The woman chose her dress carefully and made sure her shoes matched perfectly. After all, she thought, this is an exhibition opening and there would be a lot of fancy people to impress. She inspected her appearance in the mirror, with one final glance, as she left her apartment. She was excited to be heading to the gallery in Manhattan. The elevator ride up to the gallery entrance only served to increase her feelings of expectation. She had heard a new artist was showing her solo exhibition, an event first for both of them.
As she stepped off the elevator she stood in front of the large painting that greeted her. She hadn’t known what to expect, but it defiantly wasn’t this. She could feel the heat flush her cheeks, as the emotions started to overwhelm her, and she couldn’t help but let out a loud screech. Confusion flooded her brain, then the rush of anger, as the surge of adrenaline pulsated through her veins.
The huge scale of the painting was confronting, but what she found most offensive was the black people and all that blood. The violence of the scene before her assaulted her mind, as she tried to understand what she was viewing. Black people and white people were fighting, while two children sat huddled on the ground traumatised.
The woman was horrified, and she turned to flee from the image that had now seared into her mind. Exhibition be dammed, she wasn’t going any further, everybody was killing each other.
It was 1967, the year I was born. Martin Luther King Jr had already delivered his famous, ‘I have a dream’ speech, and Faith Ringgold was painting pictures about the condition of American society. Her paintings were not the images that Dr King was dreaming about, but rather, the emotionally charged paintings of race riots and inequality.
Faith Ringgold, born in 1930, had grown up in the blocks around her neighbourhood in Harlem. This was not an easy time for people of colour in America, but Faith’s childhood had been happy and creativity had been an active part of her family life. Ringgold’s mother was a fashion designer, and her father an avid storyteller. These creative folks encouraged Faith’s pursuits throughout her life, as she became a teacher, artist, professor and activist.
Ringgold began creating her American People Series in 1963. The earlier paintings were more subtle in their statements of inequality. #1: Between Friends, expresses the underlying hostility between the races, where pretence and performance mask racism and inequality. #3: Neighbours, explores the cold reception of the white neighbours when a black person moves in next door. This she achieved through her use of cool blue tones and blank facial expressions.
Ringgold’s art was not just political statements. She painted her experiences, the emotions she felt from the events and people in her life.
Die, however, was not a subtle painting or one that could be easily dismissed. Reaching the length of 365cm or 12 feet, this two-panelled artwork stood to make a statement. Consisting of ten almost life-sized, both black and white, well-dressed adults. They fight, flee or die, as two interracial children cover unnoticed beneath them. Blood is splattered across Ringgold’s canvas, resembling a crime scene, and mindful of Jackson Pollock’s mural scale drip paintings.
The artwork was exhibited at Ringgold’s first solo exhibition at the Spectrum Gallery and put on display at the entrance, where it definitely made an impact.
“I was just trying to read the times, and to me everyone was falling down. If it upsets people that’s because I want them to be upset.”
Ringgold’s political painting caused outrage when it was exhibited. It was all the blood and visual horror. Unlike the current race riots, which have been streamed daily around the world, at that time, the extent of the police brutality and random violence was not being shown on the news. There was so much unrest going on, but unless you were physically at the spot when it happened, you didn’t know what was taking place. Faith wanted people to see the tragedy of the events that were happening around them.
Ringgold does not point to or identify the instigators of the violence, nor the cause of the hostility. Everybody is involved and everybody is at fault. The victims are the children and the impact on the next generation.
“People are trying to keep their position in life. One group is trying to keep people down, while another group is trying to advance, and another group is trying to get out of the way. Everybody is involved, nobody gets away without the struggle. Freedom is not free, everybody is going to have to pay a price to be free.”
Number #20 of the American People Series, Die, was the last painting of this series and the most adventurous. The sheer mural size of the work had challenged Ringgold and if not for the support of the gallery owner, Robert Newman, the painting may not have been created. He allowed her the use of the empty gallery space for the summer and encouraged her to explore topical subjects.
Faith Ringgold had been inspired by her favourite painting by Picasso, Guernica. She had viewed this painting at the Museum of Modern Art when it had been there on display. Guernica was commissioned by the Spanish Republic for the 1937 World’s Fair. The almost 26-foot mural depicts the bombing of Guernica, a Basque town in northern Spain. The painting portrays the suffering of people and animals brought on by the chaos and violence and was exhibited on tour to bring attention to the Spanish Civil War.
The Art Reviews were not favourable towards Ringgold’s painting. One article even describing Die as “a horror cartoon of bloody street fighting with two terrified children (coloured and white) huddled in each other’s arms” (Art News quote Faith Ringgold Die, MOMA). Wasn’t this the point? The painting was created to bring attention to injustice and to bring awareness to the events on the streets.
Faith Ringgold continued to rally to the cause of the Civil Rights Movement and became more involved as an activist demanding better representation for woman artists and artists of colour in museums.
It is now 53 years since Ringgold painted Die and as I watch the evening news, I wonder, how much has changed? The incidence of police brutality continues to highlight the struggle of injustice amongst the black communities and riots continue to break out across America in response to decades of inequality.
The painting which went unsold during that decade has since found recognition, Die was purchased by the Museum of Modern Art in 2016. As we watch the unfolding response to the death of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter Movement, we can only hope that this global awareness can continue to see change happen.
“You can’t sit around and wait for somebody to say who you are. You need to write it and paint it and do it” — Faith Ringgold
I’ve been a visual artist for over 25 years, and now I tell my stories.
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