Exploring Faith Ringgold’s “American People” on July Fourth

Blog Category:  Artist Spotlight
Modernist portrait of a dark-skinned woman with her hair styled in a 1960's updo, wearing pearl earrings and a pearl necklace. In a style akin to Cubism, solid-colored shapes in browns, blues, black and orange, are arranged to create the overall image.

Every year the Fourth of July promises picnics, fireworks, and summery snacks—it’s a time of celebration with family and friends. However, Independence Day also brings to mind those people who have not always enjoyed the freedoms we celebrate. We praise America as the land of the free and the home of the brave, but is it? Different stories, such as Faith Ringgold’s, show us our ideals through the prism of failures, nuances, and hardships in our past.

Semi-cubist painting of a black man, white woman, and white man linking arms, superimposed with the American flag. The black man, partially obscured by the stars on the flag, clutches his bleeding chest with one hand and holds a knife in the other. The red stripes of the flag drip as if bleeding.
Faith Ringgold, American People Series #18: The Flag Is Bleeding, 1967; Oil on canvas, 72 x 96 inches, Courtesy of Faith Ringgold and ACA Galleries, New York; © Faith Ringgold 1967 Photo courtesy ACA Galleries, New York

In her American People series, included in the NMWA exhibition American People, Black Light: Faith Ringgold’s Paintings of the 1960s, Faith Ringgold explores this question as it related to African Americans in the 1960s, during the Civil Rights Movement and feminist movement. Her paintings depict everyday Americans, both white and black, struggling under social pressures, masking their feelings behind façades, and uneasily forming relationships. This closer look reveals Ringgold’s perspective on the African American struggle for equality during the turbulent ’60s.

Her 1963 piece Between Friends depicts two women, one black and one white, meeting at a doorway. Although the women may seem close, there is distance and unease in their meeting, showing Ringgold’s belief that while the two women could talk, they were divided by a racial barrier, keeping them from closer friendship. Ringgold explains that the cross formed by the wooden beams was intended as a reference to religious practice, particularly the divisions she saw exacerbated as white worshippers attended white churches and black worshippers attended black churches.

Faith Ringgold stands and speaks, gesturing with her hands, in front of her portrait paintings. She is a dark-skinned adult woman wearing colorful clothing and a black sweater, including a yellow head wrap and chunky jewelry—rings, earrings, necklaces, and bracelets.
Photo credit: Laura Hoffman, NMWA

While creating this piece, Ringgold was staying with a family friend in her home at Oak Bluffs, a predominately African American community on the traditionally white Martha’s Vineyard. While there, she witnessed many interracial interactions and relationships; she internalized what she saw and explored these themes—particularly overt and hidden hostilities—in her art.

Faith Ringgold’s art speaks volumes about our recent past, and the Fourth of July is an opportune moment to reflect on the struggles that many people have endured, and others still endure, to achieve the freedoms that we celebrate. NMWA will be open on July 4, and American People, Black Light will be on view through November 10, 2013.

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