baby in this story, a princess, is born, and a Black family shares an emotionally charged, intimate moment in the open cotton fields. A figure, arms stretched wide across the canvas, benevolently hovers above them. He is the Prince of Night, and ultimately features in The Invisible Princess (1999), Ringgold’s children’s story inspired by The American Collection narrative.
The intertwined nature of Ringgold’s art and literary work is explored by the Chisenhale Gallery director Zoé Whitley in the accompanying catalogue, co-published with Phaidon. Other contributions include the feminist critic Lucy Lippard on Ringgold’s activism, the curator Mark Godfrey on the American People murals, the artists Tschabalala Self and Jordan Casteel on Ringgold’s enduring influence, and Ringgold’s daughter Michele Wallace on The French Collection and The American Collection. It is the most substantial scholarly publication on the artist’s work to date.
The exhibition occupies all three floors of the New Museum and walking through them, you cannot help but recognise Ringgold’s revolutionary impact, in the contemporary art space and beyond. She laid bare racial tensions, instances of art-world sexism and more, all while, through her work, opening doors for others to continue on her path. This powerful, unprecedented retrospective demands to be seen first hand.
• American People, New Museum, New York, Until 5 June
• Curators: Massimiliano Gioni, Gary Carrion-Murayari and Madeline Weisburg, New Museum