American Art and National Identity

The Sunflower Quilting Bee at Arles

Fig. 11 Faith Ringgold, b.
The Sunflower Quilting Bee at Arles,
Brauer Museum of Art, Collings Fund Purchase, 96.7

Where Greenfield wonders and hopes, Faith Ringgold proclaims and celebrates. Ringgold is convinced that the visual world of art is available as an iconographical resource for recovering and honoring female identity in the national context of American Black women. Her large lithograph, "The Sunflower Quilting Bee at Arles" (fig. 11), gathers several heroic Black women of the American past around a quilt of sunflowers as an emblematic statement of unity. The quilting bee is a traditional activity of American women, a practice in which women dominate and metaphorically create the fabric of domestic life as well as a social space in which women are in control and enjoy
friendships with one another. Moreover, reminiscent of commemorative prints displaying the portraits of African-American clergy, Ringgold's image configures the visual unity of these women into a kind of historical community, a quilted, intertwined tradition of persons dedicated to changing the world, as an inscription on the quilt they've collectively produced puts it.

The print borrows a famous motif of sunflowers by artist Vincent Van Gogh and redeploys it as a metaphor of feminine strength and intergenerational commitment. Art and art-making are symbols of unity and a creative, constructive tradition of solidarity and female self-assertion. Van Gogh, the single man in the picture, appears respectfully at the side, holding a pot of sunflowers. His is an honorific presence, a decorative detail that diminishes before the grander display of the quilt and its proud makers. Where Van Gogh failed to create a Utopian community of artists in the south of France, at Arles, Ringgold proclaims an intergenerational victory of women gathered about the symbol of their collective work.


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