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Artist Faith Ringgold's life's work celebrated in New York exhibit
Judy Woodruff: A major retrospective looks at the remarkable life and work of artist Faith Ringgold, who has fought for change in the art world and beyond for 60 years.
Jeffrey Brown has this profile for our arts and culture series, Canvas.
Jeffrey Brown: In 1967, Faith Ringgold painted a work called Die, a large work capturing the violence and chaos of the era.
Faith Ringgold, Artist: You can't necessarily change what's going on, no, but I can say what I think about it. I'm free to do that. And I will.
Jeffrey Brown: Sixteen years later, she exploded Black stereotypes in a work called Who's Afraid of Aunt Jemima?
You turned her into a powerful woman.
Faith Ringgold: Well, she was powerful in a way. She was doing something with those pancakes and stuff that nobody else had ever done.
Jeffrey Brown: At 91, Faith Ringgold is having a big moment. Six decades of her art are on view in a retrospective exhibition at the New Museum in New York titled American People, paintings, sculptures, works on fabric, and the story quilts, a mix of writing, painting, and quilting, for which she is best known.
Faith Ringgold: I'm ready.
Jeffrey Brown: Across the Hudson at her home in New Jersey, we had a chance to visit the artist, on this day signing prints in her large and bright studio surrounded by the tools of her trade, archives, posters, and artworks. Of her life's work, she says this:
Faith Ringgold: I wanted to make a contribution to America. I thought, I have something to say about the American people. And what's great about it is, I could say it. Got freedom of speech.
Jeffrey Brown: You could say it through your art.
Faith Ringgold: That's right.
Jeffrey Brown: Her paintings from the early '60s portray Americans, Black and white, looking at one another, at themselves, at the artist, and at us, seeming to raise questions of power, as in one titled For Members Only.
Later, in larger paintings, came a more head-on confrontation, U.S. postage stamp commemorating the advent of Black power and a work that might have been painted in our own time, The Flag Is Bleeding.
Faith Ringgold: I felt that I needed to record some of what was happening at that time.
Jeffrey Brown: Is that the right word, recording it through art? Is that what you were doing?
Faith Ringgold: Yes. It felt powerful that I could express it, that I could have my say.
Jeffrey Brown: Ringgold grew up and spent most of her life in Harlem, encouraged in her art by her mother, Willie Posey, a seamstress and clothing designer. Years later, she captured a memory of her early life in Tar Beach, summer nights on a Harlem rooftop.
She studied art at City College and set out to find her place.
Faith Ringgold: I thought I had a right to, and I thought I should and I could.
Jeffrey Brown: But there were barriers.
Faith Ringgold: And I did.
Faith Ringgold: Everywhere.
Jeffrey Brown: Yes?
Faith Ringgold: Oh, yes, lots of barriers. Your art is not welcome here. And you're not welcome here.
And people have different ways of saying that, you know? But I found my way.
Jeffrey Brown: One way was through activism, protests and posters for civil rights and Black empowerment, demands for the art world to open up to women and artists of color.
Women, she says, were literally out of the picture. So she put them back, including in a mural-sized painting for the Correctional Institute for Women at Rikers Island, which has now been restored and appears in the exhibition.
And did you feel like you needed to make some noise?
Faith Ringgold: Yes, you got to be heard some way. You got to have some courage somewhere for being a woman and for being Black, too. I just can't accept rejection on that level.
Jeffrey Brown: She challenged art trends by using craft techniques like quilting and art history by adding women and African Americans into the story, as in her 1990s series The French Collection, a family dancing in the Louvre, a quilting bee amid van Gogh's sunflowers at Arles, a Parisian cafe.
Faith Ringgold: Well, I was giving myself the freedom to take another look at the possibilities of what life could be. I didn't have to just settle for what I was given, especially when it was so unsettling.
Jeffrey Brown: New Museum artistic director Massimiliano Gioni is one of the exhibitions curators.
Massimiliano Gioni, Artistic Director, New Museum: She's opening doors and windows and making the house of art much more complex and hospitable.
The great thing about seeing this work together, seeing 60 years of this work is, you understand how many times Faith Ringgold was right before her time.
Jeffrey Brown: The story quilts contain literal written stories around their edges, and those beginning with Tar Beach would lead to a way for Ringgold to reach new generations, through children's books. She's now published more than 20 books with beautiful art and stories of history and inspiration.
Tar Beach has the famous, anyone can fly, right?
Faith Ringgold: Right. All you got to do is try. Yes, indeed, you can do it.
Jeffrey Brown: In 2020, Ringgold lost her husband, Burdette, known as Birdie, after nearly 60 years together. And the pandemic has been tough on this socially active woman.
But she continues to be surrounded and supported by two loving daughters, Michele, a writer and cultural critic, and Barbara, a linguist and educator, both of whom help run Ringgold's Anyone Can Fly Foundation.
Ringgold herself is now working on a project about aging, but, always in charge, she wasn't ready to show it yet. She was willing to say how she felt seeing her life's work on display.
Faith Ringgold: I'm glad I can look at it and not say, oh, I wonder why I didn't do this and that? I did.
Jeffrey Brown: You look at it with pride and…
Faith Ringgold: I look at it with pride, yes, because I have a right as an American to create the kind of art I want. So, why not use that?
Jeffrey Brown: Faith Ringgold's American People exhibition is at the New Museum in New York through June 5, and then travels to the de Young museum in San Francisco.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown in New York.
Judy Woodruff: Just wonderful to look at all of that art.
Thank you, Jeff Brown, and thank you, Faith Ringgold.