Faith Ringgold’s American People Series #20:Die (1967), a largescale painting of blood-spattered limbs during a race riot, introduced the artist’s work to the UK with a bang when it was included in Soul of a Nation at Tate Modern last year. For her first solo exhibition in Europe, Pippy Houldsworth Gallery highlights two related strands of Ringgold’s practice: paintings from the 1960s and the story quilts that she’s been making since 1980 (and for which she is best known). Each of the five quilts on display belongs to a different narrative series, in which they act as chapters. These hybrid works are richly detailed, combining acrylic painting with carefully crafted patchwork and handwritten text. They are clamorous and – even at their most joyous – activist in intent. Ringgold has long fought against prejudice: in 1971 she founded the campaign group ‘Where We At’, Black Women Artists, and telling stories through quilts began as her riposte to a publishing industry uninterested, as she saw it, in narratives of black lives.
The small gallery is full of rich, interconnected stories. In the four early oil paintings on show, European Modernism combines with traditional Nigerian and Ghanaian masks to devastating effect: everyday racial and gender tensions are conveyed through stark, black-edged figures filled with saturated planes of colour. American People Series #16: Woman Looking in a Mirror (1966), for instance, sees a black woman impassively consider her own reflection. The composition is both homage to and subversion of Pablo Picasso’s post-Cubist phase (see his Girl Before a Mirror, 1932), and highlights the importance of self-definition in a racist, sexist society. Or take the quilt-edged painting Subway Graffiti #2 (1987), in which Ringgold gathers together dozens of characters she was either close to or admired – from her studio assistant to Jean-Michel Basquiat – in a joyously sprawling portrait of late-1980s New York. There’s the poignant tale of Coming to Jones Road Part II n.2 We Here Aunt Emmy Got Us Now (2010), in which a fictionalised family of slaves who have fled a cotton plantation and followed the Underground Railroad in search of freedom are finally reunited. The latest quilt, Ancestors Part II (2017), is an unabashed paean to hope for the future. Multiracial children dance together in a dreamlike state, with an accompanying text describing their song for a ‘world at peace’ filled with ‘love not hate’.
Combining an advocate sensibility with a clarity of graphic imagination, the piece is – almost – an effective stand-in for Ringgold’s project as a whole. There’s so many threads to unpick here, so tightly packed in, that the show’s only failing is its necessarily limited scale and reach. Though lauded in the US – Ringgold’s many children’s books feature on school curricula and her work is held in over 50 public collections – the eighty-seven-year old artist is relatively little-known on these shores. Let’s hope we won’t have to wait much longer to see her given the space she deserves.
Faith Ringgold: Paintings and Story Quilts, 1964–2017 at Pippy Houldsworth Gallery, London, 23 February – 28 April