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Faith Ringgold obituary | Textile art

On a damp night in November 1970, Faith Ringgold, who has died aged 93, was locking the doors to an exhibition at the Judson Memorial church in Greenwich Village, when four strangers turned up pleading to see the show of flags she and several other radical artists of the downtown New York scene were staging. After a brief look at her painting, Flag for the Moon: Die Nigger (1969), in which the word “Die” is hidden among the stars of the American flag and the red stripes are adjusted to spell out the second word, the undercover police pulled out their badges and arrested her for desecrating the stars and stripes.

The art world was initially no more receptive to Ringgold’s searing indictments of structural racism and misogyny than the law. “David Rockefeller sent two people to buy [the painting]. But they ran away when they realised you can read the words …” Ringgold recalled. “It was my way of saying that too many American people go to bed hungry, while the government spent billions to place their flag on the moon.”

Faith Ringgold’s mural-sized painting American People Series #20: Die, 1967. Photograph: © Faith Ringgold/ARS, New York and DACS, London, courtesy ACA Galleries, New York

Her aim with her paintings, textiles and sculpture was “to depict everything that was happening in America – the 60s and the decade’s tumultuous thrusts for freedom”. American People Series #9: The American Dream (1964), for example, features an elegant woman sitting half in shadow, her skin tone changing from white to brown. After the Harlem riots kicked off, for her first solo show at Spectrum gallery in New York in 1967, Ringgold made American People Series #20: Die, a mural-sized painting with a debt to Picasso’s Guernica, showing 13 figures, white and Black, blood splattered and fighting.

“[Political activist] Stokely Carmichael was shouting Black Power! Black Power! On the radio. I was like, Black Power? What is he talking about, we don’t have any power,” she recalled in 2019. “We were only 10% of the population, how do we get any power? Well you get power by having all 10 of those per cent speak up. Speak up! That’s been my life, working, working till its done.”

By the mid 1970s, the artist had abandoned conventional wooden frames for her canvases and embraced fabric. To make the textile frames Ringgold enlisted the help of her mother, Willi Posey Jones, and their collaboration led to the narrative quilts Ringgold became best known for. Echoes of Harlem (1980) featured a grid of 30 painted portraits of Black local people stitched onto padded fabric. More quilts followed, now with embroidered text, each telling increasingly intricate stories of Black American life.

Faith Ringgold’s The Sunflowers Quilting Bee at Arles: The French Collection Part I, #4, 1991. Her quilts told intricate stories of Black American life. Photograph: © 2024 Faith Ringgold/ARS, New York, Courtesy ACA Galleries, New York

In Street Story Quilt (1985), Ringgold presented the facade of a Harlem residential block, under the windows of which text tells the three-decade story of a boy named AJ and his struggles with racism and poverty, culminating in his enlistment to fight in the Vietnam war. Sonny’s Quilt (1986) shows the jazz saxophonist Sonny Rollins – whom Ringgold once kissed, in a game of post office (postman’s knock) during her 13th birthday party – practising at night on Williamsburg Bridge.

Tar Beach (1988) depicts Ringgold as a young girl lying on a rug on the roof of the family’s tenement block as her family have dinner on a hot summer’s night. Ringgold adapted that quilt into a children’s book three years later, the first of 17 such publications in a career that encompassed sculpture, performance, masks, dolls, a large-scale mural at the Rikers Island women’s prison in 1972 and two large mosaics for the New York subway, unveiled in 1996, and featuring figures such as Sugar Ray Robinson and Malcolm X flying like superheroes through the air.

Faith was born in Harlem hospital in New York City, the third child of Willi (nee Posey) , a fashion designer, and Andrew Jones Sr, a driver for the sanitation department. It was the height of the Harlem Renaissance and Duke Ellington lived around the corner from their apartment on 146th Street. “We all had lots of beautiful, unique clothes made and designed by my mother. People were very careful about being dressed in those days. Nobody went out in the street looking raggedy, unless they were,” she told the Guardian in 2021.

Faith suffered from severe asthma and was homeschooled until aged eight after which she enrolled at Public School 90. In 1950, she married Robert Earl Wallace, a classical and jazz pianist, and in the same year applied to study art at the City College of New York. The school was not prepared to admit a Black woman to its studios, however, and instead she was told to reapply for a diploma in art education. On graduation, and by now with two daughters and divorced from Wallace, she returned to the college for a master’s degree in art, completed in 1959. Three years later she married Burdette Ringgold.

Faith Ringgold’s Tar Beach, 1988, depicts Ringgold as a young girl lying on a rug on the roof of the family’s tenement block as her family have dinner on a hot summer’s night. She adapted the quilt into a children’s book. Photograph: © Faith Ringgold/ARS, New York and DACS, London, courtesy ACA Galleries, New York

At City College, as her teachers guided her through a potted history of white European painting, she had made work depicting “a lot of boats and trees and whatever they taught you in school. Not political at all”, and in the early 60s she made a first trip to Europe, travelling in France and Italy. It was in the mid-1960s, reading James Baldwin at home, that she began to work on the American People series.

In the 1970s, frustrated at being frozen out of exhibitions – even Black-centred shows – she founded a series of feminist groups. With the Ad Hoc Women Artists’ Committee she dumped raw eggs and sanitary towels on the floor of the Whitney Museum to protest at the almost exclusively male lineup of its annual survey exhibition. “In the beginning, I thought it was just African Americans that we couldn’t get our art in. And then I realised that the demonstrations that we did would get the other African American male artists in, and I’d still be on the outside,” Ringgold told Ebony magazine. With her daughter Michelle, Ringgold formed Women Students and Artists for Black Art Liberation to protest at Afro-American Artists: New York and Boston, an exhibition of 72 Black artists which featured only nine women.

Faith Ringgold, Early Works #25: Self-Portrait, 1965. Photograph: © 2024 Faith Ringgold/ARS, New York, Courtesy ACA Galleries, New York

Towards the end of the decade the art establishment finally caught on to her work, and in 1978 she received a National Endowment for the Arts award for sculpture, followed by the same grant for painting in 1988. In 1984 she held a 20-year retrospective at the Studio Museum in Harlem and was appointed visiting associate professor at the University of California in San Diego. Five years later the Miami University Art Museum, in Oxford, Ohio, and Albright-Knox Art Museum, in Buffalo, New York, staged Faith Ringgold: A 25-Year Survey, which toured university museums across America over the following two years.

After that, Ringgold was rarely without a museum show to fill her year. In 1995 ACA Galleries, New York, went back even further with Faith Ringgold: 40 Years of Selected Works, the first of several shows Ringgold would have with the dealer. In 2017 her work was featured in Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power at Tate Modern, London, and in 2019 the Serpentine Galleries, London, held her first institutional solo show in Europe, which travelled to museums in Sweden and home to America. Her work is currently featured in Unravel: The Power and Politics of Textiles in Art at the Barbican Art Gallery in London.

Burdette died in 2020. Ringgold is survived by her daughters, Michelle and Barbara, three grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

Faith Willi Ringgold, artist, born 8 October 1930; died 12 April 2024

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