Faith Ringgold’s “The Sunflowers Quilting Bee at Arles” and Madam C. J. Walker

Faith Ringgold's "The Sunflowers Quilting Bee at Arles" 1991 (www.faithringgold.com)

Between friendship links on Facebook and research on Ancestry.com (which I’ve decided is Facebook for the dearly departed), I’ve been able to make connections and conduct a level of intimate research for my new book about my great-grandmother, A’Lelia Walker, that I couldn’t have dreamed of when I was writing On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C. J. Walker.

A few days ago, a little nugget from 1910 about one of A’Lelia Walker’s friends led me to an article about a friend of hers named Ringgold. Such an unusual surname. So of course I thought of Faith Ringgoldartist, quilter, author, professor and mother of author Michele Wallace–and wondered if there were any connection. I couldn’t resist reaching out to Michele, with whom I share a passion for preserving the legacy of accomplished female relatives. Fortunately, she has been kind enough to agree to investigate the lead. If a 100 year old friendship between A’Lelia Walker and one of Michele’s Ringgold family members materializes, I certainly wouldn’t be surprised. Through the magic of social media–and apparently the deep need some of us in this generation have to connect with the ancestors--the six degrees of separation continue to collapse and conflate into one or two. 

Artist Faith Ringgold (Photographer Grace Matthews) http://www.faithringgold.com

The bonus for me–in these dog days of record breaking summer temperatures when sunflowers are in full bloom– is that I always have cherished the knowledge that an artist of Faith Ringgold’s stature had featured my great-great-grandmother in one of her iconic quilts: “The French Collection Part I: The Sunflowers Quilting Bee at Arles.” Not only is Madam Walker seated at the table of luminary black women, but so is Ida B. Wells, the great-grandmother of my friend, Michelle Duster, with whom I’ve had the joy of sharing the stories of our ancestors at Chicago’s DuSable Museum and with social studies teachers in Flint, Michigan.

“Sunflowers” has become one of Faith Ringgold’s most popular and most widely exhibited quilts.  Here’s what Mary Fifield wrote for Vermont Woman when it was exhibited at the Brattleboro Museum and Art Center in 2007: “Surrounded by the flowers, eight African American women freedom fighters who blazed a fearless trail through American history—including Coretta Scott King, Sojourner Truth, Mary McLeod Bethune, Harriet Tubman, and Rosa Parks—line the mid-ground, holding the edges of an outspread quilt pieced with more sunflowers. To the side and slightly behind them stands a shyly courting Vincent van Gogh, proffering his vase of sunflowers in homage to the venerable ladies assembled, some of whom look as if they sense the presence of their artist-suitor, but none directly turning back towards him. Their expressions are contemplative and only a few look directly at the viewer. The range of skin color among the women—ebony, charcoal, sienna, cinnamon, peach—echoes the spectrum of hues in the flowers. Van Gogh’s colors, warm-toned in his buttery straw hat and rusty beard, echo the petal haloes; his shirt is the color of the sky. Ringgold has likened the sunflowers in this work to African Americans in solidarity: many together, tall, strong and turning their faces to follow the sun.”

We hope you’ll visit us on Facebook at our Madam Walker Family Archives Page and our Madam C. J. Walker Biography Page. For more information, please contact me at www.aleliabundles.com and at www.madamcjwalker.com

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About A'Lelia Bundles

A'Lelia Bundles is an author, journalist, public speaker and president of the Madam Walker/A'Lelia Walker Family Archives. Her book, On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C. J. Walker, was a NY Times Notable Book. For more information visit www.aleliabundles.com
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