Sunday, May 2, 2010

Die (1967) by Faith Ringgold

Faith's mural Die is featured in an exhibition at the Art Galleries of Ontario, which has a post on the web at

I remember very clearly and very distinctly when Faith painted this diptych oil on canvas somewhat imaginative depiction of the "race riots" that had begun to plague the United States landscape every summer like clockwork. I was fifteen and had just returned from a summer in Europe with my grandmother (MJ) and my sister Barbara. I came home to find mother hard at work still on two of her three murals for her first one man show at the Spectrum Gallery scheduled for the fall.

These riots were almost always in what we then called "black ghettos," and most participants were either black people who lived in the community, or white officers policing the black community, or white press attempting (usually unsuccessfully) to report on the action. Faith's Die (1967) has grown even more fascinating to me over the years because I am more struck by the tension between her depiction, which portrays both whites and blacks bleeding and fleeing, males and females engaged in a free-for-all reminiscent of Picasso's Gernica(which we had been to visit so many times at the Museum of Modern Art when I was a child) whereas the actual riots were largely black men breaking into stores, battling the police who had guns with rocks or other objects, chaotic affairs.

So the battle Faith's mural portrays is a conceptual one, revealing the undercurrents of what was really at stake in the riots of the 60s, which was black against white conflict mostly in urban cities. Blacks (mostly males I believe) were registering their dissatisfaction with the restrictions of ghetto life, the lack of genuine opportunities for advancement and prosperity, and their realization that despite the absense of the obvious signs of Jim Crow segregation and restriction in the cities, the white power structure was still pulling the strings and keeping them in check.

From this point on (in the late 60s), by the way, the numbers of black males incarcerated begun to increase exponentially even as other kinds of opportunities began to open up for black men who were educated and had bourgeois aspirations. Up until today where we find ourselves with a black president, a black secretary of state, a black governor of New York, and it was a white Governor Rockefeller who caused the massacre at Attica and engineered the discriminatory incarceration practices (see my first book Black Macho [1979], which was all about Black Power, as well as subsequent editions and publications).

Aside from Die, there was also The Flag is Bleeding, which was entirely finished I believe, and U.S. Postage Stamp Commemorating the Advent of Black Power, which immediately became my favorite painting in the world. I was only fifteen so my thinking about it wasn't particularly deep. It was for the simple reason that it included 100 faces in a grid of ten faces by ten faces, with ten black faces in diagonal order representing their status as 10% of the population of the United States and all the rest of the faces were white.

What really held my attention as she painted this painting was the idea, which she shared with me, that the trick of it would be to make each of the faces somewhat distinct from every other and yet obviously more alike than different apart from the difference of skin color. This notion of difference was enthralling to me. Even more enthralling was that every day when I got up and looked at the painting, I would notice that one or more of the faces would have changed owing to the manner in which Faith was building up layer upon layer of paint in construction of these images. Each and every face was entirely different from every other ever so slightly but how? I would scan the surface looking for the slight differences of appearance, and how it was that I knew one face from the other. I never grew tired of this exercise.

These many years later, I have learned of the fascinating work psychologists have done on the human memory for faces as well as the scientific verification we now have that each and every face, with its complex structure of muscles and tendons and emotions, is completely unique and goes much deeper than differences of skin tone or hair texture or gender. It is possible to have a stroke and have one's memory for faces knocked out, leaving other kinds of memory intact. Apparently the loss of the ability to distinguish one face from another and to recognize familiar faces is devastating.

The 60s were a complicated period about which there is a great deal more to say. It is great to see that museums in Canada are taking on the political art of the 60s since our own museums in the United States have been largely unwilling to come to terms with the masterpieces of American political art of the 60s. Of course, a lot of that art would be African American. Could that have something to do with their reluctance? I hope not.

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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.