Faith Ringgold (left) is widely considered one of the most important African-American artists of the 20th century, but many critics believe her work has never received the acclaim it deserves. While she’s best known for her story quilts from the 1970s and ’80s, an exhibit at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, “American People, Black Light: Faith Ringgold’s Paintings of the 1960s,” looks at her earlier work and the activism underpinning it.
The show—June 21 through November 10—comprises 45 pieces from two series made in the 1960s: “American People,” in which Ringgold fused Picasso’s post-Cubist style with traditional African influences, producing works that showed the paradoxes of integration, and “Black Light,” in which she explored notions of color by abandoning white paint. “It was a vibrant period—there was a lot of writing, talking about expressing the experience of African-American people,” Ringgold says. “I felt, as I still feel, that artists have the job of documenting their times.”
“American People” was considered scandalous for its depictions of race. One painting, “Die,” plays on Picasso’s “Guernica” by imagining a gory street riot. “A lot of people were horrified,” she says. “They didn’t feel it was appropriate to say anything about America that wasn’t positive.” But she was intent on trying to show what it was like to live as an African-American: “I wanted people to feel as though they were facing these people, experiencing part of the struggle. I was trying to give them the experience I had had all my life.”
Now 82 and living in New Jersey, Ringgold runs a foundation, Anyone Can Fly, that teaches children about art history. She continues to campaign for museums to showcase work by women and African-Americans. “Persevere, look, see, feel, and create, and we will know your experience—leave it behind for us in a way that no one else can,” she says. “They could leave me out, but they couldn’t stop me from painting those pictures.”
“American People, Black Light: Faith Ringgold’s Paintings of the 1960s,” June 21 through Nov. 10 at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. $10. For more information, visit the museum’s website.
This article appears in the June 2013 issue of The Washingtonian.