Saturday, March 26, 2016

Alarm Bells of Consciousness

Photo: “Tar Beach #2” silkscreen on silk by Faith Ringgold, courtesy B2 Fine Art Gallery

Faith Ringgold and Aminah Benda Lynn Robinson at B2 Fine Art

Published in the Weekly Volcano, March 24, 2016

“Tar Beach #2” silkscreen on silk by Faith Ringgold, courtesy B2 Fine Art Gallery
The name of the show is Politi Oso, and the catchy title, “Alarm Bells of Consciousness” is the descriptor from the B2 Fine Art website. Featuring works by the recently departed Aminah Benda Lynn Robinson and the great Faith Ringgold, this visual exploration of feminism, race, culture, religion and politics is a museum-quality exhibition that Tacomans can count themselves lucky to have access to.

Both artists use materials commonly associated with women, such as sewing and quilting combined with more traditional art media such as acrylic paint and printing media, to create hard-hitting, gritty, truth-telling images that look unflinchingly at the history of feminism, slavery, Jim Crow, and the civil rights movement.

"People of the Book: Ethiopian Woman," mixed media by Aminah Benda Lynn Robinson, courtesy B2 Fine Art Gallery
Ringgold’s drawing is childlike and direct. Her colors are mostly primary. Her message is unambiguous. Often her paintings, quilts and collages are jam-packed with images. A typical Ringgold is “Declaration of Freedom & Independence,” a quilt with acrylic on canvas and a stars-and-stripes border that is painted and put together like a piecework quilt. It is an illustrated history of the Declaration of Independence and the civil rights movement in six panels, with recognizable historic figures and hand-lettered writing. For example, one panel is labeled “All Men Are Created Equal.” It pictures a slave ship and King George of England walking on the heads of people. The adjacent panel is titled “And Women?” and depicts lynchings and the melee on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Alabama, a famous event in history that was re-introduced to the American public in the recent motion picture, Selma.

Ringgold’s “Tar Beach #2” is an illustration of personal history and a fantasy. She grew up in a tenement building in Harlem where she and her family “escaped” to the roof in view of the George Washington Bridge where she could pretend she was at the beach. In this picture, perspective is flattened and everything rests visually on the same plane, meaning there is no illusion of depth. Buildings are stacked like Legos. The family is gathered together on the rooftop. There’s food on the table, and Ringgold and her little brother are sleeping on a bed. The bridge can be seen in the distance, and children are flying overhead. Stories from her life are printed in the sky. Everything is almost classically balanced but shifted slightly off center. I found everything about this painting so enchanting that I was compelled to study every one of its many details.

Ringgold is more famous than Robinson. I have never before seen any of Robinson’s work (and wonder how I could have missed it); but I found it to be even more powerful visually than Ringgold’s. Her work in this show includes mixed-media paintings, drawings, and collages that depict important protest movements,  from the marches of the 1960s to the more recent Occupy movement.

Her “People of the Book” series comprises eight black-and-white woodcut portraits of African women that expose their souls, their strength and humor and the hurt in their eyes. They are beautifully drawn with free-flowing and well-controlled lines and strong value contrasts.

Also in this series are two large portraits in watercolor and gouache on paper with collaged fabric. The woman’s face in “People of the Book: Ethiopian Woman” is painted dark brown and purple. She wears a colorful headdress and scarves made from men’s neckties and other patterned materials. In “Bedouin Woman”, men’s ties form a veil that covers the woman’s face so that only her eyes show — the ties reminding us that it is men who force women to hide their faces.

I urge you to see this exhibition. There will be an artist reception Saturday, April 9 from 5-8 p.m.

Politi Oso, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, till 9 p.m. Third Thursdays, through April 16, 711 St. Helens Avenue, Tacoma, 253.238.5065.

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