Art In Conversation
Faith Ringgold with Tschabalala Self
“As an artist its important to see art from all cultures and places, to expose yourself to all kinds of creativity.”
New York CityNew Museum
Faith Ringgold: American People
February 17 – June 6, 2022
New York CityACA Galleries
Prints And Multiples
March 16 – June 11, 2022
Faith Ringgold is currently the focus of two exhibitions in New York City. Her show at the New Museum, curated by Massimiliano Gioni, Gary Carrion-Murayari, and Madeline Weisburg, surveys her impressive six decade career, while the exhibition at ACA highlights the artist’s work in print mediums. On the occasion of these exhibitions, Tschabalala Self spoke with Faith Ringgold about growing up in Harlem, the roles of activism and writing in an artist’s practice, and the importance of seeing art from all cultures and places. Ringgold’s long time friend and gallerist, Dorian Bergen, joined Ringgold for the conversation.
Tschabalala Self (Rail): I wanted to ask you about growing up in Harlem in the 1930s and 1940s. What was your childhood like? For me, growing up in Harlem in the ’90s, the neighborhood was predominantly Black. Apart from that, it was just more of a community. I would say that now Harlem feels more like any other part of New York, less neighborhood flare and somewhat transient—people live there for a little while and then move out, without placing roots. As a child, Harlem felt like a space for Black culture, created by Black culture. Today many will say Harlem has changed and no longer exists as a Black mecca. What is your impression?
Faith Ringgold: Well, that’s not the Harlem I grew up in. The Harlem I grew up in was Black. Everybody knew everybody. The neighbors were pretty friendly, but not too friendly. The boys could play ball in the street, and if there was a car parked, and it was in the way of their game, they knew where that person lived and they went up to their house and asked them to move the car. It’s very different from when I lived there, but I still have my apartment in Harlem.
Rail: Dinah Washington, she used to live—
Ringgold: Yes, it was Dinah Washington’s apartment.
Rail: Do you feel like being around so many creative people when you were younger had an influence on you as an artist, later in life? I remember you mentioned the building on Edgecombe where Joe Lewis, Harry Belafonte and all those musicians and artists lived. How did your proximity to so many creatives, intellectuals and notable figures affect your worldview?
Ringgold: All those musicians and artists—you know Sonny Rollins lived right up the street. Yes, absolutely I was influenced by them, but then there was a period when they all started moving out. They all started getting the hell out of there. And that was when, you know, things opened up.
Rail: And you moved to Jersey in 1990—right over the bridge. What was that experience like?
Ringgold: That experience was mixed. It was good, but we had some problems too. I had a few neighbors who didn’t want me to build my studio. They took me to court. They were trying to say the studio was going to bring a whole lot of people and la-de-da. I won the case.
Dorian Bergen: But because of the challenges that you faced with your neighbors, you created an entire series, “Coming to Jones Road,” after a road in the neighborhood. And you brought all your relatives up from the South in the series “Coming to Jones Road.”
Ringgold: That’s right.
Rail: Can you tell me more about the studio you built?
Ringgold: Well, I built a studio that could accommodate large paintings. I had a studio on 145th Street, but it wasn’t spacious. Those apartments are just not big enough. In Jersey we built the studio on top of the house. The whole top floor is my studio. Yes, so I got everything I wanted. But I still have my apartment in New York. [Laughter]
Rail: And both of your parents are from Florida? Is that correct?
Rail: My family is also from the South, they moved to New York in the ’70s. My parents were from Louisiana and Mississippi, and I know that they had a very different upbringing than I did growing up in the city. I wonder if your parents ever spoke about their life in Florida before coming up north?
Ringgold: They had a whole different life. People came up from the South to visit us without notice all the time. I mean, you wouldn’t have that today under any circumstances, people just showing up to say hello. Because it took them forever to get from the South to Harlem traveling on several different trains, buses, walking, etc. They had to keep traveling on, it was just a whole different world.
Rail: It seems like you had a very active home life as a child. It was you, your two siblings, your parents, and family members who were coming and visiting or staying with you for a periods of time. You were the youngest and speak about having got a lot of attention as a child, were your interests in the arts also supported?
Ringgold: Oh, absolutely. The understanding was to go to school, and definitely get a higher education! My sister went to college. My brother died, so he didn’t go. But my sister and I both went through college. You know, that was very important. I went to the City College.
Bergen: But they didn’t let you in at first, because at the time it was really a college for boys, right?
Ringgold: It was a boys’ school, but we weren’t thinking about that when I was young. I used to watch the boys coming up out of the subway on 145th Street, turning the corner and going down to City College. But it didn’t occur to me that they were all white boys. I wasn’t thinking about what color they were. You know, what can I say? Anyway, I got what I wanted, and I think I got a very good art education at the City College of New York, and then I got a master’s degree. Everything worked out.
Rail: You just reminded me of an excerpt from your memoir that I found particularly interesting. That memory you shared about seeing the boys come to school, and it being an afterthought that they were white boys—that makes me think of the part in your memoir where you’re going with your mom to Atlantic City and there’s a parade. I think it was the Miss America Pageant parade.
Rail: One of the remarks that your mother and her friends made was, “Oh, it’d be great one day if they had a little Black girl up there.” You stated in your memoir that most people didn’t even question the fact that all the women on all the floats were white, but your mother and her friends —they were conscious of this fact and challenged it. It made me feel your mother was a very forward-thinking Black womanist. I wonder how that has affected your worldview and confidence.
Ringgold: I was influenced by her, yes, but also the times that I grew up in were very forward-thinking times. It’s when things were changing. And you know, I was part of all that.
Rail: I wanted to ask you about your activism and what activism has meant for you as an artist? Do you see it as being connected to your art, or do you see activist work as something outside of your art practice?
Ringgold: Well, you know, the art world was very racist. So I had to learn different ways to get around that. Because I had to get in, you know, and get my part, get mine. So I did. And I met a lot of wonderful people, and I was able to achieve a lot. Don’t get me wrong, I think the art world is still racist, but not like it used to be.
Rail: What were some of the difficulties that you encountered early on in your career, as a woman, and as a Black artist?
Ringgold: Getting shows, getting seen, getting heard, you know, getting opportunities. I had to figure out how to do that. And I just kept on moving until I got where I wanted to be. It was hard, though; it wasn’t easy.
Rail: I agree with you, and I imagine things have gotten easier in a lot of regards today, but at the same time, a lot of those same obstacles still exist for artists who are Black and who are women, or who are some combination of the two. I remember once you saying that it was difficult for you to get people to show your work, and to pay for shipping. So you wound up making the story quilts because they were able to be rolled and shipped more inexpensively. It was an opportunity for you to show larger works more easily than if the work was stretched on canvas.
Ringgold: That’s true. I could roll it up and put it in a car or a taxi and take it myself. Yeah, I found ways to get around the obstacles that I personally had as a woman. I mean, I didn’t drive, so that required my husband to be available to take the work, but he couldn’t be available all the time because he had a job to go to.
Rail: I also wanted to ask about how your painting has shifted through many different styles. I'm thinking about your works from the 1960s, a lot of which are at the New Museum right now in your retrospective. Many of those are more traditional paintings, like oil on canvas. I’m thinking about two series in particular. The first one that stands out is the “American People” series. I believe you made that in the 1960s. Could you speak on some of the inspirations for that series and why it was important to make that work at that time? And how that series led you to the “Black Light” series that followed?
Ringgold: My art from the 1960s is primarily about America. I wanted to create art about America and the conditions of Black people at that time. And the condition of white people, not just Black people. And that’s what it’s all about, basically. I painted what I saw and experienced around me.
Bergen: And even the titles are so telling, like Watching and Waiting (1963). Are the white guys going to let the Black guy in Three Men on a Fence (1964)—are they going to choose the right side of history, or not?
Ringgold: Mr. Charlie (1964). Yeah, we used to call white people Mr. Charlie. You know that, right?
Rail: No, I never heard that before.
Bergen: Any white guy could be Mr. Charlie. But there are other telling titles, like The In Crowd (1964), and Between Friends (1963), or The Civil Rights Triangle (1963). The NAACP was formed by Black and white activists.
Ringgold: Right, and images of my young daughters playing with their white friends hiding in the trees, because sometimes there were some problems with the parents and their kids playing with mine. But the children didn’t know anything about that. They just wanted to play.
Dorian: And then, with Artists and Model, people got mad at you for painting a white model. Right? They didn’t like you painting a white model with the Black artist.
Ringgold: They wanted to paint white women—Sorry! [Laughter] So I gave them reality. Yes indeed-y. Come on now, they would not paint a Black woman. In school they only had white models. I don’t recall ever seeing a Black model.
Rail: Me either.
Ringgold: Okay, there you go. And how many years later did you go to school? And you didn’t see it either!
Bergen: Just to continue with Tschabalala’s question. So from the “American People” series, where you’re painting the people around you, your family and your neighborhood, you wanted to be able to paint the color of Black people’s skin and that’s when you decided to experiment without white paint. And that’s what led to the “Black Light” series. No white paint—
Ringgold: You have to have some, but not a lot. Black people have so many different colors, you know, there’s not just one color for them. So I painted them in different shades. I learned a lot about the color black, it has different tones to it. And I painted with some of them.
Bergen: Let me tell you a funny story. David Rockefeller wanted to buy one of Faith’s paintings for the Chase Manhattan Bank Art Collection. He sent two representatives to Faith’s studio. First they see a flag painting. “Oh, it’s a flag. Oh, so patriotic. Let’s buy Flag for the Moon,” you know that one? So the lady turns her head. She says, “Wait a minute, wait a minute, what does it say? What does it say? D-I-E—die—and then N-I-G,” and then she went on and they ran out. They ran out! [Laughter] And they had to come back. They had to come back to buy a painting. So they looked at American Spectrum (1969), which just for them was renamed from the original title, 6 Shades of Black—titles can be significant!
Ringgold: Yeah, my mother said, “You know you always have trouble with your titles.” I said, “I’m not having any trouble, other people are having trouble.” [Laughter] But we wanted to sell this to Rockefeller. So we called it American Spectrum. Because that’s what I was trying to show.
Rail: Did Rockefeller end up buying it? [Laughter]
Ringgold: Yeah, sorry! I wanted to do what I wanted to do. You know, there were a lot of problems with the colors of people in the paintings of Black people.
Rail: Why? What were the problems?
Ringgold: Darkness and lightness. The artists had problems because they didn’t want to make their people too dark. But they didn’t want to make them too light either. It was a lot of bullshit, you know, so people had to figure it out, what to do.
Rail: What was your approach to dealing with a figure that was Black—negotiating between it being too dark or too light?
Ringgold: One of the problems occurs when the paintings are reproduced, the colors don’t show contrast. The different shades of black do not reproduce accurately. Black doesn’t mean “black.” Blackness has different shades, and that was problematic. The photographs in newspapers and magazines and books couldn’t reproduce the nuances. You could hardly see any differences, but when you see the painting in real life, you can see it all.
Rail: I think it’s interesting that your paintings deal so much with race, like a lot of contemporary artists. Race is something that they contend with in their work, but they don’t usually include white figures. They don’t usually have white characters in their paintings, but in your paintings about Blackness and about race in America, you have both Black and white people, which I think is really revolutionary. A lot of artists have not dealt with the subject matter in that way.
Ringgold: Sorry. [Laughter] Well, I figured I could do what I want. It’s called freedom. You know Ad Reinhardt? You know his black paintings?
Ringgold: I remember he called his paintings “the Black Paintings” and I said, “Well, wait a minute now, Ad—look at this, what’s happening here?” I thought, “Wow! That’s cool,” but when they photographed them, they didn’t have the power of the painted picture.
Rail: In person, they’re fantastic.
Ringgold: In person, you could see the black much clearer than in those photos.
Rail: I want to ask you about your other peers, particularly in relation to the “flag show” you did—The People’s Flag Show. That was a really historical moment. You were able to include a lot of your flag paintings in that exhibition, some of which are your most iconic works. You showed in that exhibition with Jasper Johns, who’s another, peer and luminary. What was your experience participating in that exhibition? What was your relationship like with the other artists making work at that same time for The People’s Flag Show?
Ringgold: The People’s Flag Show at the Judson Memorial? Oh, yeah, that was something. They tried to arrest me. No, they did arrest me. They tried to put me in jail. But that didn’t work because I had a lot of protection, dozens of advocates and lawyers and the press were waiting outside the courthouse. You know, you’re not supposed to put somebody in jail because of something they paint. That’s not an American thing to do. So I had to fight for freedom of speech. And I paved the way for more liberal, free art to be made.
Rail: I wanted to talk also about some later works, your story quilts. We touched on them earlier, but I want to ask more specifically about them.
Ringgold: The first quilt was Echoes of Harlem (1980), but none of them are really quilts, you know. I just use the style. They’re all paintings. They’re acrylic on canvas. I think it’s very easy to see in person that the paintings are not quilts in the sense of quilt-making, where the pieces are cut out and stitched together. The borders are quilted around the paintings. After a certain number of years, I stopped using oil because it was problematic. Painting with acrylic was better for me and more durable. Plus, I was allergic to oil paint.
Rail: I remember from your memoir, you spoke about suffering from asthma as a child. That’s when you first started to draw because you had to spend days at home and in bed, and you would draw. Is that correct?
Ringgold: I had asthma and my doctors did not want me to be in school with the other children for certain periods. They didn’t want me exposed to other sicknesses, because in the 1930s they did not have the medicine they do today. They didn’t want me to get sick.
Bergen: Was it your dad who gave you your first easel as a child?
Ringgold: My parents saw that I liked art. I was encouraged from the very beginning to create art. Yes, my father bought me my first easel. So I’ve had art all through my life.
Rail: That’s beautiful and very inspiring. I wanted to ask you about writing. How important is writing to you? Because the story quilts are equal parts text and paintings. Your ability as a storyteller is phenomenal and your writing is truly captivating. Your memoir is also a very engaging text. I’m curious to learn what writing means for you, as a maker?
Ringgold: Well, you know, I’ve been writing a lot for a long time and I think it’s very important. I’ve published a lot of books and I have some more things I want to publish. Nothing wrong with writing as an artist, because if there are a lot of things that you want to express, what are you going to do? You have to write it yourself? You can’t wait for somebody else to tell you your story.
Rail: My first introduction to you was from your children’s book, Tar Beach.
Ringgold: Oh, yeah?
Rail: I definitely first encountered your creativity through your writing, and then came to know about your illustrious art career as I got older. I’ve been lucky to know you in both worlds. What about the role of feminism in your work. Do you identify as a feminist? Is that’s something that you think is a relevant term in describing yourself?
Ringgold: I am a feminist. Yes. Meaning that I definitely believe in the freedom of women. And especially as an artist, there’s a lot of racism and sexism, and it’s important to be aware of that. The field is difficult if you don't understand those two problems.
Rail: One hundred percent, I agree. And I think you have another identity that people don't really speak about so much: you’re also a mother. How has that affected your art career or how has that shaped you creatively?
Ringgold: Well, you know, little children are wonderful artists. And it’s very important that they get their art training, and are able to choose it as a profession if they want, or get opportunities to create art if they choose to. I had my two children in one year. [Laughter] Everybody helped! I wouldn’t suggest anybody just do it. But there you go. Sorry! That’s the way I did mine. [Laughter] I didn’t even know I was pregnant by the way.
Rail: Oh really?
Ringgold: I think it was the second time and then I said “no more.” I got married twice you know. The first husband was Earl and my second husband was Birdie. So my second husband didn’t want any more children because he adopted Barbara and Michele as his, since they were young. And he brought them up as their father which was nice, because my first husband died.
Rail: No, third husband?
Ringgold: Hell no! [Laughter] No, no, no, no, no. But I had two really good guys.
Rail: That's a blessing. Can you tell me about your experience traveling to Europe? I know that was informative for you because you were able to see a lot of masterpieces in person. Is there anything you want to share about your times abroad?
Ringgold: I’ve been all over the world. As an artist it’s important to see art from all cultures and places, to expose yourself to all kinds of creativity. And so I did. Africa, Asia, Europe—
Rail: Where have you traveled in Africa and Asia because I couldn't find much information about that.
Ringgold: I went to Nigeria and Ghana. I was very much inspired by the art in both places. Have you been to Africa?
Rail: Only to South Africa and to Tunisia. So the very top and bottom. I haven’t been to West Africa. I’m hoping to travel soon.
Ringgold: Well, don’t miss Nigeria and Ghana. Their art was very inspiring for me.
Rail: And which parts of Asia have you traveled to?
Ringgold: Mostly Japan. Fabulous art.
Bergen: In 1987 Faith went to Japan. When she returned to New York her work reflected her experience in Tokyo. After seeing so many people in such close proximity, and the Japanese characters everywhere that looked like graffiti, she painted a story quilt called Subway Graffiti with 107 figures in it. That’s an example of how her travels influenced her art.
Ringgold: You become inspired by the different forms of art that you’re exposed to in the world. And that’s wonderful.
Rail: Absolutely. For people who are excited about your retrospective at the New Museum, is there one work in particular that you were just so happy to see there? Maybe one work that’s your favorite that’s there?
Ringgold: You know what? I love everything I’ve done. Sorry. [Laughter] Yeah, I love my work, or I would not have completed it. I can't think of one that's more to my liking than another. Seeing so much of my work together gives me a great deal of satisfaction and peace.