In her 1971 essay “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?”, art historian Linda Nochlin points out how the white male viewpoint of art history has been accepted as the universal viewpoint and how women artists have been neglected access and exposure within art history. In 2004, Michele Wallace wrote an essay titled “Why Are There No Great Black Artists?”, further adding exclusion from the art canon based on race. Artist Faith Ringgold’s quilt series The French Collection from 1991 counters these questions by inserting her Black, female protagonist into art history, and by doing so, she imagines an alternative past, creating a new future for Black women artists. Dancing in the Louvre is the first of twelve story quilts.
The French Collection is set in 1920s Paris and tells a fictional story. The story quilt evolves around protagonist and artist Willia Marie Simone, who was born in Atlanta and moves to Paris in the 1920s. In Paris, she meets all the artistic and literary figures of the time, including French artists and American expats such as Pablo Picasso, Gertrude Stein, and Josephine Baker. She also meets famous African-American artists and activists such as Sojourner B. Truth, Zora Neale Hurston, and Frederick Douglass.
The first quilt, Dancing in the Louvre, shows the protagonist and her two daughters at the Louvre, dancing in front of iconic paintings of Western art such as the Mona Lisa. The paintings represent white “ideal” womanhood and also, are the products of white, male artists. Ringgold places her protagonist in the very spaces that traditionally excluded her – museums such as the Louvre. Although there were successful Black female artists in 1920s Paris, such as Josephine Baker and Augusta Savage, it was nearly impossible for Black women to enter institutions such as museums and art schools.
Even though the story is fictional, Ringgold uses her own experience as a Black female artist and her trip to Paris in 1961. She made the trip to France with her mother and her two young daughters: “Faith’s mission was to see as much of the art of Europe as possible in order to determine whether she could finally be an artist”, Michele Wallace (art historian and daughter of Ringgold) writes. She tried to figure out how to be an artist as a Black woman and a mother of two, “despite the landmines placed in her path by institutional patriarchy, white supremacy, American provincialism, anti-intellectualism, and xenophobia”.
Dancing in the Louvre shows a woman, artist, and mother who inserts herself into a history that traditionally excluded Black women. Ringgold is “re-arranging” common representations, using her art as a political tool to critique the Western art history canon. The quilt also teaches us to re-see and changes our perspective on what is considered “art”. Using the medium of quilting, Ringgold works in an artistic medium that is considered “women’s art” and “craft”. Depicting the Louvre, the home of “high art” in her quilt, she creates a juxtaposition of the two false dichotomies of “high” and “low” art. Overall, Dancing in the Louvre (and The French Collection as a whole) tell the story of a Black woman artist, who, despite all, carves out her own path and creates art that is both critical and hopeful. In the accompanying texts, Ringgold’s protagonist writes in a fictional letter to her aunt: “You asked me once why I wanted to become an artist and I said I didn’t know. Well, I know now. It is because it’s the only way I know of feeling free. My art is my freedom to say what I please.”
Image: Faith Ringgold, Dancing at the Louvre, 1991, acrylic on canvas, tie-dyed, pieced fabric border, 73.5 x 80 inches, from the series, The French Collection, part 1; #1 (private collection). Via https://www.reddit.com/r/ArtHistory/comments/aw1wfv/faith_ringgold_dancing_at_the_louvre_1991_final/