Take that, Picasso: the frenzied work by Faith Ringgold that took MoMA by storm

<span>‘Terrified and trapped’ … American People Series #20: Die, from 1967.</span><span>Photograph: David Grossman/Alamy</span>
‘Terrified and trapped’ … American People Series #20: Die, from 1967.Photograph: David Grossman/Alamy

When New York’s Museum of Modern Art reopened in 2019 after a radical rehang, its most headline-grabbing display placed Faith Ringgold’s American People Series #20: Die eye to eye with Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon. For years, MoMA had been criticised for its shocking gender imbalance and lack of diversity. Ringgold was among the feminists to protest about the museum in the late 1960s, but it would be decades before it paid attention. The museum’s permanent display told a story of modern art imagined as a sequential progression driven almost entirely by the work of white men. In 2019, that started to change.

Painted 60 years apart – Picasso’s was completed in 1907, Ringgold’s in 1967 – the pairing of Die and Les Demoiselles invited a different kind of storytelling, one that acknowledged the debt of influence Picasso owed African art, the influence he in turn exerted over generations that followed and the rich complexity that might emerge from acknowledging plural art histories.

Die is shocking: an enormous tableau of traumatised, blood-spattered figures tangling, tumbling and grasping at one another. It was painted after the “long, hot summer” of 1967, when racial tensions fomented violent clashes between rioters and the police in Newark, Cambridge (Maryland), Detroit and beyond. Male and female, Black and white, the figures in Ringgold’s painting are frenzied, terrified and apparently trapped in a pattern of ongoing bloodshed. Could Die hold its own against one of Picasso’s greatest works? “MoMA traditionalists,” wrote Holland Cotter in the New York Times, “will call the pairing sacrilegious. I call it a stroke of curatorial genius.”

Related: Faith Ringgold: ‘I’m not going to see riots and not paint them’

Commenced in 1963, the year of the March on Washington and Martin Luther King Jr’s I Have a Dream speech, American People was Ringgold’s first mature painting series. Already an activist, she made works with the graphic immediacy, reduced palette and tight composition of propaganda posters. Ringgold surveyed the state of the nation from a Black woman’s perspective: we see banks of white figures staring at us glassy-eyed, excluding us from membership of their club; we see women first dreaming of marriage then trapped in the role of wife and mother; we see a Civil Rights Triangle in which a white man still stands at the top of the pyramid, holding ultimate power over Black workers, whether in singlets or suits. Ringgold followed American People with the equally political Black Light series, made in rich browns and blues that excluded white from her palette. As ever, her formal choices feel indivisible from her subject.

She was sensitive to many art histories, as well as the shifting visual culture of her time. In the 1991 painted quilt Dancing at the Louvre, two elegantly dressed Black women and three young girls are pictured as a joyous group in front of paintings by Leonardo da Vinci. The central panel is bordered with strips of closely written text and framed with a stitched arrangement of floral textiles. Drawing on European art history, folk art and the African American quilting tradition passed down through the women of Ringgold’s family, Dancing at the Louvre marks out space for Black women in the museum not only through its imagery but also through its choice of media.

The painted story quilts and textile hangings for which Ringgold would become best known started as a collaboration with her mother Willi Posey. The highly charged 1983 satire Who’s Afraid of Aunt Jemima? reimagines its title figure as a successful female entrepreneur. Tracing the fortunes of a family over three generations, its surface coruscates with beads and sequins. Woman on a Bridge #1 of 5: Tar Beach, from 1988, pictures a Harlem family through the eyes of an eight-year-old girl who lets her creative imagination fly as her family hangs out on the roof of their apartment block on a hot summer night. Drawing on Ringgold’s childhood memories, it formed the basis for her first children’s book, Tar Beach, in 1991.

Related: The quilts that made America quake: how Faith Ringgold fought the power with fabric

For all the immediate appeal of her style, the histories Ringgold shared were not always the stuff of children’s books. Painted on textile scrolls inspired by Tibetan thangkas, 1972’s three Slave Rape paintings show naked women modelled on Ringgold and her two daughters turning to stare back at us as they escape into the undergrowth. One – Ringgold – is visibly pregnant. The foundational violence of American history, she reminds us, was also sexual.

Through her quilts and thangkas, Ringgold adopted the mantle of storyteller – and a teller of Black women’s stories in particular. Although grand in scale, with their picturebook blending of text and image, the quilts demand intimate engagement, as if their creator is sharing a secret. Ringgold invited you to lean in close.