Freedom of Speech, 1990. Faith Ringgold. Acrylic and graphite on paper. Purchase, Gift of Hyman N. Glickstein, by exchange, 2001. © 2023 Faith Ringgold / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, Courtesy ACA Galleries, New York.
Since the 1960s Ringgold has used her art to address gender and racial issues in America and Europe. In Freedom of Speech—commissioned by the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia as a poster design for a 1991 exhibition commemorating the two-hundredth anniversary of the Bill of Rights—Ringgold painted the words of the First Amendment, which protects the freedoms of speech, religious practice, peaceful assembly, and lawful redress of grievances, on the red stripes of the American flag. Over the stars and white stripes, she names individuals and groups who were perpetrators or victims of serious breaches of these freedoms, laying bare that across U.S. history, the country’s ideals put forth in the Bill of Rights and symbolized by the flag have not always been upheld by its government or its people.
With her acute social conscience, Faith Ringgold explores feminism, race relations (both in the United States and in Europe), and family in her narratives. Work from the late 1960s and '70s is grounded in political commentary. She made stinging commentaries on the marginalization of blacks in America. Other works celebrate black historical and cultural figures, such as Martin Luther King and Adam Clayton Powell. In the late 1970s, Ringgold turned to celebrating the lives of ordinary people from her neighborhood in Harlem. Through performance art and lecturing, Ringgold developed stories and narratives about the role of a black feminist in modern society. She started making painted quilts in 1983. These investigate race and feminism through detailed fictional storylines, some of which are derived from her own experience.
Ringgold studied with Robert Gwathmey and Yasuo Kuniyoshi at City College in New York, and coupled her training in the techniques of Western art with immersion in the art of Africa. But early family experiences resonate, too, in her development as an artist. Her father, who had been a minister, was a gifted storyteller. She has vivid memories of listening in on his spirited anecdotes, with their wealth of detail, richness of incident, and variations on a theme. She also remembers the pleasure of then hearing her mother recount the same stories, with another layer of variation. Seminal, too, were family traditions in needlework and cloth. Her mother, Willi Posey, was a well-known dress designer, and would later become a collaborator on Ringgold’s art. She learned quilting from her grandmother, who had learned from her own mother, a former slave.