Wearing gold-sequined Uggs, a bright smile and flawless brown skin that belies her 82 years, Faith Ringgold explains her “confrontational art” — vivid paintings whose themes of race, gender, class and civil rights were so intense that for years, no one would buy them.
“I didn’t want people to be able to look, and look away, because a lot of people do that with art,” Ringgold said. “I want them to look and see. I want to grab their eyes and hold them, because this is America.”
Look away they did. And they walked away. So Ringgold tucked the paintings out of public view, where they stayed for more than 40 years.
Now, Ringgold’s early works are enjoying a revival. American People, Black Light: Faith Ringgold’s Paintings of the 1960s is on display at the National Museum of Women in the Arts until Nov. 10. The exhibit includes 49 paintings from her “American People” and “Black Light” series of the 1960s and 1970s, along with earlier works and political posters created for activist Angela Davis and for efforts in support of the Black Panthers and the 1971 Attica prison riot.
“I’m very happy and very pleased that this work is getting another chance to be seen and heard and that the American people are getting another chance to take a look at themselves,” Ringgold said in an interview. “Most of that work I still own because people just didn’t want to look at it. They didn’t want to see it.”
A Harlem native best known for reviving the popularity of African-American story quilts 30 years ago, Ringgold said she created the paintings in response to the civil rights and feminist movements. Ringgold was actively involved in both; she championed displaying artwork by blacks and women, and protested outside the Whitney Museum and Museum of Modern Art in New York in the 1960s and ’70s.
Paintings from the “American People” series are vibrant and colorful, drawing influences from pop art and traditional African artwork, and depicting a variety of races — along with how they interact with each other in many of the pieces.
Ringgold’s mural The Flag is Bleeding depicts a white man, white woman and black man linking arms and standing before an American flag splattered with blood, because of race riots common during that time.
The other series in the exhibit, “Black Light,” further explores race, even celebrating the beauty of blacks, and incorporates texts in some artwork. Ringgold said it shows the “the darkened skin tones of black people and the magical ways in which black is presented in art.”
These paintings include Big Black with an abstract face similar to an African mask and Party Time, a split-screen ode to black dance and culture.
• National Museum of Women in the Arts: 1250 New York Ave. NW, Washington D.C.; 202-783-5000; www.nmwa.org. Admission $10 ($8 students and 65+; 18 and under are free). American People, Black Light: Faith Ringgold’s Paintings of the 1960s is on display until Nov. 10.