by Mollie Weisenfeld
February’s Black History Month should not be the only time Black history is a highlight of mainstream conversation; here at Bloom, we’re pleased to keep the dialogue going. This month’s FIVE IN BLOOM features Black visual artists—painters, sculptors, illustrators, quilters—whose work began receiving recognition later in their lives.
Born in 1930 in Harlem, Faith Ringgold grew up during the Great Depression. Her parents were descended from workers displaced by the Great Migration. In 1950, Ringgold enrolled in City College of New York as an art education major, where she earned her bachelor’s degree. She moved on to teaching in the New York public school system. In 1959, she earned her master’s degree from City College, then traveled Europe with her mother and daughters. In 1976 and ’77, she traveled to West Africa.
Ringgold works in painting, quilting, sculpting, performance, and illustration. Her early work in the ‘60s did not meet with much success due to her focus on underlying racism in everyday activities.
While in Europe, Ringgold encountered a collection of 14th- and 15th-century Nepali paintings with cloth frames. Inspired, she took on full quilting projects like “Echoes of Harlem” in 1980. Since she could not find a book publisher for her writing, she began quilting stories.
Ringgold’s time in West Africa inspired her work in sculpture and mask making. As her masks were meant to be worn, not simply looked at, Ringgold describes this as her natural transition to performance art.
Ringgold has written and illustrated seventeen children’s books. Her first, Tar Beach, was published by Crown in 1991 when she was 61 years old and won the Coretta Scott King Award for illustration, the Ezra Jack Keats New Writer Award, the Caldecott Honor Award, Reading Rainbow Feature Selection, New York Times Best Illustrated Book, and Parents’ Choice Gold Award. Currently Ringgold lives and works in Englewood, New Jersey.
Derrick Adams was born in Baltimore in 1970 and was the earliest blooming of this group (his first solo show was in 2003). He works in collage, illustration, photography, performance, video, sculpture, and painting. He attended Pratt and Columbia. His initial career of choice was art education, and there he discovered that the New York public school’s images and posters used to teach history were hopelessly outdated.
Having transitioned to making art, his work explores the representation of Black identity. Some of his most famous work depicts Black people relaxing, as seen in “Floater 1” and “Floater 2.” Floater 1 shows a woman in a bathing suit reclining on a watermelon-pattered floater—likely a tongue-in-cheek nod to and subversion of the stereotypical association of Black relaxation with Black laziness and Black people with eating watermelon. He argues it is important to acknowledge Black identity as more than activism—it is repose, too. Existing.
Adams works out of a studio in Crown Heights. In 2016, he won the Joyce Alexander Wein Artist Prize, awarded by the Studio Museum in Harlem.
Born in Des Moines, Iowa, in 1963, Don Tate is a children’s book author and illustrator who promotes racial and cultural inclusiveness in children’s literature. As a child, he had to read the encyclopedia to discover “characters” and people of color in books. Tate cofounded the blog “The Brown Bookshelf” and helps run #WeNeedDiverseBooks.
The first book Tate illustrated was published in 2000: Say Hey!: A Song of Willie Mays by Peter Mandel. The first book he authored and illustrated was Poet: The Remarkable Story of George Moses Horton, published in 2015. The book won the Ezra Jack Seats Book Award, a Christopher, a Texas Institute of Letters prize, a Writers’ League of Texas award, and a SCBWI Crystal Kite award.
In addition to books, Tate licenses his art to product manufacturers for children’s bed and bathroom products, textiles/fabrics, and calendars to ensure representation in other aspects of children’s lives. He lives in Austin, Texas.
Born in 1972 in Nairobi, Kenya, Wangechi Mutu now lives and works in Brooklyn. She attended United World College of the Atlantic, Wales, then the New School for Social Research, and Parsons School of Design, studying Fine Arts and Anthropology. She earned a BFA from Cooper Union in 1996, then a master’s degree in sculpture from Yale in 2000.
Mutu’s first solo exhibition in the U.S. was at the Nasher Museum of Art in 2013. Her work uses collage, video, performance, and sculpture to investigate gender, race, and colonialism. She studies how identity pivots around a social contract, which can only be broken via personal and political reinvention. Mutu’s work has been described as Afrofuturist—a style that uses science fiction to envision alternate realities for Africa and people of African descent. She creates hybrid/cyborg-like human images, as in her recent exhibition “Wangechi Mutu: The Hybrid Humans.” Her work is also undoubtedly influenced by her immigrant identity, a double consciousness about belonging to two nations at once, as seen in her 2013 exhibition “Nitarudi Ninarudi I plan to return I am returning.”
Born in 1941 in Washington, DC, Martin Puryear began building boats, musical instruments, and furniture as a child. He received is BA in Fine Art from the Catholic University of America, then spent two years in the Sierra Leone as a Peace Corps volunteer. This gave him the opportunity to learn local woodworking.
After his time in the Peace Corps, Puryear studied at the Royal Swedish Academy in Stockholm, then attended Yale for a graduate program in sculpture.
Puryear works in wood, stone, tar, wire, and metal. He has created evocative commentaries on race and American society such as “Ladder for Booker T. Washington” and “The Load.” Puryear created a Slavery Memorial of a buried ball and broken chain in 2014 as a permanent installation at Brown University. He was awarded the MacArthur Foundation Fellowship in 1989, received the Gold Medal Sculpture by the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2007, and the National Medal of the Arts in 2011.
Mollie Weisenfeld is an Editorial Assistant at Weinstein Books, an imprint of Hachette Book Group. She is also an editor at Curiosity Quills Press. Her poetry has been published in Folio and Lilith Magazine, and she has a children’s story forthcoming from Ember: A Journal of Luminous Things.
Cover image: “The Load” by Martin Puryear, courtesy of McKee Gallery.