FAITH RINGOLD @ THE SERPENTINE
I grew up around women who were always sewing and crafting – my mum and grandma. My grandma embroidered samplers for each of her 9 grandchildren for Christmas, with intricate and personal images for each of the 12 days. Even though my grandma isn’t here anymore, it isn’t Christmas in our house unless these samplers are up. My mum has inherited my grandma’s skill and is always working on some sort of knitting or sewing. Growing up this felt supremely uncool and I never took my mum’s ‘stitching and bitching’ seriously. Until I saw Faith Ringold’s work on display at the Serpentine this September.
Wandering around the beautifully curated exhibition – which took you from Ringold’s early work in the 1960s, focusing on the Civil Rights Movement, to her emergence as an intersectional artist and feminist force in the 1970s, and into her ‘quilt stories’ of the 1980s – you are smacked with the struggle, the necessary fight, for justice in a deeply unjust world. First and foremost, Ringold’s work is deeply human. Her BLACK POWER postage stamp canvas pushes to the background the mass of white faces and calls on you to look instead into the black and brown ones. Her quilt biography of Aunt Jemima brings the black woman to the forefront of the story. Ultimately, her work is about community. And her use of quilting and sewing literally threads this message into the form. Because sewing, embroidery, quilting has always been about community – it’s about making something for someone else, to help them, comfort them, bring them joy. But this has been the very thing that has meant sewing has traditionally been rejected by the art world as ‘not real art’. It’s basically too feminine, too domestic and so not serious enough, not a real achievement. Because a woman spending hours, days and months painstakingly threading needles, drawing designs, selecting thread is not as legit as a man with a paintbrush. Embroidery and quilting’s association with the domestic puts it too close to the private sphere of unpaid, and so meaningless, labour. It is not cultural, but practical.
But Ringold’s work doesn’t just use embroidery as a medium to tell a story about power, she shows you that embroidery itself – ‘women’s work’ – is power. By embroidering images of her America, Black America, and the stories of black women, she is making the point that not only does America need its black culture and history, but that African American women are, and always have been, at the core of the battle. Ringold worked with her mother, Willi Posey, a fashion designer, on her quilt designs and with her daughter, Michelle Wallace, on The People’s Flag Show. In every element of her work is female power. The support of sisterhood is what lays the foundations for her art and politics. Ringold’s quilt stories take the ‘70s feminist slogan that ‘the personal is political’ and manifest it physically. Women, especially black women, have been denied their place in too many history books, but have passed down their stories through the work that they do – whether in sewing circles or in teaching their grandchildren how to make a living through needlework. Ringold defiantly brings these herstories to the front of a debate on the legacy of nationalism, “post-colonialism” and slavery.
At 88 years old, Ringold’s career spans over 50 years, through the Harlem Renaissance, the Civil Rights and Black Power movements, the Feminist second-wave… It operates as an archive whilst also projecting us forward to the present day. You could hold up her American flag quilt, covered in the blood of a black woman and her child, on any march today. And, after seeing her work, that’s exactly what you want to do.