Since the 1970s, Harlem-born artist Faith Ringgold has been on the front lines of the fight for African American and women artists to receive equal representation in American museums. At 82-years-old, her famous story-quilt paintings hang in the permanent collections of some of the country’s most prestigious museums, including the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. After being honored as one of the women who “Make America” by the AOL/PBS MAKERS series, EBONY.com caught up with this beacon of African American history to discuss her legacy and her continued passion to see African American artists prominently featured in their own wings across the country.
EBONY: You’ve mentioned that because of World War II and women joining the work force, your mother was able to become a fashion designer in her own right and also divorce your father. As a young person, what impact did seeing your mother achieve these previously unheard of things?
FAITH RINGGOLD: I didn’t realize that my mother and father were separated, really, because in those days, fathers and husbands had to take care of their families still. In more ways than one, he was always there, I thought, and my mother didn’t work. It’s very interesting being brought up in the 30s and 40s. When the war in Europe started and men went away to war and women went to work, and my mother could actually divorce my father and have a job, that was very, very interesting to me and it was fascinating because she had always done work at home, she had made clothes for her family and friends but now she could go out to work.
EBONY: Is seeing your mother working outside of the home what sparked your later feminist activism?
FR: Yes, I would think so. She wanted learn how to use the electric sewing machine so she could work at a factory. And she did it! She wouldn’t stay on a job if it wasn’t beneficial to her she’d leave it and go get another one. I loved that about her. There were people who would complain about their jobs and my mother would walk away from that job I liked that a lot about her. She was a very, very creative woman and eventually she stopped working outside the house and she just had her own customers whom she made clothes for.
EBONY: Because you were a woman artist, and a Black woman artist, particularly, you had a very difficult time getting your work into museums and were met with so many obstacles in the art world from people who did not want your work to be showcased. So how were you able to keep going with your work in the face of all of that opposition?
FR: I just never stopped. I was functioning in a time when people were struggling and they knew they had to struggle and I was a part of that struggle. It wasn’t just women. In the beginning, I thought it was just African Americans that we couldn’t get our art in. And then I realized that the demonstrations that we did would get the other African American male artists in, and I’d still be on the outside. So, then I said, “I think I better champion a cause that is more to the point!” and so I became a feminist. You’re Black, yes, but you’re also a woman. And you’re not getting anything special for being a black woman, you’re getting something less. And that’s when I opened my eyes.
EBONY: Today, it seems many Black women shy away from the Feminist Movement or the term “feminist,” even after the great strides you’ve made, your daughter [Michele Wallace]’s work, bell hooks’s work, because historically it’s been a movement mostly White women have reaped the benefits from and African American women have not. What would you say to Black women today to encourage them to embrace feminism?
FR: I would say the same thing to them that I would say to them. Black women have never embraced feminism. They didn’t embrace it in the 50s and 60s, they’re not embracing it now. That’s not new. I think it’s a tendency among women in general not to be supportive of each other. It’s quite obvious that African American men have a better deal than African American women. It’s obvious to me. It doesn’t mean you’re against anybody, it means that you’re for yourself. I’ve got to be for myself. I’m doing all of this work and I’m still outside. I don’t want to be outside. And I do want to be supportive of other women and African American women especially. What’s wrong with that? One of the most wonderful I love the way they love each other’s work, they support each other in so many 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. And the art comes out of the experience. Art is a form of experience of the person, the place, the history of the people and as Black people we are different. We hail from Africa to America, so the culture is mixed, from the African to the American. We can’t drop that. It’s reflected in the music, the dance the poetry and the art.
I’m just wondering how long is that going to take for the art community and the universities and the museums to understand that African Americans have a unique form of history. It’s recognized in music and the literature, why not the art? So I’m not going to rest until I can go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the MOMA, the Guggenheim, the Whitney and meet my friends in the African American gallery of these museums and see what the latest show is. There’s a cultural history and it should be allowed to show itself. Museums are tax-exempt public institutions for the public good and we’ve got to demand it.
The world premiere of Makers: Women Who Make America debuts on PBS on February 26 at 8pm EST on PBS. Check your local listings.
Brooke Obie writes the award-winning blog DistrictDiva.com. Follow her on Twitter @BrookeObie.