Editor’s note: With the approach of the holidays, The Hot Bid shifts its focus to world auction records.
What you see: Maya’s Quilt of Life, a 1989 narrative quilt by artist Faith Ringgold, who Oprah Winfrey commissioned to make it as a birthday gift for Dr. Maya Angelou. At Swann Auction Galleries in 2015, it sold for $461,000–a record for a narrative quilt by the artist.
Who is Faith Ringgold? Born Faith Willi Jones, she is an African-American artist who has worked in several media but is best known for her paintings and textile works of art. She grew up in Harlem during the Harlem Renaissance and is an activist who fights sexism and racism. She began creating narrative quilts in 1980, in part because she had trouble interesting publishers in her autobiography. To date, she has created almost 100 narrative quilts. Ringgold is 87.
What makes Maya’s Quilt of Life a strong example of Ringgold’s work? “It has all the elements she incorporates in her story quilts. They’re called story quilts because they tell a story–they have a narrative,” says Nigel Freeman, director of Swann’s African-American fine art department. “This scene has text taken from Maya Angelou’s writings. It’s an unusual work, but it’s instantly recognizable as Faith Ringgold’s work. It’s a special piece for a special occasion.”
It looks like Ringgold used the Angelou texts like columns that frame the painting. Is that typical of her work? “That’s not the only way she does it. They could be at the top, or the sides. Sometimes they wrap around,” he says. “The important thing is it’s Angelou’s writing. It’s not just the visual creativity of the artist, it’s the voice of the artist and the women involved.”
It strikes me that with Maya’s Quilt of Life, we have an extraordinary black woman, Oprah Winfrey, commissioning a second extraordinary black woman, Faith Ringgold, to commemorate a third extraordinary black woman, Dr. Maya Angelou. Are you aware of anything other artwork that’s quite like this? “I thought that was pretty cool,” he says. “It’s a great testament to the fiercely independent spirit of Maya Angelou, and a testament to what she inspires in people, and in artists like Faith Ringgold and cultural figures like Oprah Winfrey. It was an affinity between all three women, a great coming-together. It was a birthday present [for Angelou], and it was the prize piece in her art collection.”
This was the first narrative quilt by Ringgold to come to auction. Why was it consigned? “Because Dr. Angelou died [in 2014], it was consigned as part of a single-owner sale. It came from Dr. Angelou’s estate,” he says. “This is the way the family wanted to distribute a large part of her estate.”
How did you arrive at the estimate of $150,000 to $250,000? “Ringgold narrative quilts are very precious, and owners don’t give them up easily. They’re certainly prized objects,” he says. “Many artists we handle don’t have auction records. We looked at gallery prices and what would be a fair market value. Of course we had to know how to factor in the specialness of the piece, but enough was out there to be able to make a reasonable estimate. Like a lot of contemporary artists, Ringgold’s market is just developing. We had to start somewhere. We were just fortunate to start with a really fantastic one that sets the bar high.”
Were you in the sale room for the auction? “It was a packed room. It was almost the perfect auction. Only one piece didn’t sell,” he says. “It was a moment to savor. I was in the back of the room. People applauded when things went high. And Faith Ringgold was there! She and I posed in front of the quilt. It was quite an event. Everyone left happy.”
Were you surprised that the narrative quilt sold for $461,000? “Yes, because it was uncharted territory,” Freeman says. “We knew we had something really wonderful. She’s an important American artist. Her work is in a lot of museums already. But you never know on a given day how the market will respond. We knew it would do well. We didn’t know how well.”
Do we know who bought Maya’s Quilt of Life? “It ended up going to the Crystal Bridges Museum of Art in Arkansas,” he says. “They made it public shortly after the sale. Faith Ringgold gave a talk there subsequently. That’s always a terrific outcome. It was a win-win-win.”
How long do you think the auction record will stand? “It’ll stand for a good while. It was a really great piece, and Faith Ringgold is a great artist,” he says. “If one of her early large canvases–a significant part of her work [came to auction]–that could give this record a run for the money. But you don’t see many at auction. I’m going to enjoy it while it’s a record. It’s a wonderful piece, and the story behind it is great.”
Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power, an exhibit that originated at the Tate Modern in London, features the work of 60 black artists, including Ringgold. It will appear at Crystal Bridges from February 3 to April 23, 2018.
Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Swann Auction Galleries.