Faith Ringgold’s joyous quilts and radical art shine in a long overdue retrospective [Unscripted column] | fun

Willa Marie Simone is the Forrest Gump of modern art.

In one artwork, she is modeling for Henri Matisse. In another, she is Pablo Picasso’s muse.

Here she is the artist, painting a group of women. In the corner of the piece, a naked Picasso looks as out of place as the nude woman in Edouard Manet’s Le Dejeuner sur l’herbe.

In another panel, there is a field of sunflowers with a who’s who of African American women surrounding a sunflower quilt. Vincent Van Gogh stands by with a vase of flowers, waiting for them to accept him.

Simone is the star of “The French Collection,” a series of a dozen quilts painted by Faith Ringgold. For the first time in 25 years, these quilts were exhibited together as part of a long overdue retrospective of Ringgold’s work. While the references in these quilts were delightful enough to make me laugh out loud, the exhibition is filled with a range of emotions. “Faith Ringgold: American People” covered race, gender, nationalism and weight—and I’m still thinking about the questions her art raises.

Ringgold began making art during the 1960s with figurative painting that evolved into what she calls “super realism.” At the same time, Jasper Johns was exploring how symbols and ideas could be represented in objects and on canvas. His flags didn’t go far enough, Ringgold said. To be complete, they had to show the ugliness of life.

One of Ringgold’s most eye-catching flags bleeds and shadowy people stand behind the stars and stripes. She helped organize a show where artists explored their meanings of the flag, which led to her arrest.

Ringgold pierced the symbols of the past in the shades he used, translating politics and protest through color. A painting of the postage stamp has the words “Black Power” crossing white and black faces. “White power” is also there, but it is almost invisible because these words are hidden in plain sight within the grid structure of the faces.

As thought-provoking as her work is, Ringgold was not accepted into museums or galleries for years. That rejection hurt him, but it helped him find the freedom to explore new forms of expression. These ways might not be at the top of the art world hierarchy, but if she wasn’t going to have a seat at the table, why not try something different?

Ringgold worked with her mother to create her first textiles, paintings with mottled borders. These began as thangka paintings, homages to Buddhist deities, and led to themes of motherhood, violence and race.

Quilts grew larger and layered. Seeing them in person at the New Museum in New York City was such a treat. It’s one thing to see pictures of a story quilt in a book or online and read the text in the border. Standing in front of the “Church Picnic,” I could see the facial expressions, see the fabrics in the patchwork border, and look into the eyes to read the handwritten story.

In these quilts, she explored a subject so personal, yet rarely mentioned in a gallery: weight. Change: Faith Ringgold’s 100+ Pound Weight Loss Performance Story Quilt is a series of story quilts with journal entries, goals, and photos as her weight fluctuates. She was covered in such quilts for a performance about her transformation.

We are living in a body positive world today. So much has changed since she made the first quilt in the 1980s. But has it?

While the French Collection quilts made me smile, the Change quilts made me wonder why Ringgold talking about her body seems so radical and transparent.

Seeing Ringgold’s art in person was exciting, especially at a time when sometimes, even bringing up race is considered racism.

I moved her first children’s book Tar Beach to the front of the bookshelf for my daughter to enjoy.

I now have the catalog from American People on my bookshelf to learn more.

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