Faith Ringgold at the Serpentine Galleries review ****

Faith Ringgold

Serpentine Galleries, 22nd August 2019

Once again it has taken the Tourist way too long to gather his thoughts on something he has seen. Which means this snappy retrospective of the work of Africa- American artist has now finished. Sorry. It was Very Good. I guess that doesn’t help.

I first encountered Ms Ringgold’s work at the Soul of a Nation exhibition at Tate Modern in 2017. Thematic anthologies are always a dream for an art numpty like the Tourist, giving an opportunity to discover all manner of ideas and artists, but this exhibition was especially fertile. Norman Lewis, Romare Bearden, Charles White, (especially) David Hammons, Timothy Washington, Barkley Hendricks and Melvin Edwards. All blokes. Which made Betye Saar and especially Faith Ringgold stand out, because not only does their art tackle issues of race, African-American identity and history, it also powerfully explores gender inequality.

Given Ms Ringgold’s engagement with the civil rights and feminist movements in the US over her five decade career it is perhaps surprising to learn that this the first exhibition devoted solely to her work in Europe let alone the UK. Through paintings, posters, books, sculpture, performance and her fascinating quilts she makes acute political points whose relevance has certainly not declined with time. Through her teaching and through the National Black Feminist Organisation which she founded in 1973 with her artist daughter Michelle Wallace, Ms Ringgold has been as much activist and influencer, (with real purpose, not like today’s self-obsessed “model/icons”), as artist.

She was born (1930) in Harlem where she grew up immersed in jazz culture and the legacy of the Harlem Renaissance, majored in art education and started her career teaching. She began painting in the 1950s and 1960s influenced by African art, Impressionism and Cubism and inspired by writers such as James Baldwin and Amiri Baraka. She turned to art full time in 1973.

This survey opens with 7 paintings from her American People series from 1963 to 1967 which examines social inequality and racial tensions at the height of the Civil Rights movement from a woman’s perspective. These works formed the core of her inaugural exhibition at the Spectrum Gallery in 1967. The large scale US Postage Stamp Commemorating The Advent Of Black Power about sums it up. Oversizing a stamp, Pop Art style, depicting 100 sets of eyes and noses, in a grid, with 10 black faces across the diagonal, (symbolising the 10% of the population that was African American in 1967), the worlds BLACK POWER are spelled out across the other diagonal, but with WHITE POWER not so subtly encrypted horizontally. As with her quilts later on you are presented with an arresting overall image, here using flat, bright paint, which demands further detailed inspection, even after the message has made its mark. At the time FR said she did not have a clear idea of what Black Power represented but she did feel the need to ask the question about how women would fit into the struggle. And, if you ever wondered where the inspiration for the iconic Obama Hope poster campaign came from look no further.

In the 1970’s she led protests against the representation of women and Black artists in galleries, designed posters to support her politics and organised The People’s Flag Show in 1973 where she was arrested for “desecrating” the American flag. Her paintings darkened in tone, drawing from African art and, away from traditional oils. She began to explore the potential in fabric after being stirred by the C14 and C15 Tibetan tanka paintings that she saw in the Rijksmuseum on a visit to Europe in 1972.

Less convincingly to my eyes were the abstract works from the Windows of the World series made with her fashion designer mother Willi Posey. This diverse practice was represented in Room 2 but. based on the punters when I visited, one work in particular reels you in. The United States of Attica dates from 1971/72, prompted by the Attica NY prison riots where 43 people died, and depicts a map of the US in green, red and black, the colours of Marcus Garvey’s black nationalist flag, recording the details of genocides that have occurred in the US from the colonial era.

In the 1980s FR first turned to the story quilts for which she is best known and which form the heart of this exhibition. These incorporate images and text to present the inter-generational stories of African American women from slavery through to the present, often painful and poignant, but also powerful and uplifting. FR’s great-great grandmother Susie Shannon, born into slavery, was compelled to sew quilts for plantation owners.

I was particularly struck by the triptych of quilts extracted from the Slave Rape series which show naked women modelled on FR’s daughters fleeing through stylised undergrowth. The colours and lines reflect the rich textiles of Central Africa, the images are made more alarming by the absence of the pursuers. Then there is Who’s Afraid of Aunt Jemina? from 1983 which reimagines the racist stereotype from interwar minstrel shows used in the pancake mix brand as a determined matriarch who runs her own restaurant chain. The embroidering is exquisite, the characters sparkle, the text demands to be read. Rare sight to see people. after the regulation snap on their phones then standing still to follow the story across four generations. The other highlight was the personal Change: Faith Ringgold’s Over 100 Pounds Weight Loss Performance Story Quilt from 1986.

Later on in the 1980s FR moved away from narrative quilts to something closer to her earlier oil paintings and, for me at least, some of the classic art of the Harlem Renaissance, most obviously in Jazz Stories . Though the powerful political messages remain. In fact maybe even more so. Even without the text these dense complex works, as in the earlier pieces, need time to fully take in. We Came to America from 1997, part of the American Collection, shows a dreadlocked Statue of Liberty with black baby in one hand and torch in the other, astride an Atlantic Ocean, filled with writhing black bodies. The ship in the background is based on JMW Turner’s The Slave Ship. FR created a fictional artist creator for the series who dreams of walking back across the sea to Africa arm in arm with her brothers and sisters.

The Tar Beach quilt from 1988 is more autobiographical recalling childhood summers spent on the hot roof of her apartment building in Harlem with parents, friends and siblings. This formed the basis for FR’s acclaimed books for children. Subway Graffiti from 1987 shows friends and neighbours crammed on a subways platform with names and tags filling the panels which surround them.

But just in case we get too comfortable this collection ends with something more trenchant in the form of 1997’s The Flag is Bleeding again from the American Collection. We see a black women bleeding from her heart protecting her two small children all against the backdrop of the Stars and Stripes. The title is the same as that used in the American People series which opened the exhibition though that picture shows a black man armed with a knife, a white woman, and a white armed man peering through the bleeding flag.

The exhibition, and this is no criticism, did not include any of FR’s mixed media masks and costumes which she created in 1973, notably the Witch Mask series and the Family of Woman Mask series. Or any of her life-sized soft sculptures, which, like the masks, take inspiration from African art. The masks and costumes, together with music and dance, formed the basis of FR’s performance in the 1970s and 1980s which often retold the stories in her quilts.

Even without these elements this exhibition gave a very clear overview of FR’s practice. This is art with a clear message on behalf of those marginalised by race or gender, aware of its origins and its history. Nothing ambiguous or simplistic here. It elevates materials and making over theory and process, anger over aesthetic, and invites the viewer to take time to reflect on its meaning.

Above all else FR is a story teller. I like stories. And, I’ll bet, you do to. It’s just a shame that some of these stories still have to be told.

Soul of a Nation exhibition at Tate Modern ****

tate-1280x640

Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power

Tate Modern, 5th October 2017

I seem to have taken an age to get around to seeing Tate’s survey of African American Art through the vital twenty year period from 1963. There are a couple of weeks left to see it however should it be on your radar. It is, like the recently ended Queer British Art exhibition at Tate Britain (Queer British Art at Tate Britain review ***), an insightful overview for the uninitiated like me. Here we get a broad investigation of the Black American experience through these turbulent times and the artistic response to that experience.

It is focussed almost exclusively on the work of Black artists, with one or two exceptions (including a Warhol portrait of Muhammad Ali), and does an exemplary job in highlighting what it meant to be a Black artist in these decades of heightened Black consciousness. It groups artists from different regions, cities, collectives, exhibitions, and sometimes, movements, in order to map these responses which, on the whole, works, though perhaps makes it a little trickier for the dumb observer like yours truly to track the work of individual artists through the rooms.

For me the most interesting and effective art here was the most obviously political. The work that set out directly to highlight the impact of social and cultural change on African Americans, and specifically to attack the injustices meted out to African Americans both in the 1960s and 1970s but also stretching back through American history, was extremely affecting. Contemporary art with vague political entreaties can often seem naive to me. Here the anger, particularly in the work from the 1960s, was visceral.

The curators (Mark Godfrey and Zoe Whitley, who have clearly put a lot of work in here) were, I think, keen to explore the question of whether there was a Black Art independent of the subjects. There were certainly some fine works in the exhibition which portrayed Black American cultural and political “heroes” but I am not sure I understand how this necessarily related to notion of a bounded Black Art. I did however see how disagreements about this concept were debated, and it did help me in my thinking about how cultural superstructures more generally are defined and articulated. It was also interesting to see how the materials and techniques which inform contemporary art (and more specifically the increasing absence of paint) meant that the overtly political narrative seen in the works from the early 1960s became far more diffuse by the time we got to the early 1980s.

It also got me to thinking why I didn’t know any of these artists. OK so I am only a moderately interested observer/consumer, though my awareness has come on in leaps and bounds in the last couple of years. It is also fair to say that it is the job of curators in public galleries to expand the modern and contemporary art canon to our advantage, exactly what they are doing here. And, at the end of the day, it is they, and the rich who buy the works, who chose what we see. In essence if they don’t tell us, we won’t know. But to not really know any of these artists from the country which, I am loathe to admit, has dominated plastic arts in the 70 years, suggests that access to the public consciousness for many of these artists was a problem then and may still be now.

What about the works? Of course there was a fair bit of stuff here which didn’t do much for me. But there was other stuff which really did work on many levels. For what it is worth (precisely nothing) here are my highlights.

  • In Room 1 the work of the Spiral group active through 1963 to 1965 in New York is represented. They chose only to work in black and white in their only exhibition which lends real drama to, for example, Norman’s Lewis two near abstract oil canvases, Procession (which is is a theme he has explored in later works), and Alabama, which is a genuinely chilling depiction of Klansmen at night. The collages of Romare Bearden, a co-founder of Spiral, are nearly as affecting in a different way. This group sought direct engagement with the Civil Rights movement and created a powerful legacy for the next generation of African American artists.
  • Room 6 contains works by Charles White, David Hammons and Timothy Washington from their 1971 exhibition, Three Graphic Artists. White’s harrowing but dignified drawings, including his Wanted series of posters, detail the bloody history of slavery. Hammons’s body paintings were a revelation to me, in terms of the technique and their power. Injustice Case, which shows Bobby Seale, the founder of the Black Panthers, bound and gagged at his trial, will punch yo right in the gut. Hammons’s later engaging conceptual work is also featured at the end of the exhibition. Timothy Washington’s One Nation Under God engraving has multiple layers of meaning. This, along with the Spiral room, was the most compelling for me.
  • I think I could safely ignore the abstract artists in room 7 with the exception of Frank Bowling (born in Guyana) whose large canvas here, (sorry I lost my note of the title – note to self: perhaps this would be a reason to use a phone), refers to his birthplace and whose meditative canvas Texas Louise graces Room 10,
  • In Room 8 there is a wall of black and white photographs from Roy DeCarava which I guarantee will draw you in. The exposures are generally very dark which forces you to look very closely, especially at the portraits, whether they be everyday folk or famous Black musicians. On that note I also found myself fascinated by an OpArt portrait, maybe in Room 2, not because it was an especially powerful painting but because it was the divine Miles Davies.
  • Room 9 is comprised of Black Heroes and my eye was immediately drawn to the ironic self portraits of Barkley Hendricks, one as Superman, its sub-title Superman Never Saved Any Black People referencing a courtroom quote from Bobby Seale, and one nude responding to a critic’s comic (I won’t spoil the joke). His portrait What’s Going On comprised of four men in early 70s high camp white (mocking our expectations of “cool”) and one nude woman in acrylic and oil, refers to the classic Marvin Gaye song which was penned in response to the brutality of the response by police to the Berkeley protest through the 1960’s.
  • Room 10, Improvisation and Experimentation, shows just how diffuse art practice became in the 1970s and into the 1980’s and it is hard to see how this reflects any notion of a shared Black aesthetic. However the screen of barbed wire and chains which makes up Melvin Edwards’s Curtain screams incarceration even if the artist apparently claimed an entirely abstract intent.
  • Room 11 is devoted to the assemblages of Bettye Saar, now in her 90s. Her work also appears in Room 4 I think. The ideas and materials she employs are intriguing and create a link, which others have productively employed, back to African art.