Faith Ringgold, Quilt and Visual Artist, Dies at 93: NPR

Artist Faith Ringgold sits in front of her 1993 quilt “Tar Beach.” The artwork also inspired a children's book of the same name.

Kathy Willens/AP


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Kathy Willens/AP

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Artist Faith Ringgold sits in front of her 1993 quilt “Tar Beach.” The artwork also inspired a children's book of the same name.

Kathy Willens/AP

Artist Faith Ringgold, known for her story quilts depicting African-American experiences, has died. She was 93.

Her death was confirmed by her assistant Grace Matthews, who said Ringgold died Saturday at her home in Englewood, N.J.

Ringgold also created paintings, sculptures, performance art and children's books. Her work focused on black life, female life, and the intersection between the two.

One of her first and most famous story quilts is called “Who's Afraid of Aunt Jemima.” It started with her observation about the changing face of a certain pancake brand.

“You know Aunt Jemima's pancake box?” Ringgold said Fresh air's Terry Gross in 1991. “If you look at the first one, when I was a kid, she was much darker… her nose was wider, her lips were fuller and she was fatter… And so I wanted to pay tribute to all these Aunt Jemimas that we have in all our families – these strong and very powerful women who sometimes don't pay attention to their weight because they are so busy taking care of and feeding the whole family.

The result is a quilt with square panels showing black women, alongside panels of children, teens, adults, white and black. Between the people are panels with written text and samples of decorative fabrics.

In story quilts like this, Ringgold worked in a medium that had deep ties to African-American slavery. However, it was not her original medium. She wanted to paint landscapes.

She told NPR in 2013 that she was trying to show those landscapes in a major gallery in New York. This was during the civil rights movement and gallery owner Ruth White turned her down.

“And she says to me, 'You can't do that. You're a black woman and you paint landscapes? This is the mid-'60s – all hell is breaking loose all over the country,'” Ringgold said.

Ringgold's art changed. She began reading works by James Baldwin and Amiri Baraka and became part of the Black Arts Movement.

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A visitor views artist Faith Ringgold's work, 'The Flag is Bleeding #2' during a preview on December 4, 2019.

Leila Macor/AFP via Getty Images


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A visitor views artist Faith Ringgold's work, 'The Flag is Bleeding #2' during a preview on December 4, 2019.

Leila Macor/AFP via Getty Images

In 1963 she began a series of paintings called The American People. They are sometimes frightening, violent images.

One of them, called 'Die', shows a street riot. Another song, “The Flag Is Bleeding,” shows just that.

“It was what was going on in America,” Ringgold said in 2013. “And I wanted them to look at these paintings and see themselves. Look and see yourself.”

Faith Ringgold was born in 1930 in Harlem, New York City. She had asthma and spent a lot of time at home making art as a child. She eventually went to art school.

Ringgold learned to quilt from her family. Her mother, Willi Posey Jones, made dresses; she worked with her daughter to create Ringgold's first story quilt.

As Ringgold grew older, her images became less angry. Eventually she began writing and illustrating children's books. At the end of her career she enjoyed more exhibitions around the world and major retrospectives of her art.

Adrienne Childs is an art historian and curator. She says Ringgold influenced a generation of artists.

“Faith Ringgold opened the door for younger artists – for artists after her, black artists in particular – to get their message across through these alternative types of media,” Childs said.

Childs said she had a favorite Faith Ringgold book to read to her own children when they were young: Tar Beach. Based on one of her own story quilts, Tar Beach tells the story of a young girl who lies on the roof of an apartment while her parents and their friends have a picnic, imagining herself flying above the city.

At the end of Tar Beach, the girl tells her brother that anyone can fly. “All you need,” Ringgold wrote, “is a place to go that you can't get to any other way.”


NPR
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Additional reporting by Chloe Veltman.

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