The Masters | Faith Ringgold’s Sunflower Quilting Bee at Arles and “Our Dedication to Change in the World”

Faith Ringgold. The Sunflower Quilting Bee at Arles. Acrylic on canvas with pieced fabric border. 1991.

The National Sunflower Quilters of America are having quilting bees in sunflower fields all over the world to spread the cause of freedom. Aunt Melissa has written and informed me of this to say: “Go with them to the sunflower fields in Arles. And please take care of them in the foreign country, Willa Marie. These women are our freedom,” she wrote.

For our last sunflower masterpiece we bask in the awesome “presence” of Faith Ringgold’s  The Sunflower Quilting Bee at Arles. A print of the masterpiece sits in my home office [still] waiting to be framed. I have been trying to get to this post since I purchased it, but put it off many times because I am inclined to approach her work academically. For sanity’s sake, I need to keep my academic work and my blog separate.

Faith Ringgold (b. 1930) is an African American painter, mixed media sculptor, performance artist, writer, teacher and lecturer. Her work often carries strong socio-political messages about the African American experience. 

The Sunflower Quilting Bee at Arles is the fourth piece in Ringgold’s French Collection, a collection of 12 story quilts, that “uses a combination of painted images, narrative text, and decorative borders to explore the often absent role of African-American women in the art-world, particularly in Paris during the 1920s.” (Ellen C. Caldwell).

The story quilt features “The Sunflower Quilters Society of America” and its March 22, 1922 effort, a quilt bedecked with gorgeous sunflowers. Eight influential African American women hold the edge of the quilt, surrounded by a field of sunflowers in Arles. A “tormented” Vincent van Gogh stands just behind them offering his still life, Fifteen Sunflowers in a Vase, to the queens of change: Madam C.J. Walker, Sojourner Truth, Ida B. Wells, Fannie Lou Hamer, Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks, Mary McLeod Bethune, and Ella Baker [In a 1996 print, Ringgold added her fictional character in the lower left beside Madam C.J. Walker].

Around the edges of the quilt is the story–in 12 parts–of the Sunflower Quilters, as told by Ringgold’s fictional character, Willa Marie Simone. Van Gogh is a troublesome presence to some, like Harriet Tubman, who demands, “Make him leave. He reminds me of the slavers.” But Van Gogh is firmly planted: “Like one of the sunflowers, he appeared to be growing out of the ground.” And when the sun went down and it was time for the women to leave, “the tormented little man just settled inside himself and took on the look of the sunflowers in the field as if he was one of them” [Part 7].

I got to get back to the railroad, Harriet said. “Ain’t all of us free yet, no matter how many them laws they pass. Sojourner fighting for women’s rights. Fannie for voter registration. Ella and Rosa working on civil rights. Ida looking out for mens getting lynch. Mary Bethune getting younguns education, and Madam making money fixing hair and giving us jobs. Lord we’re sure busy.” [Part 11]

Through The Sunflower Quilting Bee at Arles Ringgold pays homage to and celebrates African American women and their contributions to education, freedom, and justice. She also honors the fine artistry of African American quilt making. Through the piece she acknowledges van Gogh’s contribution to the art world, but she calls on us to also recognize the equal contribution of African American women artists.

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Until next time…Shine on!

 

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