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On a recent weekday morning at the Miami Art Museum, a group of third-graders sits on the floor under a painting commissioned for the Women's House of Detention on Rikers Island in 1971.
The large oil on canvas is sectioned into inspirational scenes depicting women breaking professional barriers. In the upper left corner of the composition is a doctor. As the kids' eyes wind clockwise around the picture, they see a bus driver, a woman president at a podium, professional basketball players, a construction worker, a police officer, a bride, and others, including the artist in profile.
Inside the museum, an art teacher points to the doctor, wearing a lab coat with a patch identifying she works at Rosa Parks Hospital. "Does anyone know who Rosa Parks is?" she asks the students.
In response, a flock of hands flies up and the teacher points to a girl with braids. "Was she a nurse at the hospital?" the child inquires.
A boy next to her leans forward and retorts, "No, Rosa Parks was a strong African-American woman who never gave up and refused to sit in the back of the bus!"
The teacher offers him a big smile and says, "That's right," using the moment as a springboard to talk further about art and the civil rights movement as the kids listen in rapt attention.
Painted by Faith Ringgold, the canvas is one of 60 works on view in a new show. It features the artist's rarely seen landmark series, American People (1962-67) and Black Light (1967-69), which have not been publicly displayed together since the late '60s and early '70s.
That this painting is on view at MAM is a small miracle. In the late '90s, the population of the building at Rikers where Ringgold's mural had been installed changed from female to male. Because the painting featured only women, it was removed and Ringgold's canvas was whitewashed to make way for a new image that was to be painted by a male inmate who fancied himself a prison-yard Picasso.
Notified by a guard who had been at Rikers when her mural was first hung, Ringgold quickly contacted corrections authorities. The City of New York paid to have the work — which is also the last painting the artist produced on stretched canvas — restored and reframed. Titled For the Women's House, it was then installed at the Rose M. Singer Center, Rikers' new women's prison. This marks the first time the work has left Rikers confines other than when it was being restored.
The sprawling exhibit also marks the first comprehensive museum survey of Ringgold's paintings created during the turbulent civil rights and Vietnam War eras. Co-curated by MAM director Thom Collins and New York's Neuberger Museum of Art curator Tracy Fitzpatrick, the show coincides with Ringgold's 80th birthday.
Today the artist, a lifelong activist and author, is best known as the foremother of the African-American story-quilt revival that flourished in the '70s. But as the exhibit at MAM reveals, early paintings from her American People series open a tense window on race relations and the hardships of being a black female artist in the United States during the politically and socially fractured '60s.
Rendered in a style the artist called "super realism," the paintings unfold chronologically beginning in 1963, the year Ringgold initiated the series.
It was also the year Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech in Washington, D.C., the year the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church was bombed in Birmingham, and the year civil rights activist Medgar Evers and President John F. Kennedy were assassinated.
In one of the paintings, The Civil Rights Triangle (1963), five men appear in a group, with three in the middle arranged to form a triangle. The trio in the center wear business suits, while the two men who flank them, as if excluded from power, sport a sweater and a tank top, perhaps suggesting middle- and lower-class America. But the two men at the bottom of the power pyramid are black, while the white man at the top appears to be the shot caller.
As if to emphasize the notion, Waiting and Watching (1963), the next painting, depicts a gathering of five pinched-faced white men who appear to be legislators awaiting news of Congress pushing through a new civil rights law.
Another painting from the series dated the following year portrays a token black man at an all-white cocktail party where the angular faces of those gathered appear either impassive or frozen into a rictus.
These psychologically freighted works convincingly reflect the emotional unease that characterized America's race problems.
Around the corner in an adjacent gallery, spectators stop dead in their tracks at the sight of the viscerally powerful Die, painted in 1967, the year before Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated and during the height of the Vietnam War. In this arresting mural almost the size of a garage door, violence explodes from the canvas and engulfs the viewer.
Ringgold's largest painting to date depicts two small children, one black and one white, clinging to each other in sheer terror while adults riot wantonly, stabbing and shooting one another to death.
Not unlike the Vietnam War, the image transcends race issues to suggest the entire country was immersed in a bloodbath.
In The Flag Is Bleeding, created the same summer, two white people and a black man holding a knife stand arm-in-arm behind Old Glory, which oozes blood from its stripes. The field of stars obscures the black man's face, but you can still see him covering a bleeding wound to his heart as if he's caught in some weird pledge of allegiance to the flag.
Don't miss Ringgold's collection of posters, including The People's Flag Show (1970), displayed next to her Rikers mural at MAM. She produced it to support a gallerist arrested for exhibiting a sculpture — crafted from shredded bits of the Stars and Stripes — protesting the Vietnam War.
After organizing an exhibit with fellow students supporting the gallerist's cause, Ringgold was consequently convicted for violating the Flag Protection Act of 1968.
At the time, the artist told an interviewer: "It would be impossible for me to picture the American flag just as a flag, as if that is the whole story. I need to communicate my relationship with this flag based on my experience as a black woman in America."
Watching several groups of kids recoil at the sight of these paintings is eye-opening because they have no sense of the era in which Ringgold created the works.
But at MAM, where the paintings are complemented by informative wall text and excerpts from the artist's autobiography, We Flew Over the Bridge: The Memoirs of Faith Ringgold, visitors can become part of her living history rather than learning it from books.