Art Through Time: A Global View
Domestic Life Art: Tar Beach 2
Tar Beach 2 is what Faith Ringgold refers to as a story quilt.
Inspired by African and African American storytelling traditions, the work combines narrative imagery with written text that gives permanence to what might be considered the oral component of the story. Here, Ringgold tells the tale of Cassie Louise Lightfoot, a little girl growing up in Harlem in the 1940s. The scene is one of domestic leisure set on a New York City rooftop. Referred to in the vernacular of the day as “tar beach,” the roof was a place where city dwellers could find relief from oppressive summer heat and the stresses of everyday life.
Ringgold’s protagonist lies on a mattress beside her younger brother, Bebe, looking up at the starry sky. Four adults sit at a nearby table where they chat and play cards. Other signs of domestic life abound on the rooftop—newly washed clothing and linens hang out to dry and a variety of beverages and home-cooked dishes are spread out over a flowered tablecloth. Underneath this table is a basket filled to the top with either food or fabric, and scattered around the edges of the roof are potted plants. The scene appears like a serene oasis in the midst of the crowded city that surrounds it. In the upper section, there is a surreal depiction of Cassie’s father standing on a rooftop and Cassie and Bebe flying through the air above the George Washington Bridge. The story’s text appears in blocks around them.
The story of Tar Beach 2 draws on Ringgold’s own memories of growing up in Harlem and spending time with family and friends on the roof. It is not, however, purely autobiographical. For Ringgold, Cassie’s ability to fly is a kind of metaphor for individual potential and the imagination’s ability to open up a world of new possibilities. In the 1960s and ’70s, Ringgold had started her art career making overtly political paintings that dealt with issues of racial and gender equality. In a much more subtle way, Tar Beach 2 continues to address those themes through its content as well as its materials and technique.
Tar Beach 2 is one of an edition of twenty-four silk screens on silk, which Ringgold made while in residence at Philadelphia’s Fabric Workshop in 1990. It is a variation on an earlier work called Tar Beach (Guggenheim Collection, NY) that the artist made in 1988 as part of the larger Woman on a Bridge series. The original Tar Beach consisted of a central scene painted on canvas bordered by fabric that had been painted, printed, quilted, and stitched together. By making textile a central part of these and other works, Ringgold challenged the art world’s long-held biases toward “high arts” (e.g., painting and sculpture) made by white men with larger-than-life personas, bringing to the fore artistic practices previously considered domestic crafts that were made mostly by women, whose identities were largely unknown and whose talents were largely unrecognized.
Faith Ringgold, Artist
“I had written my autobiography, We Flew Over the Bridge, and couldn’t get it published. And so I said, Well, instead of stopping writing, which is what usually happens when people are denied, I am going to start writing more and more and more. I am going to write and I’m going to write right on my art because when they take a picture of the art they will be taking a picture of the words and I will be getting it published anyway without editing. And it worked.
I did the Tar Beach painting in 1988. It’s a story quilt. But I’m writing the actual story down, word for word, on the quilt. The domestic life of a family in the 1930s, forties, and fifties in Harlem, in New York, would center, in the summertime, around tar beach. It’s hot and the family wants to be together, but it’s miserable in the house. So you go up on the roof.
That experience was so much a part of my life as a child growing up in Harlem, that it seemed, the story seemed to have been written before I wrote it. It’s a memory that I have of the family being together in a very beautiful and wonderful way. The adults would be playing cards or telling stories; there was no end to how much I loved to listen to them talk. Where did they get all these experiences from? How did they know all these things? And I would just lay there and listen. Now that all of my storytellers are gone, I become the story.”
Cameron, Dan. Dancing at the Louvre: Faith Ringgold’s French Collection and Other Story Quilts. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1998.
Farrington, Lisa E., Faith Ringgold, and David C. Driskell. Faith Ringgold: The David C. Driskell Series of African American Art, vol. 3. Petaluma, CA: Pomegranate Communications, 2004.
Flomenhaft, Eleanor, Lowery S. Sims, Thalia Gouma-Peterson, and Moira Roth. Faith Ringgold: A 25 Year Survey. Heightsend, LI: Fine Arts Museum of Long Island, 1990.
Graulich, Melody, and Mara Witzling. “The Freedom to Say What She Pleases: A Conversation with Faith Ringgold.” NWSA Journal 6.1 (Spring 1994): 1–27.
Ringgold, Faith. We Flew over the Bridge: The Memoirs of Faith Ringgold. Durham: Duke University Press, 2005.