Interview for the Neuberger docents for Faith Ringgold's Art of the 60's exhibition

1  We learned that all but two paintings in the exhibition are owned by you. Did
you actively try to sell this work and it was not popular at the time, or was it
that you were not trying to actively sell it?

Actually there are 4 paintings that were sold in the first show. Professor James Porter of Howard University bought the first one, Bride of Martha’s Vineyard in 1967 shortly after the show opened. I was delighted. Chase Bank bought The American Spectrum for their collection in 1969. I was over joyed. The other two Hide Little Children and The Cocktail Party were bought years later.

Three paintings, Love Black Life, The Black Art Poster and For The Women’s House were gifts to Benjamin Mays the Schomberg Collection and The Women’s House Facility on Rikers Island  respectively.

The American People, Black Light and the Political Posters were not accepted in the art world of the 1960s. Most Galleries, museums and collectors (both Black and White) were not interested in showing political paintings by a Black woman. I couldn’t give them away! Except for the 3 paintings I did give as gifts I have everything I did in the 60’s.

2 Q:  By using two powerful symbols of Americana; the flag and the postage stamp, were you intending to reach people's patriotic ideals by pointing out the hypocrisy in the U.S?

By manipulating the flag, did you intend to bring people’s attention to the racial bigotry in the U.S?

I have always thought of art as a way to document a People’s history along with their place, time and identity. I used to wonder where all the beautiful African masks came from. When I went to Africa and traveled in Nigeria and Ghana I found the answer : The People!

The American Flag is a symbol of Freedom and Equality and belongs to all the American people who embrace the spirit of freedom and equality-- not just some Americans who bring it out to reject, deny and oppress other Americans. There was a period when the flag was becoming a symbol of bigotry and hate in America.

The Postage Stamp is used to commemorate great moments in American history such as the Black Power Movement in America. I couldn’t sit around and wait for the Black Power Commemorative Stamp to be issued from Washington, so I did it myself.

3. Are the Obamas aware not only of your art, but of the important, messages your art communicates & the tremendous & valuable role you have played toward exposing racism in the art world... & hopefully mitigating it?               

I am not aware that the Obama’s know me or my work. It is difficult for a President to get so close to the people as to know the difference in friends and foe. I would love to do something for the Whitehouse and Obama. I have done two pieces one for President Carter and another for President Clinton. Maybe President Obama is next. I am a true fan. I deeply admire and support him.

4. Postage Stamp Commemorating Black Power
Was there a particular stamp the year that you made Stamp Commemorating Black Power, that inspired you to make your own?
Does the X in the composition of stand for Malcolm X ?

There were many commemorative stamps issued that year.

The X is part of the design of the faces 90 for White Power and 10 for Black Power. Some American people thought Black Power seemed too militant and opposed it. I just wanted to show it in context with White Power which dominates this country without question.

5. Words of Wisdom
If you could do one thing over, what might it be?
You have worked with children for many years. What advice do you give them about making their art? What advice do you give them about life in general?
What advice would you give to a young person of color who wants to pursue a career in art?

If there is a way you can live your life and be happy and productive without being an artist I say: Go For It! I get the feeling that some people think being an artist is easy. It is not! Being an artist is a way of life.

Unless you are a White man it will be exceedingly difficult to be successful. If you are a Black woman it will almost impossible. You will need so many things to be an artist and a lot of people to help and support you. You must have a passion that supersedes all the pitfalls of a racist and sexist society. I don’t need to stress that of all the arts, The visual arts are by far the most difficult.

See my Traits for Success As An artist

6. Then vs. Now
What are some of the issues that young black artists face today that are the same or different than what you encountered?
Are you "happier" or more satisfied today with the acceptance of the art world toward African American Artists in general, & more specifically, toward Women African American Artists?  If not, what do you think needs to happen to enable us to meet that goal?

Institutionalized racism and sexism in Museums and Visual Art Departments in Universities and Colleges which limits the showing of African American Art as an independent cultural entity.

African American Art Galleries curators and Departments need to be instituted in Museums showing American, Contemporary and Modern art. These galleries should be supported by funds from Black people.

I am aware that the Visual Arts are not generally supported by Black people. That is a huge problem since it is important for a culture of people to support its own art. I think there might be a lack of awareness as to the role of Black wealth in support of black visual art. I also believe that it is difficult for a minority to support its own art when the production is as diverse and compact as is the art of Black people such as the music.

7. Process
Some artists make many sketches before they begin a work while others start to create their images directly on the canvas. What is your process?

I start with an idea and proceed with making sketches and than I make painted studies before I begin working on the final product.

I like to assemble a lot of ideas in drawings and studies so that when I am painting I don’t run out of compositional ideas to fill the space.

I also make my work in series so that I don’t have to pile all my ideas into one painting. I learned that from Jacob Lawrence. I work on several paintings at the same time.

8. Making Art Today
Are you still painting these days and if so what are you working on?
The United Nations has proclaimed 2011 as the International Year for People of African Descent. Has she planned anything specific for the occasion?

I am currently having a show Coming to Jones Road Part 2 at the Spectrum Gallery in Chelsea. I am always working or preparing to work.

Art is a way of life for me. I am never too far away from a new idea, a new project.

In 2012 I will be creating permanent installations of my art at the Faith Ringgold Museum of Art and Storytelling in Harlem.

9. Political Activism
You have been politically active all your life. Could you tell us about some of the activists you have met and what you have learned from them?

I grew up on Sugar Hill in Harlem. I lived among people like WEB DuBois, Adam Clayton Powell, Langston Hughes, Aaron Douglas, Jacob Lawrence, Norman Lewis, Romare Bearden. Duke Ellington, etc.  However, I didn’t know the artists were famous artists since I never learned about them in school or from art books and they did not have shows in museums. It was after I graduated from College that I first learned about Aaron Douglas and that he was the great artist of the Harlem Renaissance. However, everybody knew the musicians and their music.

James Baldwin’s sister was in my class in 1955 the year I began teaching art in at JHS 136 in Harlem.

10. Do you consider yourself social realist artists in the Neuberger Collection like, Ben Shahn?

I called my work from the 1960’s Super Realism because I wanted to involve my audience with the image in a personal way as if to say this is YOU.

 I don’t think about fitting into already prescribed artistic genre. Basically I want to tell my story as a woman growing up Black in America. I like knowing that I can do that in a way that has never been done before. If an artist is true to their core we can do that. We are all one of a kind.

I try to dig deep and express my own life story, not just race and gender but kind. Whether or not I reach the public, I have done the best I can do with what and who I am.

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