Seven Passages to a Flight, 1995 by Faith Ringgold is a vibrant and distinctly familial narrative displayed both as a quilt with nine registers, and a children’s book accompanied by text. The quilt is reminiscent of one you would find in the household, the tradition of quilting being prevalent among African Americans. It is, however, unique in the three rows by three columns of illustrations that identify it as a medium of art and literature rather than solely utilitarian. This quilt, often dismissed as woman’s work, is a dynamic insight into the physical and transcendental experiences of young black girls as they navigate urban black childhood and imagination. The display of the picture book only allows for the viewing of a single text and image pairing rather than a comprehensive exposure to the narrative. Even from this limited access one gets a sense of the autobiographical quality of the work as it explores both Ringgold’s experience in childhood and its impact on her present practice. This piece succinctly exemplifies the visual representation of black women subjects and artists throughout the Smithsonian American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery in its vibrant open color palette, geometric composition, and figurative representation of young black women.
My initial introduction to the work of Faith Ringgold was with another of her published children’s books, Tar Baby. As some of the most vivid imagery from my childhood recollection, it is distinctly identifiable as Ringgold’s work in the consistent conceptual trope of black children soaring over urban landscapes (seen again in the 5th, 7th, and 9th quilt registers). The 4th or center register gives further insight into this surreal thematic element with the title, Seven Passages to a Flight. This image along with its text can be assumed as the titular cover of the complimentary picture book yet unlike the book, its narrative cannot be assumed in linear chronology, subject only to the speculation of its viewers upon first glance. Upon further assessment viewers will find that this narrative is still aided by text that horizontally borders the geometric shapes surrounding the pictorial images and gives greater context into their chronology which might then be assumed as clockwise reading from infancy to divinity.
Reading the quilt in a clockwise orientation beginning in the upper left hand corner, the viewer is introduced to the subject as a child adorned by a halo as she sits in her mother’s arms. This maternal image with implications of divinity can be interpreted as a Madonna and child, characterized by a simple wooden chair and a homely patterned quilt similar to that upon which it is displayed. This calls upon the care put into the work as a whole and the function and might hypothetically serve when passed from mother to child. The story goes on to depict this child now older, a girl ill in bed who finds comfort and solace in the crayons provided to her by her mother. Though a sickly and bittersweet childhood, she is loved and cared for, her hair neatly braided as she smiles down at her drawings. Subsequent images depict two young boys of different races sitting alongside one another as they are overlooked upon by a soldier, the primary subject standing with arms spread in the foreground of an urban nightscape, followed by an image of children flying over vast landscapes. The next image is one of three young girls in brightly colored dresses as they dance joyously under the Mona Lisa. The image of these three girls dancing joyously, juxtaposed by the solemn face of the Mona Lisa who contrasts them in demeanor but shares their playful colors in her background establishes a playful dynamic. The next panel once again depicts two women flying, possibly the girl, now a young woman, and her mother over a highway that helps identify them to their location. The last register depicts the magnificent figure of a women towering over the trees of a busy city center in her community. This is the first surreal depiction of her physical form and demarcates a height in her spiritual evolution, having grown larger than life.
Representations, or more often self-representations of black women in visual culture are often autobiographical and both figurative while drawing attention to both physicality and spirituality that allows them to transcend physical barriers. Through great attention to geometry and color, Seven Passages to a Flight is an example of the use of visual practice as opportunity to explores ones childhood, identity, and sense of self, maternal relationships playing a significantly positive role in breaking the commonly binding identity of black womanhood.