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Transforming Lives-Womenís Leadership Interview Project
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An Interview with Faith Ringgold

Conducted by Rutgers Leadership Scholar Karin Zahavi

November 20, 2009

Karin Zahavi: Can you describe growing up in Harlem in the 1930s? Who were your influences?

Faith Ringgold: I think itís nice to come up in a period where great changes are being made and that was my period ó the 30s to the 60s ó radical changes being made.

I have to say I didnít know any of the artists, even though they lived all around me. And that was because they were not in books. They did not teach us about them in school. They were not hanging in the museums. They were nowhere to be seen. Except, they were walking up and down the street ó same streets I was walking down. But I didnít know who they were and I think they didnít even know who they were. You know, part of knowing who you are is not just coming from you. Itís coming from other peopleís relationship to you and art is just not a popular thing. Itís not popular. It probably never will be and weíre not really that upset about that.

Who I saw that shaped me as a young person were the musicians. And Thurgood Marshall and W.E.B. Dubois ó those people lived on my street. Aaron Douglas did also. Although, I didnít know he was a great artist. And I would say, I donít think he knew either. He taught in a university in the South, and he came back and forth Ďcause the South was hard to be in. I imagine he relieved himself in summers and all ó he would stay up North.

There was a tremendous cultural activity going on in Harlem from the 20s on, 30s, 40s, through the 60s I would say. I did not find out about Jacob Lawrence and [Romare] Bearden and all those people until the 60s and I found them on my own. I didnít find them in school.

In school, I was taught to copy the great masters of European art ó Picasso, Matisse, Degas. I think it really crippled a lot of people. In a way, I have a conflict about that.

KZ: In what ways did you experience the Harlem Renaissance?

FR: You had a period there ó the first time when black people felt comfortable about showing their own image Ö painting themselves black. They had been told black is ugly, itís invisible, you know Ö when you look at it, itís a bad thing. Youíve got to tell people that youíve enslaved that theyíre nobody ó theyíre nobody. You canít build up feelings of identity in the mind of the slave ó thatís going to lead to nothing but trouble. So, they had had generations of this Ö black is awful, itís the wrong thing to be and youíre the wrong thing to be ó you are nothing.

Now, here comes the Harlem Renaissance and the idea that black is beautiful ó well, we hadnít gotten to that until the 60s. The 60s came with ďblack is beautiful,Ē but it was just before that when ďOK, paint yourself black because thatís what you are.Ē And Aaron Douglas did those first black paintings and artists had to deal with it ó a lot of them were opposed.

KZ: What were some obstacles you faced as a black female artist in that period?

FR: Well, the obstacles had to do with the same racism that black people face in every field. The 60s were rough. It was a cultural period. It was a period during which a lot of doors had opened, a lot of things happened, a lot of changes were made.

In the visual art world, there still has not been a lot done in terms of equity for different groups of people. African Americans, in particular, to show their work and have it seen in the venues that are set aside for the visual arts like museums. Museums have not, up to now, created galleries to show the work of African-American artists and that is why ó one of the reasons why ó itís important to deny the existence of such a form, such a genre because if you accept it ó well, then, where is it? Why is it not here? Itís the same thing with women ó they donít have galleries of womenís art. Well, you do have some womenís museums.

I canít do anything outside of my experience. I am black and I am a woman. There it is! Right there. And I canít be one without the other because it just canít happen. You look at me and you donít see a black man. You see a black woman, right? So, what can I say? Itís right there. Of course, you cannot, you should not ó ever ó make something as an artist, or, even as a writer, that is outside of your experience. I mean, I cannot begin to tell a story about someoneís life whoís lived it and I havenít. So, any story, any painting I do, has to be within my experience. So, no, I donít do anything thatís alien to me. It may be my reaction to that thing but it isnít something thatís foreign to me. No. Everything is quite Ö not necessarily my autobiography, not necessarily my complete story, but Iím all over it.

KZ: What has been the relationship between your social activism and your art? Is there an audience you think your work might resonate with more than others?

FR: The activism is there in the work. But Iím not going to change anything to impress somebody who may be looking. Iím going to do whatís in my heart and do what I think I should be doing and risk not having a viewer.

Youíre not guaranteed a viewer. Most artists will not have a viewer. People will look and look away. People will look and not see. Thatís your job, really, as an artist Ö is to hold them for a while. But, not to give them any message that they want, necessarily. Itís what I want to say.

I have a pretty good idea of the story theyíve already heard, whoever they are. But hereís my story ó this is my take on it. So, what do you think about that? I donít concern myself too much about the viewer. Iíll tell you another thing, too. Iíve been so surprised over the years at what people actually see in the work. They often see things that I never thought of. Thatís why itís so important to show your work. And so itís imperative that artists ó especially young artists ó show their work because as they show their work, theyíre going to get comments and ideas from what it is theyíre doing that they never thought of.

So your viewer is very instrumental in your ability to develop as an artist. But I donít think that should be your first concern, no. Because youíre not guaranteed a viewer ó no, not at all.

KZ: When did you begin to develop a mature style of your own? How did you overcome and earn your rightful place in the art scene?

FR: After I graduated from college in 1959 Ö all this time before, I was going back and forward between all these different artists who I had copied, you know. Itís hard to pull yourself away from that.

Well, let me tell you a little story. This was in my still life period. I took my still lifes and my landscape pictures and went shopping for a gallery. Weíre talking early 1960s ó Iíd say maybe 1960 or 1961. I was looking for a gallery to show my work. I went to a gallery on 57th Street. In this gallery, [the owner] had lots of images of still life and landscape pictures. And see, I didnít take just pictures, I took the real art. So, they couldnít tell me, ďIím not sure what this looks like.Ē Iím going to take the picture ó OK? [laughs] So, here, I come in with my husband and heís carrying the pictures and weíre looking around and he says to me, ďSheís got landscapes and still lifes like yours Ö maybe weíre in the right place.Ē So, she looked at what I had to show her, and she said to me, ďYou canít do this.Ē Now, I was so bowled over when she said that Ö I donít recall the rest of the exchange. The most powerful thing I heard her say was ďYOUÖ canít do that.Ē And I was trying to figure out now what was she trying to say.

I think it was hostile, but you can learn from hostility. I like to take hostility and turn it into something sweet for me Ö you know, like the blues? I think thatís the story of black people in America: Taking that bad stuff and making it into something good ó sing the blues over it. So thatís what I did.

I said to myself, what sheís really saying is thereís an experience, a black experience going on in America. Youíre part of it. You need to be putting your voice to that. You donít wait for somebody else. She opened that door for me.

We decided that she meant that here we are in the 1960s ó all hell is breaking out all over America. We are in a revolutionary phase! Things will never ever be the same in America. And here you are making still life Ö and landscapes? YOU? YOU, who are in the middle of all this? You canít do that! So, I said, ĎSheís right! I canít. Iím not going to. This is my experience. Itís my culture. I have an opportunity here to have a voice about what is going on in this country ó my country ó right now to me. Sheís right.í And thatís when I decided to do my ďAmerican PeopleĒ series.

That next summer of 1963, I took my daughters and we went up to Marthaís Vineyard for the summer and I started painting the ďAmerican PeopleĒ series. The ďAmerican PeopleĒ series are images of what I saw as I looked around in a racist America. From 1963 to 1967, I painted a series of 20 paintings. By 1967, I had a gallery. I painted myself into a gallery. In 1967, [the owner of the gallery] said, ďOK, youíre having your first show.Ē

At that time in America, let me tell you what was going on. Modern art was about huge canvases of just abstraction. Donít say anything in your work ó I mean it was very uncool to just be giving out messages and talking trash. Nothing. Donít say anything. Just have colors and no meaning. People are not going to jump up and start buying political art. Make something that everybodyís going to like and what are everybody going to like ó theyíre going to like this abstract thing. Iím not saying they werenít beautiful; there was a lot of wonderful, wonderful work shown, and made. They painted these huge canvases of colors and I was painting these small canvases of all hell breaking out [laughs].

[The gallery owner] said, galleries in the summer close down and they all went to New York or Provincetown. ďSo,Ē he says, ďWhile Iím gone, Iím giving you the keys so that you can paint big. Youíre going to have the whole gallery to yourself, no work on the walls except yours, and I want you to paint some big images and I want you to just say whatís going on in America right now, just say it, do it, put everything together and let it roll.Ē

Iíd go down to the gallery everyday and paint and I had the whole place to myself. Thatís when I painted ďThe Flag is Bleeding.Ē I did three large paintings that summer: ďThe Flag is Bleeding,Ē ďThe Black Power Postage Stamp,Ē and ďDie.Ē

And I had a show and it was wonderful. It got great reviews in The Times, in Art News.

Flying means that you can do the impossible. What they say you canít do ó ignore that, just do it anyway. Here you are, you say. Because womenís voices donít get to be heard. People donít ask their opinions of things that are happening in the world. Itís the men that get asked. But as an artist I donít have to wait for anybody to ask me anything ó I can paint what I want. Now they can decide not to look, but itís there and I did it. And so thatís where I turned [rejection] around to say ó you have a voice, use it! You can do it. THIS is not your voice. Letís hear what your voice is.

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