MCA retrospective celebrates Faith Ringgold’s groundbreaking work

The presentation contains nearly 150 objects, including paintings, drawings, original prints, quilts, sculptures and mixed-media works as well as archival photos and materials related to her activism.

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Faith Ringgold

Faith Ringgold

Courtesy ACA Galleries, New York

Painting, textile art, sculpture and performance art. In a career of astounding longevity, Faith Ringgold has excelled in those media and more, building a groundbreaking body of work that explores racial and sexual identity and is charged with her social-political concerns.

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In 2022, when she was 91, Ringgold was featured in her first major retrospective at the New Museum in New York City, and a touring version or “adaptation” will open Nov. 18 and run through Feb. 25, 2024, at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago.

“This is a very significant show,” said Jamillah James, the MCA’s Manilow Senior Curator, who is overseeing its display here. “People have not really gotten a chance to see so much of this work in one place.”

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‘Faith Ringgold: American People’

When: Nov. 18, 2023-Feb. 25, 2024

Where: Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, 220 E. Chicago

Admission: Free, with regular museum admission

Info: mcachicago.org

The presentation, titled “Faith Ringgold: American People” (its subtitle comes from one of her most iconic series) — contains nearly 150 objects. They include paintings, drawings, original prints, quilts, sculptures and mixed-media works as well as archival photos and materials related to her activism.

The works are on loan from New York’s ACA Galleries, which represents Ringgold, as well as private and public collections across the country. Notably absent from the list of lenders is the MCA, which owns none of her works, an omission that James hopes the exhibition might change with a resulting acquisition.

Faith Ringgold (b. 1930, New York, NY), The Sunflowers Quilting Bee at Arles: The French Collection Part I, #4, 1991. Acrylic on canvas, printed and tie-dyed pieced fabric, and ink; 74 × 80 in. (188 × 203.2 cm). Private Collection. © 2023 Faith Ringgold / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Faith Ringgold, “The Sunflowers Quilting Bee at Arles: The French Collection Part I, #4,” 1991. Acrylic on canvas, printed and tie-dyed pieced fabric and ink.

Private Collection. © 2023 Faith Ringgold / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

The show is part of the MCA’s Women Artists Initiative, which has raised more than $1.5 million to support exhibitions, programming and acquisitions. When Ringgold’s show opens at the museum, it will join ongoing temporary exhibitions spotlighting two other women: Mona Hatoum and Rebecca Morris.

Born during the Harlem Renaissance, Ringgold began her career in earnest in the 1960s after earning two degrees from City College of New York. She has created works that mine her rich if sometimes challenging life story, including the sexual and racial discrimination that she has endured.

“My work is always autobiographical — it’s about what is happening at the time,” the Englewood, New Jersey, artist said in a 2022 interview in Artforum magazine.

“I always do what is honest to me. I think all artists should try to be knowledgeable about the world and express feelings about what they’re observing, what’s important to them.”

Faith Ringgold, “American People Series #13: God Bless America, 1964.” Oil on canvas.

Faith Ringgold, “American People Series #13: God Bless America, 1964.” Oil on canvas. This comes from the artist’s “American People” series, which gives this exhibition its subtitle. It was Ringgold’s first socio-political collection, which examined American life in relation to the Civil Rights Movement.

Collection Bonnie and Gilbert Schwartz. ©2023 Faith Ringgold/ Courtesy ACA Galleries, New York.

Although painting has been central to her work, she is probably best known for her narrative quilts, which drew on the long history of African Americans working in the form but pushed the medium in a new, radical direction.

“She changed the way that artists used craft-based techniques,” James said, “and made it a bit more radical, inserting personal narrative, social commentary into a form that had largely been maligned as a secondary way of producing art.”

The retrospective will take place in the MCA’s principal temporary exhibition space on the fourth floor, and it is organized chronologically beginning with Ringgold’s 1962-65 paintings and then following the major series that she produced as her career has gone along.

“The strength of this exhibition is that it is a thorough introduction to Faith Ringgold’s work for those who are unfamiliar,” James said, “and allows those who are familiar to really have a deep dive into her work.”

Highlights of the retrospective include:

  • “Black Light Series No. 10: Flag for the Moon: Die N-----” (1969), oil on canvas, 36 by 48 inches. “It’s one of her most notable works,” James said. “It’s a work that really encapsulates some of the tensions in America after the Civil Rights Movement.” The work questions the money being spent on the American space program while Ringgold believed concerns of Black Americans were not being addressed.
  • Drawings from “Tar Beach” (1991), acrylic on canvas paper. The show contains 14 illustrations from the first of Ringgold’s 17 children’s books.

“That has been quite a popular feature in the exhibition, and it’s something that people quite know well,” James said.

Faith Ringgold (b. 1930, New York, NY), Wanted: Douglass, Tubman, and Truth: The American Collection #10, 1997. Acrylic on canvas with painted and pieced fabric; 77 × 81 in.

Faith Ringgold, “Wanted: Douglass, Tubman, and Truth: The American Collection #10,” 1997. Acrylic on canvas with painted and pieced fabric; 77 × 81 in.

Private Collection. © 2023 Faith Ringgold/ Courtesy ACA Galleries, New York

  • Selections from the “French Collection” and “American Collection.” The exhibition features nine selections from these two pivotal 1990s quilt series, including “The Sunflowers Quilting Bee at Arles: The French Collection Part I, No. 4” (1991), acrylic on canvas, printed and tie-dyed pieced fabric.

“Those two are in relationship with each other,” James said, “and those are the works that really establish her narrative quilt-making style, which she has become very well known for.”

Showing alongside the Ringgold retrospective will be a smaller exhibition of works from the MCA collection by artists who were directly or indirectly inspired by her, and touch on the themes of family, biography and community.

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