Born Faith Willi Jones
October 8, 1930 (age 85)
Harlem, New York City
Education City College of New York
Known for Painting, textile arts
Faith Ringgold (born October 8, 1930, in Harlem, New York City) is an African-American artist, best known for her narrative quilts.
1 Early life
2.4 Performance Art
4 Later life
5 Copyright suit against BET
6 In popular culture
7 Publications by Faith Ringgold
9 Notable Works in Public Collections
Faith Ringgold was born the youngest of three children on October 8, 1930 in Harlem Hospital, New York City. Her parents, Andrew Louis Jones and Willie Posey Jones, descended from working class families displaced by the Great Migration. Because her mother was a fashion designer and father an avid storyteller, Ringgold was exposed to creativity from an early age. After the Harlem Renaissance, Ringgold’s childhood home in Harlem was left with a vibrant and thriving arts scene. Figures like Duke Ellington and Langston Hughes lived just around the corner from her home. Her childhood friend, Sonny Rollins, who would later become a prominent jazz musician, often visited her family and practiced his saxophone at their parties. Because of her chronic asthma, Ringold explored visual art as a major pastime through the support of her mother, often experimenting with crayons as a young girl. In a statement she later made about her youth, she said, “I grew up in Harlem during the Great Depression. This did not mean I was poor and oppressed. We were protected from oppression and surrounded by a loving family.”. With all of these influences combined, Ringgold’s future artwork was greatly affected by the people, poetry, and music she experienced in her childhood, as well as the racism, sexism, and segregation she dealt with in her everyday life.
In 1950, due to pressure from her family, Ringgold enrolled at the City College of New York to major in art, but was forced to major in art education instead because art was thought to be an exclusively male profession. The same year, she also married a jazz pianist named Robert Earl Wallace and had two children (Michele Faith Wallace and Barbara Faith Wallace). However, because of his heroin addiction, they separated four years later. In the meantime, she studied with artists Robert Gwathmey, Yasuo Kuniyoshi, and was introduced to printmaker Robert Blackburn, with whom she would collaborate on a series of prints 30 years later.
In 1955, Ringgold received her bachelor’s degree from City College and soon afterward taught in the New York City public school system. In 1959, she received her master’s degree from City College and left with her mother and daughters on her first trip to Europe. While travelling abroad in Paris, Florence, and Rome, Ringgold visited many museums, including the Louvre. This museum in particular inspired her future series of quilt paintings known as the French Collection. This trip was abruptly cut short, however, due to the untimely death of her brother in 1961. Faith Ringgold, her mother, and her daughters all returned to the US for his funeral.
Ringgold’s artistic practice was extremely broad and diverse, and included media from painting to quilts, from sculptures and performance art to children’s books.
Ringgold began her painting career in the 1950’s after marrying her husband Burdette Ringgold. She took inspiration from the writings of James Baldwin and Amiri Baraka, African art, Impressionism and Cubism to create the works she made in the 1960s. Her early work is composed with flat figures and shapes. Though she received a great deal of attention with these images, galleries and collectors were uncomfortable with them and she sold very little work. This is because many of her early paintings focused on the underlying racism in everyday activities. These works were also politically based and reflected her experiences growing up during the Harlem Renaissance. These themes grew into maturity during the Civil Rights and Women’s movements.
Taking inspiration from artist Jacob Lawrence and writer James Baldwin, Ringgold painted her first political collection named the American People Series in 1963. It portrays the American lifestyle in relation to the Civil Rights movement and illustrates these racial interactions from a woman’s point of view. This collection asks the question “why?” about some basic racial issues in American society. Oil paintings like For Members Only, Neighbors, Watching and Waiting, and The Civil Rights Triangle also embody these themes.
Around the opening of her show for American People, Ringgold also worked on her collection called America Black, also called the Black Light Series, in which she experimented with darker colors. This was spurred by her observation that “white western art was focused around the color white and light/contrast/chiaroscuro, while African cultures in general used darker colors and emphasized color rather than tonality to create contrast.” Because of this, she was “in pursuit of a more affirmative black aesthetic“. She also created larger than life murals such as The Flag Is Bleeding, U.S. Postage Stamp Commemorating the Advent of Black Power People, and Die, concluding her American People series. These murals helped her approach her future artwork in a new way.
In the French Collection, Ringgold explored a different solution to overcome the rough historical legacy of women and men of African descent. Ringgold made this multi-paneled series that touches on the truths and mythologies of modernism. As France was the home of modern art at the time, it also became the source for African American artists to find their own “modern” identity.
Ringgold went to Europe in the summer of 1972 with her daughter Michele. While Michele went to visit her friends in Spain, Ringgold continued onto Germany and the Netherlands. In Amsterdam, she visited the Rijksmuseum, which became one of the most influential experiences affecting her mature work, and subsequently, lead to the development of her quilt paintings. In the museum, Ringgold encountered a collection of 14th and 15th century Nepali paintings that were framed with cloth brocades. These thangkas inspired her to produce fabric borders around her own work, so when she returned to the US, a new painting series was born: The Slave Rape Series. In these works, Ringgold imagined what it would have been like to be an African woman captured and sold into slavery. She invited her mother to collaborate on this project, since she was a popular Harlem clothing designer and seamstress during the 1950’s. This collaboration eventually lead to the making of their first quilt, Echoes of Harlem, in 1980.
She quilted her stories in order to be heard, since at the time no one would publish the autobiography she'd been working on. Her first quilt story Who's Afraid of Aunt Jemima? (1983) depicts the story of Aunt Jemima as a matriarch restaurateur. Another piece, titled Change: Faith Ringgold’s Over 100 Pounds Weight Loss Performance Story Quilt (1986), engages the topic of “a woman who wants to feel good about herself, struggling to [the] cultural norms of beauty, a person whose intelligence and political sensitivity allows her to see the inherent contradictions in her position, and someone who gets inspired to take the whole dilemma into an artwork”.
The series of story quilts from Ringgold’s French Collection deals with historical African American women who dedicated themselves to change the world (The Sunflowers Quilting Bee at Arles), the redirection of the male gaze, and the immersion of historical fantasy and childlike imaginative storytelling. Many of her quilts went on to inspire the children books that she later made, such as Dinner at Aunt Connie’s House (1993) published by Hyperion Books, based on The Dinner Quilt (1988).
In 1973, Ringgold began experimenting with sculpture as a new medium to document her local community and national events. Her sculptures range from costumed masks to hanging and freestanding soft sculptures, representing both real and fictional characters from her past and present. She began making mixed-media costumed masks after hearing her students express their surprise that she did not already include masks in her artistic practice. The masks were pieces of linen canvas that were painted, beaded and woven with raffia for hair, and rectangular pieces of cloth for dresses with painted gourds to represent breasts. She eventually made a series of 11 mask costumes, called the Witch Mask Series, in collaboration with her mother. These costumes could also be worn, but would give the wearer feminine features like breasts, bellies and hips. In her memoir We Flew Over the Bridge, Ringgold also notes that in traditional African rituals, the masks would have feminine features though the wearers were almost always men. In this series she wanted the masks to have both a “spiritual and sculptural identity”, emphasizing the fact that the masks could be worn and were not merely objects to be hung and displayed.
After the Witch Mask Series, she moved onto another series of 31 masks, the Family of Woman Mask Series in 1973, which commemorated women and children whom she had known as a child. She later began making dolls with painted gourd heads and costumes (also made by her mother, which subsequently lead her to life-sized soft sculptures). The first of this series was her piece, Wilt, a 7’3” portrait sculpture of basketball player Wilt Chamberlain. She began with Wilt as a response to some negative comments that Chamberlain made on African American women in his autobiography. Wilt features three figures, the basketball player with a white wife and a mixed daughter, both fictional characters. The sculptures had baked and painted coconuts shell heads, and anatomically-correct foam and rubber bodies covered in clothing. They also hung from the ceiling on invisible fishing lines. Her soft sculptures later evolved even further into life sized “portrait masks,” representing characters from her life and society, from unknown Harlem denizens to Martin Luther King Jr. She carved foam faces into likenesses that were then spray-painted—however, in her memoir she describes how the faces later began to deteriorate and had to be restored. She did this by covering the faces in cloth, molding them carefully to preserve the likeness.
As many of Ringgold’s mask sculptures could also be worn as costumes, her transition from mask making to performance art was a self-described “natural progression”. Though art performance pieces were abundant in the 1960’s and 70’s, Ringgold was instead inspired by the African tradition of combining storytelling, dance, music, costumes and masks into one production. Her first piece involving these masks was The Wake and Resurrection of the Bicentennial Negro. She described it as a narrative of the dynamics of racism and the oppression of drug addiction, in response to the American Bicentennial celebrations of 1976. She wished to voice the opinion of many other African Americans that there was “no reason to celebrate two hundred years of American Independence...for almost half of that time we had been in slavery”. The piece was performed in mime with music and lasted thirty minutes, and incorporated many of her past paintings, sculptures and installations. She later moved on to produce many other performance pieces including a solo autobiographical performance piece called Being My Own Woman: An Autobiographical Masked Performance Piece, a masked story performance set during the Harlem Renaissance called The Bitter Nest (1985), and a piece to celebrate her weight loss called Change: Faith Ringgold’s Over 100 Pound Weight Loss Performance Story Quilt (1986). Each of these pieces were multidisciplinary, involving masks, costumes, quilts, paintings, storytelling, song and dance. Many of these performances were also interactive, as Ringgold encouraged her audience to sing and dance with her. She describes in her autobiography, We Flew Over the Bridge, that her performance pieces were not meant to shock, confuse or anger, but rather “simply another way to tell my story”.
Ringgold has written and illustrated seventeen children's books. Her first was Tar Beach, published by Crown in 1991, based on her quilt story of the same name. For that work she won the Ezra Jack Keats New Writer Award  and the Coretta Scott King Award for Illustration. She was also the runner-up for the Caldecott Medal, the premier American Library Association award for picture book illustration.
Ringgold has been an activist since the 1970s, participating in several feminist and anti-racist organizations. In 1968, fellow artist Poppy Johnson, and art critic Lucy Lippard, founded the Ad Hoc Women's Art Committee with Ringgold and protested a major modernist art exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Members of the committee demanded that women artists account for fifty percent of the exhibitors and created disturbances at the museum by singing, blowing whistles, chanting about their exclusion, and leaving raw eggs and sanitary napkins on the ground. Not only were women artists excluded from this show, but no African American artists were represented either. Even Jacob Lawrence, an artist in the museum’s permanent collection, was excluded. After participating in more protest activity, Ringgold was arrested on November 13, 1970.
Ringgold and Lippard also worked together during their participation in the group Women Artists in Revolution (WAR). That same year, Ringgold and her daughter Michele Wallace founded Women Students and Artists for Black Art Liberation (WSABAL). Around 1974, Ringgold and Wallace were founding members of the National Black Feminist Organization. Ringgold was also a founding member of the "Where We At" Black Women Artists, a New York-based women's art collective associated with the Black Arts Movement.
In a statement about black representation in the arts, she said:
“When I was in elementary school I used to see reproductions of Horace Pippin’s 1942 painting called John Brown Going to His Hanging in my textbooks. I didn’t know Pippin was a black person. No one ever told me that. I was much, much older before I found out that there was at least one black artist in my history books. Only one. Now that didn’t help me. That wasn’t good enough for me. How come I didn’t have that source of power? It is important. That’s why I am a black artist. It is exactly why I say who I am.” 
In 1995, Ringgold published her first autobiography titled We Flew Over the Bridge. The book is a memoir detailing her journey as an artist and life events, from her childhood in Harlem and Sugar Hill, to her marriages and children, to her professional career and accomplishments as an artist. Two years later she received two honorary Doctorates, one for Education from Wheelock College in Boston, and the second for Philosophy from Molloy College in New York.
Ringgold currently resides with her husband Burdette “Birdie” Ringgold on a ranch in Englewood, New Jersey, where she has lived and maintained a steady studio practice since 1992.
Copyright suit against BET
Ringgold was the plaintiff in a significant copyright case, Ringgold v. Black Entertainment Television. Black Entertainment Television (BET) had aired several episodes of the television series Roc in which a Ringgold poster was shown on nine different occasions for a total of 26.75 seconds. Ringgold sued for copyright infringement. The court found BET liable, rejecting the de minimis defense raised by BET, which had argued that the use of Ringgold's copyrighted work was so minimal that it did not constitute an infringement.
In popular culture
A new elementary and middle school in Hayward, California, Faith Ringgold School K-8, was named after her in 2007.
Ringgold was named in the Le Tigre hit song "Hot Topic."
Publications by Faith Ringgold
Library resources about
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By Faith Ringgold
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Tar Beach, New York: Crown Publishing Company, 1991. ISBN 978-0-517-88544-4
Aunt Harriet's Underground Railroad in the Sky, New York: Random House, Crown Publishers. ISBN 978-0-517-88543-7
Dinner at Aunt Connie’s House, New York: Hyperion Books for Children. ISBN 978-0-590-13713-3
We Flew Over The Bridge: Memoirs of Faith Ringgold, Boston, Mass.: Little, Brown and Company, 1995; Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005. ISBN 978-0-8223-3564-1
Talking To Faith Ringgold, by Faith Ringgold, Linda Freeman and Nancy Roucher, New York: Crown Books for Young Readers, 1996. ISBN 978-0-517-70914-6
7 Passages To A Flight, an artist’s book, San Diego, California: Brighton Press.
Bonjour Lonnie, New York: Hyperion Books for Young Readers, 1996. ISBN 978-0-7868-0076-6
My Dream of Martin Luther King, New York: Crown Books for Young Readers. ISBN 978-0-517-88577-2
The Invisible Princess, New York: Crown Books for Young Readers. ISBN 978-0-440-41735-4
If a Bus Could Talk, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999. ISBN 978-0-689-85676-1
Counting to Tar Beach, New York: Crown, 2000. ISBN 978-0-517-80022-5
Cassie's Colorful Day, New York: Crown, 2000. ISBN 978-0-517-80021-8
Cassie's Word Quilt, New York: Crown, 2001. ISBN 978-0-553-11233-7
O Holy Night: Christmas with the Boys Choir of Harlem, New York: Harper Collins, 2004. ISBN 978-1-4223-5512-1
The Three Witches by Zora Neale Hurston illustrated by Faith Ringgold, New York: Harper Collins, 2005. ISBN 978-0-06-000649-5
Bronzeville Boys and Girls (poetry) by Gwendolyn Brooks illustrated by Faith Ringgold, New York: Harper Collins, 2007. ISBN 978-0-06-029505-9
What Will You Do for Peace? Impact of 9/11 on New York City Youth, InterRelations Collaborative, Inc., 2004. ISBN 978-0-9761753-0-8
2011: City College of New York’s First Annual Cultural Arts Award
2009: Met with President Barack Obama for Peace Corps award
2006: Harlem Arts alliance Golden Legacy Visual Arts Award
2006: James A. Porter Colloquium on African American Art Honoree
2005: Amistad Center for Art & Culture Presidents Award
2005: Moore College of Art and Design’s Visionary Women Award
2004: National Visionary Leadership Project
2002: California Art Educators Association Living Artists Award
2001: Dedicators Award 10/27/01
2001: Art Institute of Chicago, May 19, 2001
2000: Mary Grove College, Honorary Art Degree
1999: NAACP Image Award
1999: Art alliance (Scholastic) April 13, 1999
1999: CITYarts "Making a Difference Through the Arts" Award, June 21, 1999
1999: Bank Street, May 27, 1999
1995: Townsend Harris Medal City College of New York Alumni Association
1990: La Napoule Foundation Award for painting (in France)
1989: National Endowment For the Arts Award for painting
1988: New York Foundation For the Arts Award for painting
1987: John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship for painting
1978: National Endowment For the Arts Award for sculpture
1976: American Association of University Women for travel to Africa
1971: Creative Artists Public Service Award for painting
Notable Works in Public Collections
Tar Beach (Part 1, #1 from the Women on a Bridge Series), 1998, The Guggenheim Museum, New York, NY
Street Story Quilt, 1985, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY
Freedom of Speech, 1990, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY
Matisse’s Model (Part 1, #5 from the French Collection), 1991, The Baltimore Museum of Art, Baltimore, MD
Tar Beach 2, 1990, The Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA
Picasso’s Studio (Part 1, #7 from the French Collection), 1991, Worcester Art Museum, Worcester, MA
Dream 2: King and the Sisterhood, 1988, Museum of Fine Arts Boston, Boston, MA
Bitter Nest #2: Harlem Renaissance Party, 1988, The National Museum of American Art, Washington DC