Last chance to see the Faith Ringgold exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery
Here’s a true story with a happy outcome. The artist, activist and children’s author Faith Ringgold is having a solo retrospective at the Serpentine Gallery, her first in Europe. (Two years ago, Ringgold’s work was included at the Tate Modern Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power). In the recent BBC Imagine documentary ‘Faith Ringgold: Tell It Like It Is’ devoted to her artistic practice, she declared, “…it is almost unbelievable to be here with my own show…beautiful…no doubt about it. “
Born in Harlem in 1930, Ringgold has used her art work to question perceptions of African American identity for over 50 years. In the 1960s and 70s, she created political posters, and campaigned for gender equality and racial representation outside museums in New York. Her paintings in the American People Series, were concerned with Civil Rights. One of these, the large canvas American People #19: US Postage Stamp Commemorating the Advent of Black Power hangs at the entrance to the Serpentine show. Another entitled American People #20: Die was acquired by the Museum of Modern Art in New York for its permanent collection, in 2016. These political paintings were followed by a series of quilts in the 1980s, which are hanging together in the London exhibition. One I especially liked is entitled Who’s Afraid of Aunt Jemima? Partially painted this has appliquéd figures with wool braids. And there is Tar Beach with its painted figures lying on a Harlem rooftop on a summer evening, the paint is applied directly onto the fabric. Text is also written onto the quilts to create narrative messages, mostly about the circumstances of the American black population over time. Ringgold’s work is powerful in its originality and message – and is now receiving the recognition it has long deserved.
The art world has moved on from its earlier preoccupation with Abstraction, then Conceptualism and now embraces greater diversity and inclusivity. Frank Bowling in his late 80s is celebrated with a retrospective at Tate Britain and now Faith Ringgold at 88 has a significant London show.
Surprising then in the current climate of inclusivity to read patronising comments, in The Times, by the BBC critic Will Gompertz, a true establishment figure. Promoting his Double Art History show at the Edinburgh Festival Gompertz wrote, ‘Old women across the globe, who reportedly paint or sculpt, are being remorselessly hunted down by eager curators desperate to discover a pensioner who identifies as female and an artist, and also happens to have an attic crammed with their hitherto unloved artworks. The cast of previously unheralded artists of a certain age being given gallery exhibitions is expanding faster than a glutton in a carvery. Phyllida Barlow, Lubaina Himid, Rose Wylie, Faith Ringgold…all are hot property now, but were largely unheard of in 2009.’ This may be regarded as funny for a stand-up show but it is incredibly insulting and smug. Barlow represented Britain at the Venice Biennale, Himid won the Turner Prize and Ringgold is celebrated for her artistic practice. It is important that female artists, now in later life, get the acclaim, exhibitions and success which has finally come to them.
Faith Ringgold is on at the Serpentine Gallery until 8 September 2019.