Dancing at the Louvre: From Faith Ringgold to Beyoncé
Art inspires us. But so often, we think a visit to an art museum should be a solemn event. We think of school children, dressed in their school uniforms, quietly filing past famous art, wishing they could be outdoors. Or we picture art experts stroking their beards as they study famous Western art in a quiet hall filled with antiquities. Or the art student, dressed in bright colors, but standing perfectly still, studying each brush stroke. But who says art needs to be experienced so passively?
Here at 1000Museums, art makes us want to dance! And we’re not the only ones. Check out Faith Ringgold’s painting of young women and girls dancing at a museum, called Dancing at the Louvre. Check out Beyoncé and Jay Z’s magnificent 2018 Apes**t video, an innovative work of performance art and dance, staged in front of some of the most famous art at the Louvre, including the Mona Lisa. A few minutes into the video, the women in the Apes**t video join hands and celebrate art in a line dance that imitates the line of dancing females in Ringgold’s work.
Faith Ringgold is a multimedia artist. She paints, quilts, writes, creates sculptures and masks, and does performance art. She was born October 8, 1930 in Harlem to a middle-class, artistic family. She currently lives in Englewood, New Jersey.
Telling Tales with Art: Faith Ringgold Story Quilts
Ringgold published her famous Dancing at the Louvre in 1991. The painting, which includes quilting techniques, is the first in a series of twelve “story quilts” called The French Collection. The series tells the fictional story of Willia Marie Simone, a young black woman who moves to Paris in the early 20th century to become an artist and businesswoman. The story is told through text written around the margin of each quilt. As Willia Marie comes of age in 20th-century Paris, she meets artists, writers, and musicians, including James Baldwin, Richard Wright, Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Josephine Baker, Zora Neale Hurston, Sojourner Truth, Langston Hughes, and Rosa Parks.
Ringgold started adding fabric borders to her acrylic paintings as early as the 1970s. She painted a set of paintings that she called her Feminist Series which had fabric borders, including the controversial Feminist Series #18: Mr. Black Man Watch Your Step. She made her first quilt, Echoes of Harlem, in 1980 in collaboration with her mother, Willi Posey Jones. She wrote and made her first story quilt, Who’s Afraid of Aunt Jemima?, in 1983. At the time, no one would publish the autobiography she was working on, so she self-published her stories in quilts. The addition of text to her quilts developed into a unique medium and style of her own. (Later, in 1995 her autobiography, We Flew Over the Bridge, was published by Little, Brown and Company, and republished in 2005 by Duke University Press.)
Faith Ringgold Tar Beach Quilts
In the 1990s, Ringgold continued to create story quilts, including the charming Tar Beach story quilts. The Tar Beach quilts tell the story of Cassie Louise Lightfoot, an 8-year-old girl who dreams of flying over her family’s Harlem apartment building, exploring New York City from the sky. Cassie doesn’t need a real beach with sand and water to celebrate life. Her family and friends can enjoy a beach-like picnic on a tar roof that is good enough to inspire Cassie to fly wherever she wants.
If you like Tar Beach as much as we do, be sure to watch this PBS video that features Ringgold explaining how she made her Tar Beach and other story quilts. In 1990, Ringgold also wrote a Tar Beach children’s book. We highly recommend this video of her reading the book.
Who Is Faith Ringgold? A Biography
Faith Ringgold was born in Harlem in 1930, as the Harlem Renaissance was just starting to wane. She was the youngest of three children of Andrew and Willi Jones. She grew up surrounded by art and culture, and learned to sew from her mother, a fashion designer. She earned her B.S. and M.A. degrees in visual art from the City College of New York in 1955 and 1959. She married her first husband in 1950, a jazz pianist named Robert Earl Wallace, with whom she had two children, feminist author and professor, Michele Faith Wallace, and Barbara Faith Wallace. She married her second husband, Burdette Ringgold, in 1962. She is Professor Emeritus of Art at the University of California in San Diego and has received 23 Honorary Doctorates.
In the early 1960s, she struggled to sell her work to galleries. White gallery owners weren’t welcoming. Also, some gallery owners were uncomfortable with her composition of dark colors and flat figures and shapes. This roadblock didn’t deter Ringgold. In fact, it inspired her. She began to focus on racial and political themes and produced an astonishing set of pieces, including her American People Series which depicts race riots, black power themes, and a bleeding American flag.
During the summer of 1972, Ringgold traveled across Europe. While in Amsterdam and visiting the Rijksmuseum, she encountered 14th and 15th century Nepali paintings framed with cloth brocades, inspiring her to frame her own work with cloth. Ringgold also traveled to West Africa in 1976 and 1977. These two trips had a profound influence on her mask making, doll painting, and sculptures.
In the 1970s, Ringgold began creating sculptures and masks. She sometimes wore her masks in her performance art. Her sculptures depicted both fictional and real characters from the past and present. Her first piece with masks was The Wake and Resurrection of the Bicentennial Negro. In her autobiography, she describes this piece as a story about racism and the oppression of drug addiction, in response to the American Bicentennial celebrations of 1976. (Ringgold, Faith. We Flew Over the Bridge: The Memoirs of Faith Ringgold. Duke University Press, 2005)
Faith Ringgold: Art As Activism
A lot of Ringgold’s art in the 1960s and 1970s was political. In the 1960s, she painted her American People Series, including American People Series #20: Die, which shows a bloody race riot. She has said that her motivation for painting this was that the news media was not showing the violence that was happening at the riots of the time. Her Die painting was inspired by what was happening in the streets of America in 1967. It was also inspired by Picasso’s Guernica. Ringgold studied Picasso’s monumental 1937 depiction of the tragedies of war at MoMA when the painting was on long-term loan to MoMA from 1939 to 1981.
In the 1970s, Ringgold made posters that supported the Black Panthers and Angela Davis. She supported flag burners with her People’s Flag Show and painted her famous United States of Attica political poster. Her art at this time was overtly political and demonstrates her anger at the state of civil rights and race relations.
In the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s, Ringgold moved away from blatant political statements and started to show optimistic presentations of black female heroines. In her story quilts from this time, she retold the story of Aunt Jemima, and showed us children celebrating on their tar beach. She portrayed weddings, jazz clubs, and Michael Jackson dancing. Her choice of medium was quilts, a traditional American craft, shared by white and black women, especially working-class women.
Feminism and Anti-Racist Advocacy
A lifelong activist and storyteller, Ringgold participated in several feminist and anti-racist organizations. In 1968, Ringgold joined fellow artist Poppy Johnson, and art critic Lucy Lippard, to found the Ad Hoc Women’s Art Committee which protested a major modernist art exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art, demanding that women artists account for fifty percent of the exhibitors. In 1988, Ringgold co-founded the Coast-to-Coast National Women Artists of Color Projects with Clarissa Sligh. From 1988 to 1996, this organization exhibited the works of African American women across the United States.
Still an activist, Ringgold continues to make art that ensures we learn more about African American artists. Her 2010 Dear Selma silkscreen is about Selma Burke. Selma Burke was an African American sculptor and a member of the Harlem Renaissance group of artists. She is best known for her bas relief portrait of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. A version of this portrait appears on the American dime. Although the artist for the dime, John R. Sinnock, denies that Burke’s portrait was an influence, anybody can see the similarities, as explained in this Atlas Obscura article.
Also in 2010, Faith Ringgold honored another African American artist, Henry Ossawa Tanner. Tanner lived from 1859-1937, mostly in Paris. During his lifetime, he gained international fame for his paintings and drawings. But today, the average art fan rarely knows his work. Ringgold’s silkscreen certainly helps keep his memory alive.
Dancing in the Art Studio
In one of our favorite Ringgold works, the artist irreverently places the Willia Marie character in Picasso’s studio. Willia Marie is the character who also danced in the Louvre and wrote letters home to her aunt about her wonderful experiences in Paris.
Throughout her work, and especially in the French Collection, a major theme is that black women belong. They have created art and modeled for art since the beginning of time.
In a poignant passage from the French Collection, as Willia visits Picasso, she writes to her aunt,
“You was an artist’s model years before you was ever born, thousands of miles from here in Africa somewhere. Only you’all wasn’t called artist and model. It was natural that your beauty would be reproduced on walls and plates and sculptures made of your beautiful black face and body. Europeans discovered your image as art at the same time they discovered Africa’s potential for slavery and colonization.”
Recovering from this history of slavery and colonization is an ongoing struggle, but certainly celebrating black artists, whether it’s Faith Ringgold, Edmonia Lewis, Alma Thomas, or Beyoncé, is one important piece of the solution.
In the French Collection series, Ringgold surrounded her African American characters with paintings by Raphael, Leonardo da Vinci, Picasso, Matisse, and other esteemed male artists. Many of the paintings by these male artists show idealized white women, smiling demurely, holding their beautiful babies or modeling their gorgeous physiques. In her work, Ringgold questions why African-American women are absent. She questions the conventional behavior expected in art museums and the art itself.
Ringgold makes it clear that women can dance in the Louvre, sew quilts in an art studio, write stories about tar beaches, and create art wherever they want. Like Ringgold’s characters, Beyoncé dances in the Louvre and inspires us with her music, words, and movements. Faith Ringgold also inspires us with her stories, art, and activism.
Ringgold is still working and showing her work, and she was described by ARTNews in 2016 as being a rising star. Ringgold’s art is featured in the 2020 Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power 1963-1983 traveling exhibition. This exhibition celebrates the work of African American artists, and shows the intersection of social justice movements with stylistic evolutions in visual art.