“Flag Story Quilt” (1985) by Faith Ringgold is currently on view at the Spencer Museum of Art.


THE AMERICAN FLAG, its design and all that it symbolizes, is the basis for some of the most politically potent and astute work Faith Ringgold has made over the past half century.

In 1970, she helped organize the “People’s Flag Show” at the Judson Memorial Church in Manhattan’s West Village. Featuring about 100 works invoking the American flag, the group exhibition was mounted as a protest against laws that restricted the use and display of the symbol. The show opened on a Monday and that Friday, Nov. 13, Ringgold and two other artists, John Hendricks and Jean Tuche, were arrested.

The U.S. Attorney General’s office charged the Judson Three, as they became known, with desecration of the flag and shut down the exhibition. They were ordered to pay $100 each in fines or serve 30 days in jail. Lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union provided them with counsel and all of the charges were subsequently dropped on appeal.

Ringgold had produced flag paintings in the years prior to the exhibition in her American People and Black Light series. Earlier this year, on April 23, she gave a lecture at Humboldt University of Berlin and walked the audience through both series. When she got to “The Flag is Bleeding” (1967) she said, “The 60s was rough,” and emphasized her desire to document the times.

“Most artists were not paying attention… They were painting beautiful paintings abstractly…but they were not telling the story of what was going on in America and I thought I wanted to be that person,” Ringgold said. “For that, I paid a terrific price. It was hard. They put me out and tried to keep me out, but I persisted.” Now museums are acquiring her paintings from those series which were once viewed as controversial.

“Most artists were not …telling the story of what was going on in America and I thought I wanted to be that person.” — Faith Ringgold

RINGGOLD RETURNED TO THE FLAG as a point of departure in her quilt work. Her “Flag Story Quilt” (1985) is currently on view in “Paying Homage: Celebrating the Diversity of Men in Quilts” (June 2-Aug. 26, 2018) at the Spencer Museum of Art at the University of Kansas in Lawrence.

Featuring tie-dye fabric made by Marquetta Johnson and 50 white heads, a lengthy story is written within the stripes of Ringgold’s “Flag Story Quilt.” The narrative explores the life of someone named Memphis Cooly. The museum’s exhibition label describes it as “a heart-wrenching tale of racism about a tragic black male hero.”

“Paying Homage” coincides with the National African American Quilt Convention (NAAQC) hosted by the Spencer Museum July 11-14. In its second year, the gathering “celebrates African-American history, quilting traditions and contemporary artistic practices.” Ringgold is the keynote speaker.

ON THIS FOURTH OF JULY, Ringgold’s experiences representing the flag resonate. Americans dissatisfied with the state of nation and the policies and values espoused by the current Administration increasingly rely on their freedom of expression and freedom of speech rights to respond, object, engage and protest.

Inspired by the composition of the American flag, Ringgold made the exhibition poster for the “People’s Flag Show.” She featured the show’s name, date, and location where the stars are usually located and included a provocative message within the stripes, which was adapted from a statement by her daughter, Michelle Wallace.

It read: “The American people are the only people / Who can interpret the American flag / A flag which does not belong to the people / To do with as they see fit ∙ Should be burned and forgotten ∙ Artists, workers, / Students, women, third world peoples ∙ You are oppressed ∙ What does the flag mean to you? / Join the peoples answer to the repressive U.S. govt & state laws restricting our use & display of the flag.” CT


TOP IMAGE: FAITH RINGGOLD, “Flag Story quilt,” 1985 (cotton canvas, dyeing, piecing, appliqué, ink, 57 x 78 1/16 inches). | Museum purchase: Peter T. Bohan Art Acquisition Fund, 1991.0040


FAITH RINGGOLD, “The People’s Flag Show,” 1971 (offset lithograph, 18 × 24 inches). | © 2018 Faith Ringgold / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York


FAITH RINGGOLD, “Black Light Series #10 Flag for the Moon: Die Nigger,” 1969 (oil on canvas). | Courtesy of ACA Galleries NYC


Giving a lecture at Humboldt University of Berlin in April 2018, Faith Ringgold said Chase Bank almost bought her painting “Flag for the Moon: Die Nigger.” That was before they read it.

Ringgold said: “The guy told the girl, ‘Look out. This woman writes in her work. Don’t you understand. You’ve got to read the work.’ He said, ‘Read the work? Yes. Read it. What she’s saying is D-I-E.’ ‘Die. So what does that mean? That doesn’t mean anything. Die.’ He said, No. Put your head to the left and read N-I-G…. Oh, my God! And they ran out the door. Millions spent on the moon and nothing for the starving children. That’s what I was saying there.”

“Flag for the Moon: Die Nigger” was featured in the traveling exhibition “American People, Black Light: Faith Ringgold’s Paintings of the 1960s” (2013) and more recently in “Power: Work By African American Women From The Nineteenth Century To Now” (March 29-June 10, 2017), a group show at Sprüth Magers in Los Angeles.


Faith Ringgold, American People Series #18: The Flag Is Bleeding, 1967
FAITH RINGGOLD, “American People Series #18, The Flag Is Bleeding,” 1967 (oil on canvas). | From the artist’s collection. © Faith Ringgold, SDAGP, Paris, 2016


“The Flag is Bleeding” (1967) from Ringgold’s American People Series was included in “The Color Line: African American Artists and Segregation” (Oct. 4, 2016-Jan. 15, 2017), the exhibition at the Musée du quai Branly – Jacques Chirac in Paris. The show featured more than 200 works in a variety of mediums by modern and contemporary African American artists.


“American People, Black Light: Faith Ringgold’s Paintings of the 1960s” explores some of the paintings featured in the artist’s new exhibition at Pippy Houldsworth Gallery in London. Ringgold’s work is also featured in the catalogs for two sweeping exhibitions documenting the experience of black women artists (We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965–85: “Sourcebook” “New Perspectives”), and the wide variety of ways African American artists expressed themselves in the 1960s and 70s (“Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power”). In addition, Ringgold has published many books for children, including “We Came to American,” which explores the nation’s rich history of immigration and diversity.


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