Faith Ringgold’s striking painting, #19 US Postage Stamp, 1967, captures the complexities of the Black Power movement in 60s America and the white supremacist structures African Americans were subject to. But it serves as a metaphor for our times too, writes Hannah Hutchings-Georgiou.
This postcard is dedicated to several women who have blessed me deeply during lockdown with their love, wisdom and creativity. They, like Ringgold, are living monuments to Black power. Through their work, words and activism they continue to tell the next generation of women that, ‘yes, they can do that’. For Irenosen Okojie, Rolake Osabia, Yvette Riby-Williams and Moushira; may this postcard reach you with love and remind you: X marks the spot.
There are many memorials in Hyde Park. Statues of myth, sculptures of mythic proportions. Long after the roses wither and the hedgerows turn a brown-grey, Diana of the Hunt remains, the string of her bow pulled back, taut as the muscle of her bronzed forearm. The tip of her arrow points south, past the glare and glamour of Knightsbridge, past the funerary urn of Queen Caroline, past the solitary boulder commemorating victims of the Holocaust. Huntress that she is, her keen eye settles on another Diana, whose mythos never ends but swells and gurgles and eddies around a serpentine fountain like it does the gutter press.
On a hot August day of 2019, the Park’s mythical figures are forgotten. The space they survey teems with other bodies, impervious to their command of time immemorial. The same sun shines indifferently on the metallic legs of the Huntress as much as those fleshly forms bathing nearby; small white limbs and arms splash and paddle in the cascading water, unaware that its swirls are for Princess Di. Relinquishing their hold over space and time, the memorials sink into irrelevance, comfortable in the knowledge that no mortal would frequent these places if it weren’t for them.
On a sweltering day in August, back in 2019, I took leave of the Park’s mythic memorials. Rushing past a bygone archer and a snake-like fountain sprawling with children, I came face to face with a different commemoration. The waterfront stretched out, a glistening open palm beside me, but I rushed on, past moments and monuments, past tourists shopping for instagrammable scenes in the capital’s hotspots. I sailed on, in my battered red converse and my too tight jean skirt, determined to get to my destination, discarding unwanted sights and sites for those that awaited me inside the gallery. Up the gravel path, through the automatic doors, air-con chilled, exhibition-hush soundlessness, it hit me: Faith Ringgold’s #19 US Postage Stamp Commemorating the Advent of Black Power, 1967. A radically different kind of memorial, one that never happened and never would; one without plinth or pedestal; cast neither in iron, bronze, marble nor granite. A painting depicting a mundane, even negligible object, now blown up and rivalling Warhol’s scale of pretension: a stamp the size of a shed.
US Postage Stamp was the first work I laid eyes on in the retrospective and it left me breathless. It’s not a painting one can ignore, even if you tried. Placed directly opposite the entrance, Ringgold’s work is forceful, dynamic and intentionally confrontational. It demands to be seen, to take up space, to be heard. Despite it consisting of 100 different pairs of eyes, the work commands your attention in a similar manner to an activist with a megaphone: its message is loud, clear and anticipates action. With its bold palette, amalgam of post-Cubist and Pop Art aesthetic (Ringgold termed her idiosyncratic style ‘Super Realism’), and covert inscription of phrases and text, US Postage Stamp is both innovative and of its time, forthright in its assertion of meaning yet more nuanced and ideologically complex than it first appears.
And how things, people, objects look – or rather look back – is everything to this painting. Made up of 100 pairs of eyes and noses, only 10 of which belong to black individuals, Ringgold forces us to reflect on the act of looking, specifically the act of gazing. As 100 different eyes stare out at us, blankly, coldly, indifferently, the power of the viewer’s gaze dwindles. We, as spectators, usually invited to piece a composition together, to ‘master’ it with our own perception and powers of comprehension, are overwhelmed, uncomfortable, caught unaware and disarmed of the subject-object prerogative. We, the viewers, are the ones being surveyed, scrutinised, objectified. In this hyper-visible and self-conscious state, we are made to feel something of the intensity of the white gaze. Standing in front of US Postage Stamp, I felt the skin-deep terror of that stare.
This particular kind of vision or optics is key to her American People series, of which US Postage Stamp belongs. Painted from 1963-1969, the 20 or so paintings that make up American People set the tone and direction for Ringgold’s subsequent work. This series, which contain titles like #4 Mr Charlie (1964), #9 The American Dream (1964), #18 The Flag is Bleeding (1967) and #20 Die (1967), span the Civil Rights era and confront white supremacy and gender inequality head on. The paintings feature white figures and faces often looking out at the viewer, their smiles ghoul-like and sinister (as evinced in Mr Charlie), their conspiratorial silence palpable through the hedge-like formations they create often at the expense of a solitary side-lined black male, who is suited but disinherited of the power this attire usually embodies. In #8 The In Crowd (1964), three black men are pushed towards the bottom of a narrow rectangular canvas, whilst five white men are stacked above, their hands over the black men’s mouths or foreheads. Atop, sits Mr Charlie, his arms enveloping those beneath him, red arrows hovering above to emphasise the oppressive and claustrophobic pyramid-like structure of literal and socio-political bodies. The white gaze is capitulated again and again in these works, not to re-endorse its power, but to reiterate the violence it wreaks on those it beholds. US Postage Stamp both underscores and undermines the terror of the white gaze and highlights the power of the black gaze in ways these works do not.
US Postage Stamp was painted in 1967: one year after Stokely Carmichael popularised the phrase ‘Black power’ as chairman of the SNCC; one year before Martin Luther King was murdered and two years after Malcom X and Medgar Evans had been subject, whether directly or indirectly, to the fatal violence of white supremacy. But the white gaze captured in the 90 pairs of eyes in US Postage Stamp speaks of Ringgold’s own experience of anti-blackness and racism in America. The insidious gaze re-enacts Ringgold’s encounters with racist white families when holidaying in Oak Bluffs, Martha’s Vineyard: it re-enacts her experience of a white majoratively male-controlled art world that continually rejected her work – there is an unforgettable anecdote told by Ringgold in her memoir about when she took her paintings to a respected gallery owner, the ironically named Ruth White, who, after looking at the artist’s work, turned to her and said emphatically, ‘you cannot do this’. The white gaze in US Postage Stamp looks back to Ringgold’s own education, where, as a black woman, she was unable to study a degree in art, but majored instead in art education.
Yet black power and Ringgold’s own complex relationship to the term are central to her work. The diagonal of 10 pairs of black eyes and noses, indicative of the 10% of African Americans who made up the US population in 1967, subtly but no less powerfully disrupts and intersects the rows of white eyes. Though the white gaze is reinforced and framed by the towering words, ‘White Power’, ‘Black Power’ cuts through, intersects and crosses over the rows of black faces to form an uncompromising ‘X’ across the whole stamp. What does the ‘X’ stand for? Quite possibly it’s an allusion to Malcolm X, to his refusal to adopt a name belonging to former slave owners. The ‘X’ signifies the pain and power of anonymity, exclusion, whilst looking to the empowering lives and words of charismatic leaders who Ringgold believed gave African Americans hope, confidence and pride in being black in the 60s. But the ‘X’ cuts deeper; it goes further than Malcolm’s self-stylisation and self-assertion; the ‘X’ is a sly subversion of the confederate flag; it is a cancellation and emptying out of its vile racist ideologies, turning US Postage Stamp into a reclamation of US history and the positionality of African Americans within it. Read in this light, Us Postage Stamp is a work of resistance, an act of faith in alternative structures and a memorial to the black people that would not be cowed by the white gaze, but instead chose to return it and look the white man full in the face.
The 70s would see Ringgold embrace a radically feminist vision and politics in her work. Flags, not postage stamps, would unfurl and narrate the complex and often painful relationship between white and black Americans. Ringgold would be arrested for the ‘desecration’ of the US flag in her works. But US Postage Stamp remains the one memorial, the one artful desecration of an insidious flag and the horrific systems it represents, she would never be arrested for.
I look at US Postage Stamp, at a commemoration that could only occur in a work of art, and I see a work that still holds relevance – too much relevance – for our times. The prevailing terror of the white gaze replays online, in Zoom conversations where small rectangular slots of faces stare indifferently and silently back during discussions about racism and anti-blackness; on the camera phones of white policemen who felt safe, secure and vindicated enough to take selfies with the bodies of two murdered black women, thereby denying them the safety, security and justice they were owed as victims. You see the failure of the white gaze in the dangerous homogenised term BAME, where blackness is hidden, elided, put on a diagonal, so to speak, and muddled with the very different experiences of those from other ethnic backgrounds. We see white supremacy alive and well in press briefings where in the same breath our racist Prime Minister condemns racism but labels those who stand up to it ‘thugs’, ‘mobs’ and ‘criminals’. We saw it with Grenfell; with the Windrush scandal; we’ve watched it again during the pandemic, when a government failed – and still abysmally fails – to support, protect and prioritise the most vulnerable. We see the white gaze in motion when commemorations to slave traders are fished out of dirty waters so soon after black power took action, struck, resisted and placed an X where whiteness once prevailed. How do we even begin to dismantle and rebuild a world where the former “heroes” of empire are still being prioritised, protected and financially saved over the children and key workers of our local communities: the public transport drivers and shop owners, NHS workers and carers, cleaners and delivery staff, many of whom are black and felt the pain of this pandemic the most.
During lockdown, Ringgold’s work has come back to me. I see US Postage Stamp as a literalisation of what is happening in the world today. This is not to overlook the work and progress made by many estimable figures of the past and present; rather, to acknowledge and face up to the fact that institutional racism and anti-blackness still very much exist. US Postage Stamp implores us to confront these oppressive structures, to reflect on our own complicity within them, to stare back at white supremacy, to see the white gaze for what it is and call it out. The memorial Ringgold lays claim to is both the advent and continuation of black power, in 1967, but also in 2020, 2067 and beyond.
One day I hope to walk through Hyde Park, Parliament Square, Victoria Gardens and other public places in London and see such commemorations stand. Not of a mythical figure nor an icon whose mythology remains fodder for media, but of Black British individuals. Like US Postage Stamp they will be loud, proud and take up space. They will send out a different gaze and reclaim the land around them. These hypothetical monuments will say ‘I was here all along though you refused to see me’, ‘still, I rise, despite the odds’. Until then, X marks the spot.
About Hannah Hutchings-Georgiou
Hannah is a writer and the founding editor-in-chief of Lucy Writers, and edits their Art & Design, Books, Dance and Theatre sections. She completed her BA in English Literature at Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge, and has an MA in Eighteenth-Century Studies from King’s College, London and a diploma in Art and Design from Camberwell College of Art. She is currently studying for a PhD in English Literature at UCL and teaches undergraduate students in the department. Her doctoral thesis explores the representation of the human body in the work of Mary Wollstonecraft and her circle. Hannah was Dance, Art and Books editor for London Student from 2017-2018. She regularly writes for online magazines, journals and blogs, such as London Student, The Cusp, The Modernist Review, Women: A Cultural Review, The London Journal, BSECS Criticks, and the Journal of Eighteenth-Century Studies. She was shortlisted and came second in the BBC Radio 4 Today Programme Student Journalist of the Year Award 2018 (for criticism). She is passionate about using art and literature to encourage young women and marginalized groups to find their creative voice. Hannah co-ran a creative writing workshop for womxn for several years, as well as a feminist reading group. She writes about art & culture, in particular visual art, dance and fiction. For more information, contact: email@example.com or tweet to @hhgsparkles
This piece was commissioned as part of the series, Postcards in Isolation
In times of loss and separation, art can be a source of inspiration, solace and connection. In her self-conceived series, Postcards in Isolation, writer and editor Rochelle Roberts has turned to the art on her bedroom wall to reflect on the difficulties quarantine and social distancing presents. Looking at artists as disparate as Claude Cahun, Dorothy Cross, Eileen Agar and Dorothea Tanning, Roberts has explored the sadness, uncertainty and joy of life in lockdown, and demonstrated how art can help us grapple with such feelings. As a guest editor for Lucy Writers, Roberts has opened up the series to other writers. See here to read the series so far.