Art is a weapon. I mean, not always. Sometimes it’s just something pretty for rich people’s walls. But in the hands of octogenarian American artist and activist Faith Ringgold, art is a weapon. Art is a way of fighting back.
Ringgold is a black artist, born and raised in Harlem during a time of civil unrest and social upheaval. The early paintings here show rich white bankers next to kissing interracial couples, an educated black woman near a bunch of featureless white men in suits, all captured with thick lines and flat planes of cream and blue and black.
But something about straight-up painting feels too close to established art tropes to be effective here. It’s when Ringgold ditches canvas for the power and history of quilts that things really start hitting home.
Influenced by Tibetan fabric art as well as the American quilt tradition, Ringgold starts combining storytelling and painting to stitch together narratives about black American history and the fight for equal rights. Panels alternate between written words and painted images. There are stories about Harriet Tubman, Martin Luther King Jr and pancake-mix icon Aunt Jemima. The images show horrifying visions of drowning slaves, but also New York subway scenes daubed with graffiti, people dancing in jazz clubs. Some of it is painfully harrowing, some of it brilliant empowering.
Using the power of folk tradition and her own fighting spirit, Ringgold condenses the black American experience down into little nuggets of visual gold. The abstract pieces in the second room don’t really work because they don’t feel as connected to a sense of narrative, but the rest definitely does.
This is art as a weapon of resistance, as an outlet for anger, as a call for justice. There’s nothing wrong with pretty art for rich people’s walls, but sometimes art needs to be something bigger, and this is it.