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Faith Ringgold, Ben

Politics and humanity in 1970s New York. See learning resources here.

Faith Ringgold, Ben, c. 1978, soft sculpture/mixed media, 99.1 x 30.5 x 30.5 cm (Toledo Museum of Art, ©Faith Ringgold) speakers: Dr. Halona Norton-Westbrook, Director of Curatorial Affairs and Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, Toledo Museum of Art and Dr. Beth Harris.
Created by Smarthistory.

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Video transcript

(jazz music) - [Narrator] We're in a conservation lab at the Toledo Museum of Art looking at a figure by Faith Ringgold. His name is Ben, and we learn a lot about Ben from what he's wearing and all of the buttons and accessories that he's carrying. - [Female] He is covered in political buttons and found materials. He clutches some coins in his hand, a liquor bottle in the other that has an address of the liquor store in Harlem where the alcohol would've been purchased. His face is kind and empathetic. He has a very strong stance. He tells a story. - [Narrator] We're not sure if Ben is an actual person that Faith Ringgold chose to depict, or just someone she made up. - [Female] Ben is an extremely interesting character. He is dressed in clothing that when you look closely is tattered in places, his shoes are worn. You definitely have the impression that he has been wearing this outfit for some time. - [Narrator] He's got all of his belongings with him. - [Female] He's clearly a homeless person and a person who is in the midst of the turmoil of the country. He's wearing these buttons that have political statements. The Confederate flag is tied up in a bundle near his shoulder, and the American flag is tied around his waist. They're certainly not being shown in a way that is reverential in any sense, and this was a time when flag burning was happening, and protests, and it raises some questions about that. - [Narrator] We're also in the post-Watergate era here. There is no doubt about his political affiliation. We have two Shirley Chisolm buttons, we have a button for the National Black Feminist Organization, a button that says Shriver for president. Shriver ran for the Democratic nomination for president in 1976, and for vice president in 1972. He was one of the engineers of Johnson's war against poverty. Also, the drug references in the buttons, and then we have these two indications that he is perhaps a veteran. - [Female] We don't know for certain, but there's a strong suggestion of military service and a strong suggestion of military service that has led to disillusionment, that perhaps this is somebody who has returned from a conflict and not found the homecoming they were looking for, and is seeking solace in reforming the political system. - [Narrator] There was so much anti-Vietnam War sentiment that when the vets came home there was not the kind of homecoming that veterans traditionally receive. - [Female] And confusion about why that conflict had happened in the first place, and what the outcome and ultimate win might be. There was a lot of lack of clarity around that for veterans, as well as for the general population. - [Narrator] And the 1970s were such a difficult time for the country. There was a recession in the mid 1970s. There were oil shortages. There was enormous inflation. And New York City in particular, suffered. This is an African American artist growing up in Harlem. Feminism is important. Her African American identity is important. Using these materials is also a feminist statement. - [Female] Faith Ringgold has been influenced over the course of her career by the tradition of African American textiles and quilt making, and the way that quilts and that tradition tell a story. - [Narrator] Here we have something that is using techniques that we associate with women's work. - [Female] And I think that the scale of this sculpture is really important to understand because he is not doll size. He's not to the size where you feel that you could pick him up and carry him around with ease. He's also not human-sized, so he's definitely in this area in between that, which really demands that you look at him as a sculpture and a work of art and take in his full presence. - [Narrator] He feels very much of the '70s to me, but also very much of New York City in the 1970s. - [Female] Something that I would add to that however, is that I think ultimately, it's really Ben's humanity that shines through as you look at his face, as you look at his resolute posture. This is somebody who has seen things, who has strong opinions, and is questioning what the future holds. (jazz music)