This blog is composed of images and writings related to the life and work of Faith Ringgold, her mother Mme. Willi Posey, and her daughters Michele and Barbara Wallace. There are pages with links to blogs composed of the materials arranged by decades. The blog, itself, will ultimately be composed of materials related to the life of the family in the 90s and the 21st century.

Thursday

Critical Essay: Soul Pictures: Mid 1940s Through Early 1950s

Soul Pictures: Black Feminist Generations--
Mid 1940s to Early 1950s
by
Michele Wallace

By 1986, Faith Ringgold was even somewhat ahead of her plans for artistic success. She had been unrelenting in her choice as a black woman artist to do that which no one had ever seen anyone do, which was to render herself a world class visual artist, somebody her peers regardless of race, gender and ethnicity would know, respect and recognize. Failing that—because it didn’t look much like anything anybody else of her race and gender could do in 1959 when she started out after grad school—well at least she would have pursued every possibility, produced as much first rate work in as many ways as she could imagine.

In 1986 she had achieved her 50-year landmark and then some, despite the burden of two daughters who didn’t always appreciate the importance of her goals and two husbands. Her second husband (Burdette Ringgold) had been extremely helpful in terms of providing security both for her and the girls.

Faith had thus become a relatively well known artist in cultural circles all over the United States and abroad via her travelling exhibitions of tankas (sewn clothe frames around acrylic paintings, which included her Slave Rape Series, her Political Landscape Series, and her Feminist Series), her soft sculpture (including sewn and beaded dolls, sculptures and masks) and her performance pieces in which she read to college audiences from the text of her autobiography in-progress wearing a variety of costumes and masks she had made with the help of friends and various artist assistants. [1]

By this time she had major league representation in a gallery in SoHo and she had received an appointment as a full Professor at the University of California in San Diego where the position granted her a large studio to work in, spending six of the coldest months of the year in California. Now she retained artist assistants in both New York (Lisa Yee) and California (Gail Leibig) to handle the increasing commissions, to do the intricate needlework her projects required, and to leave her time to continue to pursue her further developments in her own art even as she still engaged in college tours and college teaching. She had always had a lot of energy and an indomitable spirit. Such qualities were to rise particularly to the surface in the 80s. Her New York address remained in Harlem in the apartment where our family had come to live in the early 1960s.

But the single aspect of her work that would account for bringing her the most attention in the 80s was the development of the story quilt. Quilting she had learned from her mother (Mme. Willi Posey), who had learned it from her mother (Ida Matilda Posey) and her grandmother (Betsy Bingham) in Palatka and Jacksonville, Florida, who had learned it from their female forebears who had been weavers, quilters and seamstresses for their families and their communities.
When Faith’s mother Willi Posey died in 1982, it was a setback for the entire family but especially Faith because she was still in the early stages of pursuing the quilting collaboration with her mother prompted by an invitation to participate in an artists/quilters collaborative show which begun at the University of Texas in San Antonio.[2] Out of that collaboration had come “Echoes of Harlem (1980),“ and then “Mother’s Quilt (1983),” which was made by Faith from pieces cut by Posey shortly before her death.
In 1983, when Faith was producing her first story quilt “Who’s Afraid of Aunt Jemima?” she was doubtful of its artistic value or legitimacy in the beginning, not sure of what it was she had.








Image One--Who's Afraid of Aunt Jemima? By Faith Ringgold (1983). Private Collection. All rights reserved. Story Quilt Acrylic Painting framed in tie-died quilted fabric. Tie-Die by Marquetta Jones.






Image Two--Detail of Who's Afraid of Aunt Jemima? Handed beaded and painted images of Aunt Jemima as a modern middle aged woman with dignity and ambition. Faith's first story quilt.

Faith hid this quilt under an extra bed because she wasn't sure she had done anything worth being seen. Moira Roth came to stay with us at 345 West 145th Street. I was then living with my parents. Moira who would offer the job of the professorship at UCSD wanted to see her work in preparation for writing about her for a catalogue for her 20 Year Retrospective at the Studio Museum in Harlem when mother confessed that her newest work she had hidden under her bed. Of course Moira asked to see it, loved it. She and Mary Schmidt Campbell (who was then Director of the Studio Museum) insisted that it be featured on the cover of the catalogue (which I edited) and on a poster advertising the show. Both the catalogue and the poster can still be found on sale at the Studio Museum.


Made up of heavily embroidered squares of all the characters in the story, in particular several versions of Aunt Jemima, Faith centered the art work around a fictional narrative in dialect describing the rise to economic glory of Aunt Jemima and her happy marriage followed by her death and the African funeral her children then gave her.[3]



Image Three--“Change: Faith Ringgold’s Over 100 Pounds Weight Loss Story Quilt” January 1, 1986. All rights reserved. Faith Ringgold Archive.


At that point, Faith’s major writing experience had been in the context of her autobiography in-progress, which had not yet found a publisher. Indeed, she read from the autobiography and began to write on her quilts as a way of publishing despite the rejection of publishers.
Of course, in 1988 Faith would do what is still her most famous story quilt, «Tar Beach», which is currently in the Collection of the Guggenheim Museum, as part of her Women on a Bridge Series of story quilts featuring as well «Sonny's Quilt.» which featured her childhood friend Sonny Rollins practicing his saxophone on a bridge. It was someone who admired Tar Beach who first came to her with the idea of making a children’s book out of it. That book had such success among children and adults that it won the coveted Caldecott Prize.


Nonetheless in 1985, Faith was still lugging one very concrete vestige of the grief that had descended onto her shoulders after the unexpected death of her mother in 1981 (Posey was 78) and the equally unexpected death of her sister, and her only remaining sibling, Barbara (she was 58) in the following year. It had been a sad business indeed but it was now time to shed that burden, which had taken the all too tangible form of a precipitous weight gain. In the course of this struggle, Faith produced a work of art unlike any she had done before or has done since. It was a joyful and mostly light spirited work of art (probably the lightest she had done yet) that would draw heavily upon the story of her family as represented by the huge photographic archive my grandmother and her mother Mme. Willi Posey had painstakingly composed in the course of her lifetime. This new work in story quilt form would summarize and comment upon her travails as a black woman up to and including the present (Faith was 58 at the time, the same age I am now). The purpose of the work, which was clearly stated in the work, itself, was to support her in her effort to lose the weight she had gained over the decades.[4]

Change: 100 Pound Weight Loss Story Quilt was anchored around yet another version of a story quilt, this time based on Faith’s life and her relationship to food in 7 rectangular sections composed each of a photo/collage of pictures of herself and family transferred to a white muslin surface in a then experimental printing technique with matching text panels hand printed by Faith telling stories about the role food had played in her life in that particular decade. The panels were then sewn together and quilted.

Since this story quilt seems to me to provide such a pivotal turning point in the development of our life as a family and in the development of Faith’s work as an artist, I have decided to use its gathering of pictures and family memories to organize the story of the women in our family.

Their black feminist legacy was curiously shaped out of many things not ordinarily thought of as feminist, such as fashion shows, weddings, cocktail parties, club dances, and trips to Africa and Europe, although these activities are often thought of as markers of striving for upward class mobility, particularly among the black bourgeoisie. What I would like to suggest in this case is that it is visually impossible to distinguish the aspirations of women for improvement in their status as nonbeings in a world dominated by men from the more problematic characteristics of striving for what Thorsten Veblen called invidious class distinction.

From the mid 1940s, when her daughters finished high school and 1960, Posey was heavily engaged in the life of a fashion designer (self-employed Harlem seamstress) and active in a variety of national women’s clubs and local organizations, many of them formed by her and her close friends. These were also the years in which Posey divorced her husband (Andrew Jones) who had financed Faith’s childhood, took back her maiden name (Posey) and moved from 222 West 146th Street to an apartment on the 4th floor of 363 Edgecombe Avenue on Sugar Hill.


Change Text: Part II by Faith Ringgold (copyright 1986)

“1940-1949 (Transcription)
By the 1940s we all had to clean up our plates for the starving children. That of course was right up your alley since you never left anything anyway. It was in those years that you discovered chocolate candy bars. They were a nickel then and as big as the ones that cost 50 cents today. All you really thought about in those years were chocolate candy bars, boys, make-up and clothes. Actually you never really pursued your chocolate addiction past your teens, except for the time you thought of making chocolate candy as a business. You found it’s quite easy to make chocolate candy and even easier to eat it all.
It’s lucky for you that you never learned to make pastry. The few times you tried it, the results were more useful as bricks you could throw in a real pastry shop window. Some people would call that a sacrilege, and give you two to four years time. But you wouldn’t have minded if you could do it in a bakery. Some ideas are so bad you wonder how you entertained them even for a minute—like the one you had about making all your pastries so that you would at least have good nutrition. You made a pound cake that weighed more than you did. Industrial strength pound cake. You needed a saw to cut it. And you ate it. You had to steam it first, but you ate it.”

Change Part II: 1950-1959 Text by Faith Ringgold (transcription) “Women in the 1950s had to get married to leave home. Barbara was married first. Her wedding was beautiful; however, both of you marriages were terrible mistakes. You were still in college when you and your two daughters moved in with your mother after your divorce. All through the 1950s you were scantily clothed in tight, revealing dresses with matching three-inch heels, a size too small; and often amazed onlookers by falling down whole fights of stairs without injury.

You also modeled for your mother in her many fashion shows, and was her master of ceremonies, which was more appealing to you. Being a model seemed an unnatural thing to do. You were a connoisseur of pork chop sandwiches—that was natural to you. Birdie, (your soon to be second husband) often brought you a pork chop sandwich and some tutti frutti ice cream made from whole milk and cream when he came to call. That was love.

Pork chop sandwiches cost 75 cents. They were greasy and fried—better than steak. A date was to go to the movies or a concert for a dance and then dinner at Sherman’s Barbeque or the Red Rooster on 7th Avenue for fried chicken and a drink. The next day after a date you were always sick with asthma. As a matter of fact, many times you got asthma before the date and had to go to the hospital instead; or you went out and got asthma on the way home and had to be carried upstairs. That was romance in the 50s.”

[1]For information concerning Ringgold’s work during the 70s and the 80s, refer to Dancing at the Louvre: Faith Ringgold’s French Collection and Other Story Quilts edited by Dan Cameron et al. University of California Press 1998 and We Flew Over the Bridge: The Memoirs of Faith Ringgold, Duke University Press (originally published by Little Brown 1993) 2005. For more information concerning Faith’s earliest mature works, mostly oil paintings on stretched canvases, see Lisa Farrington’s Art on Fire: The Politics of Race and Sex in the Paintings of Faith Ringgold, Millenium 1999 and her more recent monograph on the work of Faith Ringgold published as part of the Pomegranate Series edited by David Driscoll.

[2] See Declaration of Independence: Fifty Years of Art by Faith Ringgold, May 17-June 26, 2009 curated by Judith K. Brodsky and Ferris Olin, Essays by Tanya Sheehan and Michele Wallace, Mason Gross School of the Arts Galleries, Rutgers University, Institute for Women and Art, New Brunswick, NJ.
[3] "Whose Afraid of Aunt Jemima?" was featured on the cover of Faith Ringgold: Twenty Years of Painting, Sculpture and Performance edited by Michele Wallace, The Studio Museum in Harlem, 1984. One of Faith's favorite stories is about how she asked me to write the text of Whose Afraid of Aunt Jemima and that I declined, saying that Aunt Jemima wasn't my story, that I ran several miles a day in order to avoid that story. So Faith took up the pen and wrote her own story and put it on her quilt for the first time. In the following year, Faith composed a story quilt series called The Bitter Nest, which has said in both her autobiography and elsewhere was in response to the difficulties of her relationship with me at that time.
[4] Faith Ringgold Change: Painted Story Quilts, January 13 through February 7, 1987, Bernice Steinbaum Gallery. All rights reserved. Essays by Moira Roth,Thalia Gouma-Peterson.

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Michele Wallace: Talking in Pictures

Michele Wallace: Talking in Pictures
Barbara, MJ, Michele and Mom in the background in sunglasses at a fashion show in the early 60s