The creations of Faith Ringgold: from Harlem, with power and grace
New York — ''Faith Ringgold: Twenty Years of Painting, Sculpture, and Performances, 1963 -1983,'' currently at the Studio Museum in Harlem here, is a delightful, moving, and challenging exhibition. It celebrates being a woman and being black, reminds us that full social equality has not yet been achieved, and accomplishes all this with exuberance, wit, and compassion.
There are more than 100 objects in the show ranging from paintings, posters, and watercolors to masks, soft sculpture, quilts, and collages. Their emotional content runs from pain and outrage (''Save Our Children in Atlanta'') to qualified affection (''Miss Martha''), and their themes touch upon almost everything that affected Ms. Ringgold's life and interests from the time she started painting seriously.
She was born in Harlem in 1930 and has lived there ever since. As her daughter Michele Wallace writes in the introduction to the exhibition catalog, ''She is a politically aware, self-consciously Black woman, a feminist, a mother , and a grandmother, a Harlemite, a writer, an artist, and she never forgets any of the obligations these many roles entail.''
That she is a warm and deeply caring person is evident in every one of her works on view, even in those images that concern themselves with the dark side of human existence. But even there she is compassionate. Although unflinching in her depiction of racial inequities and human cruelty, she is never bitter or heavy-handed.
Her feelings about the world she lives in were made perfectly clear right from the start. In ''The American People'' series of 1963-67, she depicted generally uneasy-looking individuals doing their best to get along in multiracial situations. In 1967, Black Power became a major concern, and it found expression in such works as ''The Flag is Bleeding'' and ''Die,'' the latter being a portrayal of a hypothetical interracial urban riot. And in 1972- 73, she executed her ''Slave Rape'' series, which focused on the plight of African women during the days of the West African slave trade. In this series, able, beautiful, and frightened - but not broken - women are shown running away from or quietly preparing to defend themselves against slave-catchers.
An aura of patience and dignity pervades this exhibition, transforming even her most lighthearted soft sculptures into warmly human statements. These generally quite small and often marvelously detailed depictions of individual humanity consist of fiber, jewelry, wigs, sequins, accessories, and whatever else was needed to give emphasis or character to a particular figure. Special clothing, when required, was often designed and made by Willi Posey, the artist's mother, who also contributed some of the costumes for the larger masks.
In the 1970s, especially, almost anyone was apt to end up as one of Ms. Ringgold's soft sculptures or masks. It didn't matter if it was ''Miss Martha'' all dressed up in her best fur and gown, ''Martin Luther King Jr.,'' or a teen-ager out for the day with his radio. Even former President Carter was caught smiling at the world with his wife and daughter at his side.
It was all great fun, but it also scored some significant points. Since her art is never more than a heartbeat away from her everyday life, these often satiric and occasionally solemn three-dimensional pieces represent her social interests every bit as much as her more overtly accusatory canvases. One is never very far from life's harsher realities in even her most fun-filled images and figures, a point that must not be forgotten by anyone who assumes this exhibition is mostly about funny people, fascinating needlework, and beautiful colors. It is about those things, of course, but it is also about much, much more.
Her 1981 ''Atlanta,'' created in response to the mindless child-killings that took place in that city at the time, is a good case in point. It consists of row upon row of similar-looking little figures with upturned faces massed in front of a man and a woman. Each figure represents one of the children killed and carries a tag on which the actual child's name is lettered. The cumulative effect of all these tiny ''dolls'' is extraordinarily moving, and the work itself penetrates and engages the viewer's consciousness as only true art can.
I found ''Atlanta'' the most moving and effective piece in the show, not only because of the simplicity and directness with which the artist gave form and expression to her subject, but also because of its subtle references to African culture and art. These place the killings within the largest possible context, adding a haunting extra dimension to what was already a deeply disturbing event.
But then, that's the kind of artist Faith Ringgold is. Since this is only a mid-career exhibition, we can expect even more from her in the future. In the meantime, however, we have this excellent sampling of what she has done so far. It will remain open to the public at the Studio Museum in Harlem, 144 West 125th Street, through Sept. 2.