For Faith Ringgold, the past is present

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For Faith Ringgold, the past is present
In an undated image provided by Faith Ringgold/Pippy Houldsworth Gallery, London, Three thangkas — “Slave Rape #1,” “Slave Rape #2” and “Slave Rape #3” — by artist Faith Ringgold at the Pippy Houldsworth Gallery in London. The faces in the brightly colored paintings, which will be exhibited at Art Basel Miami Beach in December 2019, represent Ringgold herself (a pregnant woman wielding an ax) and her 2 daughters. Faith Ringgold/Pippy Houldsworth Gallery, London via The New York Times.

by Farah Nayeri

LONDON (NYT NEWS SERVICE ).- Artist Faith Ringgold was visiting the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam in 1972 when a museum guard pointed her in the direction of a display that would transform her career.

The guard urged her to head downstairs and see a collection of Tibetan thangkas — delicate paintings on cotton or silk that are used in Buddhist meditation. This new form enabled her to roll up her paintings and move them around without the help of her husband.

Three of her earliest thangkas — “Slave Rape #1,” “Slave Rape #2” and “Slave Rape #3” — will be exhibited in the Survey sector at Art Basel Miami Beach by London-based Pippy Houldsworth Gallery. The brightly colored paintings, which are also her last oil paintings (she switched to acrylic) represent three nudes in verdant surroundings. Their faces represent Ringgold herself (a pregnant woman wielding an ax) and her two daughters.

“I became a feminist out of disgust for the manner in which women were marginalized in the art world,” Ringgold, 89, said in an email interview. “I began to incorporate this perspective into my work, with a particular focus on black women as slaves and their sexual exploitation.”

“The ‘Slave Rape’ series, along with my other works of the ’70s, were heavily inflected with my feminist perspective in both content and aesthetics,” she added.

Ringgold is among a group of female artists to receive recognition late in life. (Others include Louise Bourgeois, Yayoi Kusama and Rose Wylie). A career survey at the Serpentine Galleries — her first exhibition in a European institution — ended in September and opens next year at the Bildmuseet in Umea, Sweden, then at the Glenstone Museum in Potomac, Maryland. Meanwhile, her powerful 1967 painting “American People Series #20: Die” is on view at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.

“I am fully aware of the attention I am now getting in the art world, and grateful,” she said. “But I am also aware that it has taken a very long time, for I had to live to be 89 years old to see it happen.”

She said female African American artists were still underrepresented. “Even as many more women are hanging on the walls of the major museums, such women are predominantly white,” she noted. “Also, there is a bias even in the selection of black women, favoring those who have little or no politics.”

Ringgold is one of the female talents benefiting from the recent museum and market interest in African American artists, spurred by exhibitions like “Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power 1963-1983,” which opened at Tate Modern in 2017 and is on view at the de Young Museum in San Francisco.

Ringgold has always “believed that eventually everyone will catch up with her, and the world is catching up with her,” said Melissa Blanchflower, curator of the Serpentine show, who explained that the subjects in Ringgold’s work, like race relations and the civil rights movement, have “resonance today,” and demonstrate “how important she is as a figurative American painter.”

“Her work should be seen within the complex narratives of art history that institutions are now building: The line of art history is not simply a relay race between Cezanne, Picasso and so on,” Blanchflower added. “It’s a much more complex network of artists.”

Houldsworth, who opened her London gallery two decades ago, said her interest in Ringgold was piqued when she saw a large painting in the “Soul of the Nation” exhibition at Tate two years ago. She then met with the artist and her New York representatives, ACA Galleries, and put on a sold-out solo show of Ringgold’s work in February 2018.

Houldsworth said collectors are very keen on Ringgold: Prices for story quilts and paintings range from $500,000 to more than $5 million.

She said what made Ringgold’s work special was that she was both a female artist and African American, and that her paintings were “about the black woman.” She lamented “the supremacy of the white male” in the art market, which she said was “horribly evident” in the price tags, and said it was all the more crucial to keep promoting artists like Ringgold.

Ringgold was born in Harlem in 1930. Her mother was a fashion designer and a seamstress who stimulated her daughter’s creative streak; the little girl grew up in a household surrounded by fabrics and textiles. After graduating from college, she produced paintings and posters in the 1960s that focused on the civil rights movement and on race relations in the United States. She also mounted protests against the underrepresentation of women and African Americans in museum collections.

In 1980, she started making quilts — the first one being a collaboration with her mother — and has to date produced more than 130. They are among her best-known works. Her solo shows in the United States have been at Rutgers University in New Jersey in 1973 and at the Studio Museum in Harlem in 1984, among other institutions.

The Pippy Houldsworth Gallery’s booth at Art Basel Miami Beach will also display “The Flag is Bleeding #2,” a very large 1997 quilt that replicates her famous 1967 painting with the same title.

The “Slave Rape” series, which was shown at the Serpentine earlier this year, had not been exhibited since the 1973 show at Rutgers. It is a cornerstone in Ringgold’s career, according to curators, representing the moment when she transitioned from paintings to quilts.

By giving the enslaved women the faces of herself and her two daughters, “Faith is very directly placing herself and the next generation into the position of their female ancestors, who would have been abducted from their homes and taken across the Atlantic to the United States,” Blanchflower said.

“Faith talks about the fact that she can’t escape that she and millions of other Americans have a direct lineage back to slavery,” the curator added. “We can’t ignore or forget that.”

© 2019 The New York Times Company

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