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 in a new exhibit in the nation's capital.
"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."
Some works from the "American People" series were first shown at New York's Spectrum Gallery in 1967. Those and other paintings re-emerged beginning in 2010 at the Neuberger Museum of Art in Purchase, N.Y., then at Spelman College Museum of Fine Art in Atlanta and the Miami Art Museum before making their way to the women's museum.
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.
The former University of California and New York public school educator said some cultural topics — like race and gender inequality — often resurface in cycles.
"A lot of these issues have still not been addressed," she said. "This is typical, kind of — when there is a problem — the group that has the issue rises to the occasion and speaks out and there are some parts that are addressed and then when you look around, we're right back where we started. ... Throughout the history of the United States, this has been what has happened."
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.
"When I started painting this blood, I just felt like 'Oh, my God,' this blood, it just gave such an eerie kind of feeling," Ringgold recalled. "I had seen blood in the street. I had seen the effects of some riots and so on. But they were not in the newspapers, they were not pictured. They were not in news photographs — the blood part — and I wanted to bring that out."
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.
She urges viewers to look and see, enjoy and pass it on.
"What I wanted, what I was trying to do there, was trying to tell my story," she said. "As an artist, the time, the place, the identity of the artist is exceedingly important and I was trying to put that all in focus."
Ringgold, who has illustrated and written an autobiography and 15 children's books, is completing "Harlem Renaissance Party" to be published by Harper Collins next year.