At the time I made American People Series #20: Die all hell was breaking loose across parts of the United States. There were riots as people fought for their civil rights. Not much of this was being recorded in the press or on the TV news, but I saw the violence myself, and felt I had to say something about it. Artists were interpreting it – but not in a direct way. In fact, the art of that time in the 1960s was beautiful – abstractions – but it was ignoring the hell that was raging for the African American people. There was a lot of objection to art that was expressive or emotional.
During the long hot summer of 1967 I was given a space in the Spectrum Gallery in New York City to paint the large work, which was where I would have my first one-person show. There is a lot of blood in the picture, which some people found scary: one woman who came in and saw it gasped and ran downstairs because she was so terrified. It was a very emotional picture to make. Painting blood was horrible. I felt like I was bleeding when I made it.
There were other sources of inspiration for the painting too. I had been going to the Museum of Modern Art with my two daughters because I wanted them to see Picasso’s Guernica, which was on loan before being returned to Spain some years after Franco died. And in terms of Die’s composition, I was inspired by Kuba textile designs (unique to the Democratic Republic of Congo), which use shapes of divided blocks. I was also imitating the pavement blocks of the New York sidewalks.
I am very excited to see that my painting now hangs in the Museum of Modern Art, like Guernica once did, some 50 years after it was made. Unfortunately, it also remains a relevant painting. It is sad to say, but history repeats itself.
Faith Ringgold (born 1930) lives and works in Englewood, New Jersey.
Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power is at Tate Modern, 12 July – 22 October.