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United States of Attica, 1972. © 2020 Faith Ringgold / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, Courtesy ACA Galleries, New York.

Faith Ringgold

by Alice Rawsthorn

“This map of American violence is incomplete,” is printed at the bottom of the poster. “Please write in whatever you find lacking.” Tragically, a great many examples of American violence could have been added since the poster United States of Attica was completed in 1972 by Faith Ringgold, the African American artist and activist.

Ringgold, now 89, made the piece to express her outrage at the viciousness with which state troopers had stormed the Attica Correctional Facility in upstate New York on September 13, 1971, to quell an uprising by the prisoners. Attica’s inmates, more than half of whom were Black, were demanding the end of years of mistreatment and abuse by mostly white prison officers in what a judge later described as an “orgy of brutality.” The troopers fired their guns so recklessly that they killed more than 40 people, mostly prisoners but also officers and civilians who had been taken hostage.

United States of Attica was one of a series of artworks made by Ringgold as a deeply personal protest against systemic racism and sexism. Born Faith Willi Jones in Harlem in 1930, she was blessed with loving and supportive parents who were part of the Harlem Renaissance circle of artists, musicians, and writers. The musician Duke Ellington and the poet Langston Hughes lived nearby, and the jazz saxophonist Sonny Rollins was among Ringgold’s childhood friends. When she applied to study at City College’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, only to be told that women were not admitted, she enrolled in the School of Education and majored in art instead. After graduating in 1959, she taught in public schools, while continuing to work as an artist and as a civil rights activist.

Ringgold’s first explicitly political work was American People, a series of paintings she made between 1963 and 1967 to explore the social inequality and racial tension of the era. The first paintings in the series persuaded Spectrum Gallery, an artists’ cooperative in Manhattan, to invite her to become its first represented Black artist in 1966. She exhibited American People there in December 1967, in her first show outside Harlem. Richly expressive, with bold colors and staccato forms, her paintings offered the Manhattan art world rare insight into African American life and politics. The show was a critical hit, but none of the paintings sold, so she put them into storage.

Undeterred, Ringgold continued to explore her political concerns in her art, notably in the Black Light series of paintings in the late 1960s in which she experimented with darker colors. She also extended her activism to expose discrimination against women—Black women in particular—within the art world, where the exhibition programs and collections of major museums were dominated by white male artists.

In 1968 she co-founded three anti-racist and feminist groups, including the Ad Hoc Women’s Art Committee, which challenged the dearth of female and African American artists in an exhibition on modernism at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. Two years later she was arrested as one of three organizers of the People’s Flag Show, which displayed artists’ interpretations of the U.S. flag at Judson Memorial Church in Manhattan. The charges against the “Judson Three” were dropped on appeal.

When news broke of the atrocities at Attica prison in 1971, Ringgold invoked another flag in her response, by using red, green and black—the colors chosen by the Jamaican activist Marcus Garvey for the Black Liberation flag—in a map of the United States. She marked the sites of battles, lynchings, riots, enslavement, and other horrors on the map, and recorded the death tolls of genocides and wars. By printing it as a poster, she ensured that United States of Attica circulated beyond the art world.

Ringgold has continued to embed her politics into her art ever since, but it is only in the last five years that she has been acknowledged as an important artist by the establishment. United States of Attica is part of the collections of multiple museums, including Ringgold’s old adversary the Whitney, and the Museum of Modern Art. One of her once unsellable paintings, American People #20: Die, now takes pride of place in MoMA’s collection beside Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. “MoMA traditionalists will call the pairing sacrilegious,” wrote Holland Cotter in the New York Times when the display opened. “I call it a stroke of curatorial genius.”

Alice Rawsthorn is a London-based writer on design. The author of Hello World: Where Design Meets Life published by Hamish Hamilton, and, most recently, Design as an Attitude published by JRP|Ringier, she is a co-founder of the Design Emergency project to investigate design’s response to Covid-19 and its aftermath.