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196 Faith Ringgold’s Story Quilts ​ “All Things American in America Are about Race” Faith Ringgold’s story quilts are painted image-­ text narratives on fabric. While quilts generally are used for such everyday purposes as covering a bed or wrapping around a person, Ringgold’s oversized quilts are intended to be displayed in an art gallery. The quilt squares are stitched together, functioning simultaneously as individual images or texts and as part of the entire quilt. That is, each piece may be examined as part and whole. Each quilt square functions also as a page, while a series of quilt squares can function also as a frame. The sets of relations between page and frame, between image and text, are multiple and variable. As we have seen with the work of Carrie Mae Weems, countering racist representations of African Americans has been a substantial post–­ civil rights project for African American writers and artists. The vigilant process of always contingent and shifting articulation—revising imposed representations and stories, whether those are textual or visual—was a necessary preoccupation for late twentieth-­ century writers and artists and continues to be so in the twenty-­ first century. Riddled with racist and sexist misrepresentations, official histories of Western art and of the United States often render women and ethnic minorities as either distorted or downright invisible. As the narrator in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man says famously: “I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. . . . They see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imaginations” (7). In order to become visible as an individual and collective subject, not merely as a stereotypical representative of a racialized and gendered community, one has to expose, challenge, and correct historical misrepresentations. That is, many marginalized groups—women and African Americans among them—must intervene in a long history of textual and visual domination to simultaneously revise historical representations and generate more accurate and dynamic ones. Of course, such a corrective process is itself flawed if it is based on the assumption that there is a single true historical narrative that, once excavated, redeems everything. Like subjectivity itself, personal and collective histories are intricately interdependent and processual. 197 Faith Ringgold’s Story Quilts They are mutually constitutive, subject to perpetual negotiation and reconstitution . Well known for her painted and stitched story quilts, artist Faith Ringgold thematizes race and gender in most of her work. “‘All things American in America are about race’” (Roth 56), she insists. There is a great “weight placed on black cultural production to do something to alter a history and system of racial inequality that is in part constituted through visual discourse” (Fleetwood 3). Countering racist discourses and reimagining U.S. history and the history of Western art, Ringgold’s work documents the experience of African Americans, offers “layers of social commentary,” and reveals her “interests in the dynamics of color and issues of composition and form” (Holton 9). Like many people of color in the United States, then, Ringgold must first undo centuries of misrepresentation by others, must name and subvert the visual and verbal stereotypes. This is an especially challenging task when it comes to black women, who have been rendered doubly invisible: by both dominant racist social discourses and masculinist black discourses.1 Ringgold not only revises the history of Western art and its exclusion of artists of African descent but rethinks the basic materials of the artist by working with fabric. There has been a substantial tradition of story quilts in many rural and working-­ class communities in the United States, but nowhere has this craft been more significant than in African American communities, where women literally stitched together their family histories and life stories from discarded, found, or worn-­ out scraps. Early on in autobiography criticism, “stitching together a life” became a metaphor for the process of women writing autobiographically , for gathering, sorting, and shaping fragments—of memories, experiences , and materials—into a coherent life story. In the 1960s and 1970s, fiber art emerged as part of a process of postmodern experimentation with everyday materials, often reflecting a feminist intent to elevate traditional women’s art forms and reveal gendered and racialized biases in the “high art” world.2 Ringgold employs and/or refers to the piecing process of quilting to redesign a personal and collective history that enables her, as an African American woman artist, to be visible on her own terms. Inspired by her mother’s3 fabric remnants, Ringgold joins high...


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