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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,

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