Faith Ringgold Talks Art and War

Faith Ringgold Talks Art and War

The legendary artist speaks on feminism and fighting for representation

Brooke Obie

by Brooke Obie, February 25, 2013

Faith Ringgold Talks Art and War

Faith Ringgold

I think women should

EBONY: Why do you think that is, that women don’t support each other?

FR: I think there’s this rivalry of not helping each other. When people are oppressed, I think sometimes that happens. They learn not to want to help each other. “Since we’re held down, why should you be up and I be down?”  But the men seem to stick together and champion each other and I think women will learn to do it and I think in many ways they already do it. Maybe they don’t want to call themselves feminists because White women are racists too. But that has nothing to do with me. I can’t help how other people feel.  I just have to be supportive of myself, and I am a woman. And my daughters are too.

EBONY: You mentioned that when you were first protesting in front of the Whitney demanding that more women painters’ art be shown, it was your then-teenage daughter Michele who said you should ask for 50% representation. And from there, she’s gone on to make such an impact in the Black Feminist Movement, starting the National Black Feminist Organization alongside you and writing the groundbreaking book, Black Macho: The Myth of the Superwoman. How do you feel as a mother to know that you have passed this legacy of feminism on to her?

Well, I am very proud of her. She does wonderful things: she’s a professor, she has a PhD in literature and she’s just fabulous in so many ways and I am very, very proud of her and my other daughter as well. And back then, I was proud of her too [for suggesting we ask for 50% representation]. It’s very often that some young person who is new to the idea will come up with a revolutionary idea and she did.  So, I am very proud.

EBONY: You’ve spoken out about your own fight for contraception as a young woman and how your doctor refused to give you contraception unless your husband came in to get it until you threatened to have an abortion, at which point your doctor gave in and prescribed contraception for you. Now we’re 40 years into the Roe v. Wade decision and still have several states who are making access to contraception as well as abortion tremendously difficult for women. What’s your reaction to these new state laws trying to erode the Roe decision?

I can’t imagine that anybody can be successful determining [when a woman can have a child]. Now they’re talking about women going on the frontlines as soldiers in wars and you can’t even determine whether or not you should have a child. It’s not just about having a child; you have to take care of that child. You have to give that child a good life. Even if you’re raped you should have the child anyway? This is amazing. This is a situation that I just cannot imagine. Women should have control over your body absolutely. Can you imagine a man having a baby he doesn’t want? That would never happen if men were the ones getting pregnant.

EBONY: Your first piece, “Whose Afraid of Aunt Jemima,” really struck me because you took this story of Aunt Jemima, this stereotype, this mammy-figure and you completely rewrote her story and made her an empowered woman. How important is that, as an artist to be able to rewrite some of these storied and ugly histories for one’s own peace of mind?

FR: As a people, you do what you can with what you have. You have to work with what you have, the history, the experience that you have, you take that and you create out of it. You create your music, you create your dance. But that is what you have to do it with. The impact of the history is real and it comes out in different ways, ways that are fascinating. The artists has the power to decide how to express themselves and how. It is important to know the history of people who are creating the art. It explains so much.

But we’re not going to know this on the level we should know this until we have our own African American galleries inside museums across the country. 

EBONY: After all the amazing strides you made for Black women and artists across the country, what do you hope your legacy will be?

FR: Well, I really will not rest until our art museums have galleries, wings, where the art of African Americans is shown -- not in the American art galleries, because we are Americans, yes, but we are not just Americans. We did not come here on the Mayflower. We came here as slaves and our history is completely different than other Americans’ history. No one can deny that.

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