Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Faith RInggold's Political Posters: Power To The People

In 1970, there was an integrated, predominantly white group supportive of the Panthers called The Committee to Defend the Panthers.  They asked Faith to make a poster, which is featured below but they didn't like it, perhaps because it made explicit that which they preferred to keep a secret: that they were white people who wanted to support but remain in the shadows of the Black Panthers.  Racial separatism had become an extremely volatile issue on the American Left by this time.  The Black Panthers who were not ideologically in favor of racial separatism in terms of their rhetoric, nonetheless had a very dramatic image, which didn't include white people or even women for the most part.  It was an extremely masculine image, in an attempt to address the challenges to black masculinity posed by 400 years of slavery and Jim Crow oppression. But typically, Faith's work would make explicit that which was meant to remain implicit and de-emphasized.  This poster was therefore designed by Faith but never reproduced or distributed.

There was another poster as well that she produced around the same time, "All Power to the People," also never reproduced for distribution in which she imagines a family of Panthers, husband and wife both holding rifles and a child, in a pictorial representation of one of the issues that first brought them to the headlines in California: the right to publically bear arms.

(See "Committee to Defend the Panthers" by Faith Ringgold, 1970, cut paper 28 inches by 22 inches.  All rights reserved.)

FREEDOM WOMAN NOW (1971) by Faith Ringgold. 
Poster/Lithograph.  Cut Paper 20 inches by 20 inches.  

This is one of the 4 posters Faith Ringgold made in the early 70s as a form of black feminist activism.  The others in the series were "Woman Free Yourself" in purple and green, "America Free Angela" in red, white and blue and "Woman Free Angela" in red black and green, the Black Nationalist Colors.  Of course, two of the posters were honoring the case of the arrest of Angela Davis, who was for a time on the FBI's Most Wanted List for allegedly having conspired in an attempted escape from a California courthouse.  The gun that was used was registered in her name.  Angela Davis was subsequently freed with all charges dismissed.   

The posters were meant to be distributed at public meetings, displayed at spontaneous protests, and were conceived as art for the people in the egalitarian spirit of the times.  The posters were formally utilizing once again the BaKuba design from Kuba of the Congo (although Faith had not yet been to West Africa, she was already incorporating elements of West African designs into her work),   and incorporating poster lettering of words popular at protest marches then.  

All words such used were equally and simultaneously inflected as affirmative demands, statements: Freedom, Woman, Now with the order changeable at will in any direction: Freedom Woman Now,  Now Freedom.  Now Woman.  From every direction conceivable. 

In this regard, Faith was proposing visual means of reflecting the current use of language among a movement of Black Cultural Nationalist Poets represented by the Last Poets and Amiri Baraka (Leroi Jones), Nikki Giovanni, Sonia Sanchez, Gwendolyn Brooks and someone once called Don L. Lee.  Their poetry was as much performance, oration, political advocacy and flamboyant rhetoric as it represented a uniquely African American approach to aesthetics.  Faith's work was consistent with their lead with two very important differences: 

she was a visual artist first and always, and the Black Cultural Nationalism of the 1970s never really found their comfort zone with the Visual Arts.

Second, from 1970 onward, she was a feminist.

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About Me

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I am a writer and a professor of English at the City College of New York, and the CUNY Graduate Center. My books include Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman (1979), Invisibility Blues (1990), Black Popular Culture (1992), and Dark Designs and Visual Culture (2005). I write cultural criticism frequently and am currently working on a project on creativity and feminism among the women in my family, some of which is posted on the Soul Pictures blog.