City Paper is not for tourists
“Inspirations: Exploring the Art of Faith Ringgold”
“Astonishment and Power: Kongo Minkisi and the Art of Renée Stout”
The combined forces of postmodernism and multiculturalism have provoked a close scrutiny of the contemporary artist’s use of sources. Those artists working within the Eurocentric “mainstream” nowadays are expected to approach their sources, whether derived from tradition or the mass media, with an aggressive unease known as criticality. But artists who work with other-than-European material and themselves derive from other-than-European cultures are permitted a more affirmative stance: They are encouraged to insert these formerly excluded traditions into the “dominant” discourse. Such insertions are generally welcomed uncritically, and there often isn’t much opportunity for examining the nature of the newer art’s transformations. Just such an evaluation, however, provides the raison d’être of the small but compelling exhibit, “Inspirations: Exploring the Art of Faith Ringgold,” at the Textile Museum. There, selections of Ringgold’s work are displayed next to Asian and African objects from the museum’s permanent collection, pieces representative of those that have inspired her art.
The site is serendipitous, for it foregrounds the visual and narrative drama inherent in textiles themselves, a drama that is often erroneously dismissed as mere decorative effect in more conventional high-art venues. In such sites, the narrative and symbolic potential of textiles has until recently not been widely appreciated. It is that potential for narrative which Ringgold has explored in her work and is perhaps the real theme of the show. Examining the nature and transformation of some of her sources illuminates not only Ringgold’s accomplishments but the creative process itself.
The earliest work in the exhibition is Ringgold’s 1972 Black Men Watch Your Step, which is paired with an 18th-century Tibetan thangka painting of an Arhat. Ringgold’s image consists of an abstractly painted fabric square on which the brushmarks resemble Chinese calligraphy. In the upper portion of the image, a poem is written vertically in gold letters. This narrative center is framed with a patchwork border of brocades and painted fabrics. The fabric frame was made by Ringgold’s mother, a dressmaker and fashion designer, after the artist described the cloth frames she had seen in an exhibition of Tibetan thangkas in Amsterdam.
For Ringgold, the patchwork cloth frame was the solution not only to an aesthetic but to a financial problem: how to be able to afford to show her work in the face of the exorbitant shipping costs for framed paintings. With the cloth frames, she notes in the video accompanying the exhibition, she was able to ship her work easily, making it more attractive to galleries and museums whose exhibition budgets are always pinched.
This practical solution provided an opening for Ringgold, a route to creating an expressive language built from the coloristic, textural, and narrative qualities of fabric. In the Baby Faith and Willi series of 1985, the bold fabric borders surround somber abstractions, allowing for a complex visual commentary on a period containing both the birth of the artist’s namesake grandchild and the death of her mother, Willi Posey. Also on view is the elegiac Mother’s Quilt (1983), which contains figures cut out by Posey before her death. The Subway Graffitti Quilt of 1987 honors the artist’s sister, who died in that year.
It seems ironic that Ringgold’s inspiration for patchwork fabric came originally from Tibet, not from the rich American—and particularly African-American—tradition of quilt-making. It is just this sort of random encounter, however, offering a solution to one problem and opening an opportunity to many more artistic possibilities, that characterizes the art-making process at its best. The collaboration with Posey was also instrumental in pointing the way for Ringgold to use her subsequent soft paintings and sculptures to document the life of her extended family and of Harlem, where she was raised and continues to live part of each year.
Autobiography plays a major role in Ringgold’s work and led to the creation of her major works of the ’80s, the story quilts. In them, she transforms storytelling from a spoken to a visual form by combining narrative figural motifs with words and abstract patterning that frequently possesses a narrative of its own. None of the major works from that series are on view at the Textile Museum, which is a disappointment because they give powerful expression to the complex relationships and traditions that weave through Ringgold’s family and the African-American community. The patterning of words, images, color, and form establishes an almost symphonic elaboration of meanings that are not at all achieved in the one story quilt here, Tar Beach II (1990), which derives from her children’s book of the same title. In it, both the narrative richness and formal complexity have been subdued, perhaps to accommodate the silkscreen process by which this more recent work has been produced.
The autobiographical impulse fused with an elaboration of textile’s potential is appealingly presented in a variety of earlier works on view, the soft sculptures Aunt Edith and Aunt Bessie (1974), Zora and Fish (1975), and the Women’s Liberation Talking Mask (1973). These are presented beside raffia cloth skirts from the Kuba people of Zaire, an elephant mask from the Cameroon and another mask from the Salampasu people of Zaire, and a tie-dye display cloth from Cameroon. Together, the quilts and the other objects document the artist’s efforts to supplement her European-based art-school training with intense study of African art.
The juxtaposition of the African artifacts with Ringgold’s work clarifies the nature of the transformation she has achieved—a true transformation, not merely a copying of designs, colors, or themes. They can be seen as definite sources of “inspiration,” but also as a route to expressive solutions that are uniquely her own.
Such a transformation of sources, rather than mere nostalgic or documentary use of them, is what’s missing from the somewhat similar exhibit, “Astonishment and Power: Kongo Minkisi and the Art of Renée Stout,” at the Museum of African Art. This show pairs minkisi sculptures of the Kongo people with the work of Washington artist Renée Stout. Stout’s work was selected apparently because as a child she was impressed by a minkisi in Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Museum.
Minkisi—a word for which no English equivalent exists but is defined in the exhibit as “things that do things”—are mysterious, menacing objects whose very real psychic presence is not completely neutralized by the conventions of museum installation. They are documents of a violent, unhappy history to which they bring eloquent testimony in this respectful museum presentation. Stout’s work, however, lacks all but superficial reference to the materials of which minkisi are made. Their influence can be seen mostly in such organic found materials as feathers, distressed fabric, hair, bones, and beads from which she constructs rather commonplace sculptural assemblages. The violence of the African works has become an aesthetic effect in Stout’s, perhaps because making an “artwork” rather than a “thing that does things” is creating an object whose purpose is to produce pleasure, not to affect the powerful forces of life and death that were believed to be controlled by minkisi.
Instead, Stout makes small sculptural objects deriving largely from the tradition of modernism, in which artists scavenged expressive motifs from any cultural artifact they happened to find. Stout’s sources are eclectic, and references to Brancusi, Joseph Cornell, and a variety of early surrealists are as prominent as those to the Kongo art. The works themselves chronicle her inner ruminations in a rather conventionally poetic way and reflect the self-referential obsessions of modernism, which cut off contemporary art from any social role. This provides perhaps the greatest contrast with the minkisi, which functioned as part of an elaborate social and ritual environment whose communal references provided their relevance. Without that communal component, Stout’s assemblages are sustained by aesthetics alone, and as aesthetic objects they are pleasing but unremarkable.