was born in Harlem in New York City in 1930, the youngest of three children. Because she had asthma, she was a sickly child. Often, she had to stay home from school and stay in bed. Her mother, Willi, helped her keep up with her schooling and also helped her become an artist. She was a fashion designer and showed Faith how to create things from fabric and sewing, crayons and paper. When Faith felt better, she took her to museums to look at art. Her father helped her too—he taught Faith to read, and bought her first easel.
After high school, Faith married a jazz musician and had two daughters. Because she had always wanted to be an artist, she tried to enroll in the liberal arts program at the City College of New York, but discovered the school would not allow women to study liberal arts. However, they did allow women in the education department, so Faith decided to become an art teacher. Teaching was a tradition in her family. She taught in the New York public schools for twenty years and did her art work on her own. Some years later she returned to City College to get her masters of fine arts degree.
The classroom and students were a source of inspiration for Faith. Her students often helped her see new ways of doing things. One day a student introduced her to the work of the black writer James Baldwin. She was inspired by his writings and those of other African-American authors. These works gave Faith a powerful sense of pride in being black and helped her become more interested in her African heritage. The words she was reading soon gave her new ideas that she put into her art work.
Her new work was about racism, civil rights, and the struggles of black people. Her message was: inequality is wrong and must be stopped. She protested and worked hard to create more opportunities for blacks and women. She helped get museums to show more art work by black women artists and helped put African-Americans in more powerful positions. She began to strongly express her opinions about discrimination. In her work she was creating visual stories of black people’s experiences.
In 1972, a big change occurred in Faith’s life. She was teaching a class in African crafts at a college in New York, and one of her students who had gone to see an exhibit of her paintings asked Faith why she didn’t use African crafts—especially beads, masks, and cloth—in her own art, since she loved working with them so much. Faith realized she was denying her African culture and own family heritage. All the women in her family had worked with cloth for generations; her mother designed clothing and had learned to sew from her own grandmother, who had made beautiful quilts.
After seeing an exhibit of paintings on cloth from Tibet, Faith decided to try painting on cloth herself. She began to combine painting, writing, and quilting as a way of telling stories about her people and her heritage. She called these works story quilts. Storytelling had always been very important in her family; it is also a very important way of handing down traditions in many cultures. Faith says that everyone was a storyteller when she was a child: women, men, and children. Her brother would tell her scary stories in the dark at night.
Traditional quilts are pieces of fabric sewn together and layered to create a warm cover for sleeping. But Faith’s quilts are different. In them, she combines African crafts (such as beading and braiding), sewing, pattern (including Kuba designs—geometric African textiles), fabric, and painting to tell stories about family, heritage, and discrimination. She writes stories on them with a permanent marker; sometimes she tie-dyes the fabric. The quilts tell stories about city street life, slavery, jazz, families, neighborhoods, and more. They are a patchwork of people who are individuals but who are also part of a larger community.
In one of her story quilts, entitled, “The Dinner Quilt,” Faith shows adults and young people in Sunday-best clothes sitting around a dinner table laden with food. It looks like a holiday. The colors and patterns are rich reds, greens, and blues. The writing tells about a woman named Melody remembering past Christmas dinners with her family. She and other children would listen to the adults’ mysterious conversations and play games. She remembers her various relatives, like an aunt who sewed the names of famous black women, such as Harriet Tubman, Zora Neal Hurston, and Marian Anderson, on placemats. In the quilt you can see the names actually embroidered on each mat. The people in the quilt are looking at each other and at the place mats. The border is made of squares divided diagonally into four triangles, a pattern based on African textiles. What story is Faith trying to tell in this quilt? She is talking about heritage, history, and family. Why are these important? Why are the people looking at each other and the place mats? Why does she use a traditional African pattern for the quilt?
After a trip to Africa, Faith’s work changed again. She began to use different materials, such as feathers, in her work, and the faces of her masks and portraits became more simplified, like African masks. She also began to work together on quilts and other projects with her mother, Willi Posey. Together they made 3-dimensional, life-size, soft foam and cloth sculptures of black historical figures such as Martin Luther King, neighborhood people in Harlem like Lena, a homeless person, and family members like her Aunts Bessie and Edith. Willi fashioned the bodies and clothes for the figures. The faces were inspired by African masks.
Faith Ringgold’s work grew into performances in which singing, chanting, dancing, music, and theater are performed with her story quilts, paintings, and soft sculptures to tell stories about her family and heritage, or protest discrimination. She likes performing because she can communicate directly with the audience. Sometimes her daughters work with her, wearing Faith’s masks and soft sculptures. Wearing a mask can sometimes give a feeling of power or transform the way you feel. How do you feel when you wear a mask? How are traditions being handed down in Faith’s own family?
As a woman and an African-American, Faith Ringgold has often experienced discrimination. But her work, motivated by politics and her heritage, speaks out to many people. Faith has had many exhibitions, has become an art professor at the University of California at San Diego, and has won many awards. She continues to live in Harlem six months out of the year. Her art continues to protest discrimination and to tell stories about her personal experiences and the experiences of African-Americans.