WASHINGTON — Fifty years after the racial upheaval of the 1960s, Americans often like to say they don't see color. They pretend not to see it even when it's right in front of their faces, says artist Faith Ringgold. It's a worldview she finds delusional, counterintuitive and impossible for artists like herself who traffic in color and shades of meaning.

"You don't have to not see," Ringgold says. "You can see and accept and love and allow. It's okay. It's okay. The more you look, the more real everybody becomes, and it's okay."

That's one of the many messages in the comprehensive survey "American People, Black Light: Faith Ringgold's Paintings of the 1960s," opening Friday at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. They are paintings of a nation convulsing from civil rights and feminist ideals. They are the faces and bodies of people going through massive social change during a time when the abstract traditions of Pollock and De Kooning held sway, and minimalism and pop art — cubes and commercial imagery — were ascending. It is a message that has come back around, though it's taken decades.


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The 49-piece exhibition unfolds chronologically, taking up eight galleries and provoking visitors with paintings of enormous size, arresting intimacy and unsettling intensity. They are marked by large, emoting eyes, her signature U-shaped line descending from the eyebrows around the nose, and "high-keyed" blues, reds, and greens, colors that dominate not with brightness, but with depth. It is a style she calls super-realism — one that demands that viewers engage.

With works such as "Black Light Series #1: Big Black," Faith Ringgold dared America to face its racial and gender inequality.
With works such as "Black Light Series #1: Big Black," Faith Ringgold dared America to face its racial and gender inequality. (From Faith Ringgold and ACA Galleries, New York; copyright Faith Ringgold 1967. Photo by Jim Frank)

The pictures are of people alone with their thoughts, alone with their mirrors, or using other people as mirrors. They are blacks and whites together in crowds, silent, or smug, or alienated. Or, as in the case of 1967's "Die," dripping blood, and savaging one another. There are words painted inside American flags, black and brown faces alight with the beauty of self-love, along with posters of revolution: Free Women, Free All Political Prisoners, All Power to the People.

"Every time people struggle, they survive, they do better and then they forget and they end up back where they started from," Ringgold says. People learn to speak up, to make themselves seen and heard and counted, then suddenly they stop doing those things. "It has happened over and over again. It is so sad that it takes so long for people to understand what needs to happen in order to be free."

Ringgold, 82, a Harlem native, was an icon of the Black Arts Movement, a conscious, community-connected, politically engaged artistic aesthetic that shared philosophical corollaries with the black power movement of the 1960s and 1970s. But she is most celebrated for her revival of African American story quilts beginning in the late 1970s. After the early 1970s, Ringgold says people didn't want to show her early paintings, "and I mean they didn't show it," she says. "It was a political time, but not with art," which was "beautifully abstract, but abstract. And here I come with these images of black and white people and a lot of people got angry at me."

When an artist becomes famous for a certain thing, it can take time "for historians and galleries to reconnect with what an artist did early in their career," says museum director Susan Fisher Sterling. But everything that informs Ringgold's story quilts was in process in her earlier work, Sterling says. "It was the proving ground, if you will. The first stages toward that desire to create a different view of African American life and her sense of herself as a woman, and an artist and as an African American, not necessarily in that order." Sterling says Women in the Arts is the last venue in a tour of Ringgold's 1960s work that began in 2010 at the

Artist Faith Ringgold’s "American People Series #18: The Flag Is Bleeding," 1967 challenged Americans to look beyond the red, white and
Artist Faith Ringgold's "American People Series #18: The Flag Is Bleeding," 1967 challenged Americans to look beyond the red, white and blue. (From Faith Ringgold and ACA Galleries, New York; copyright Faith Ringgold 1967. Photo by Jim Frank)