American People, Black Light: Faith Ringgold’s Paintings of the 1960s, NMWA’s current exhibition, can enlighten and inspire observers, as I discovered through connecting my NMWA internship with an art project I was developing for a community arts center.
As a staff member of the Columbia Art Center in Columbia, Maryland, I participated in an annual one-day “Umbrella Exhibition” on June 21 celebrating Columbia’s 46th birthday at a lakefront venue. This year’s theme was “Respect,” and participants were encouraged to create works expressing “ideas, thoughts, and feelings by exploring the many ways people and/or the community can give back.”
I started interning at NMWA in the first week of June, and I was immediately submerged into the life of Faith Ringgold. I read the catalogue American People, Black Light: Faith Ringgold’s Paintings of the 1960s. I browsed her autobiography, We flew over the Bridge: The Memoirs of Faith Ringgold, and searched the internet for articles that explicitly discussed a few of her more “provocative” paintings such as American People Series #20: Die or American People Series #18: The Flag Is Bleeding. Her work reflects her experience as an American black woman artist at the intersection of civil rights, race relations, gender, and social class inequality in the 60s.
After admiring Ringgold’s art and contemplating design ideas for the umbrella, I realized that my experiences at these two art institutions were connected. The dimensions of the umbrella’s canvas were set into eight triangular “panels.” A Congolese textile pattern called Kuba, which I recognized in a few of Ringgold’s political posters, immediately came to mind. Her posters were a visual form of political protest advocating race and gender equality during the era of the black power movement. Within the triangular Kuba design, she used large text and bold colors—including red, green, and black, related to the colors of the Black Nationalist flag, which is depicted in the poster Women Free Angela.
My design consisted of my interpretation of the American flag painted on four panels of the umbrella with 50 stars painted around the edge, two green panels with the word “Respect,” and two yellow panels filled with the word “Humanity.” The use of green and yellow signified two colors that are present in the Howard County, Maryland, flag (the location of the Columbia Art Center), and I chose those words because I wanted to express the interconnection of respecting people, the earth, yourself, and visions unmentioned. To viewers, the words “respect” and “humanity” might spark reflection on giving back to communities.
I highly recommend visiting American People, Black Light. These works resurfaced in 2010 after not having been viewed for nearly 40 years; observing the tension and accomplishments of the 1960s and 70s through Ringgold’s work challenges viewers to understand parts of history that are often dismissed in political and cultural discussions of today. After the process of connecting two experiences to create my Ringgold-inspired work, I believe her works have the power to motivate observers in constructive ventures they choose to take on, which can spark transformation in people’s daily lives.
—Manique Buckmon is an education intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.