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Shades of Alice, 1988/93

Faith Ringgold

Look closely at this story quilt from MAD’s permanent collection, an alternative telling of Alice in Wonderland that is also a reflection on black girlhood. Follow the artist’s heroine on her own journey down the rabbit hole in this object lesson for learners of all ages.

look

Like many of Faith Ringgold’s story quilts, Shades of Alice not only tells a children’s story using words and images, it is also about a story, namely Lewis Carroll’s famous children’s book Alice in Wonderland. Take a close look at Shades of Alice and make a list of ten things you notice.

  • Who is the protagonist—or main character—in the picture? How can you tell?
  • Describe the girl at the center of the painted quilt in as much detail as possible. Consider her physical appearance, clothing, hairstyle, facial expression, and body language.
  • What differences do you notice between the girl and her reflection in the mirror? What do these differences suggest?
  • Take a closer look at the setting? What do you notice?  

explore

Ringgold’s work often straddles art, writing, and activism. She has spent much of her career fighting for more representation of women of color in galleries and museums. Her story quilts, some of which have been turned into children’s books, have become vehicles for Black feminist thought and offer much-needed alternatives to childhood favorites whose protagonists are white. “Children need to see themselves in stories, so that they’ll learn that their image, too, is beautiful,” the artist once said.

  • Seen in this light, why do you think Ringgold named her story quilt Shades of Alice?

The center panel of the quilt consists of a painting on fabric, which is surrounded by fabric borders typical of patchwork quilts. White fabric panels at the top and bottom of the quilt bear a narrative Ringgold wrote out by hand, describing the adventures of the young Black girl who finds herself in a situation very different from that of Lewis Carroll’s Alice:

Now I cannot find the white rabbit and I am in a strange inner city with no sky. Peculiar looking animals who talk peer out of windows in buildings that have small doors. They have threatened to eat me, but they cannot agree on who or what I am, or how they should cook me. I told them my name is Alice In Wonderland and that I am Through The Looking Glass. They told me there was an Alice here once but that she looked nothing like me and that I must be someone else; so they have made me stand on a stack of Alice In Wonderland books until I say who I really am.

  • Describe the girl’s experience. What might she be feeling?
  • What is the main idea you take away from this passage?

Discuss

Patchwork quilting has a long history in the African American community. The art of putting fabric scraps together to make a new whole has been passed down from women to women across generations, and celebrates creativity through the creation of new texts and images from broken ones. Listen to Faith Ringgold talk about the importance of quilting for her own practice as a Black female artist.

  • Why do you think Faith Ringgold decided to tell this (and other) stories in the form of a quilt?
  • How is the experience of looking at a quilt different from looking at a painting or a photograph?
  • How does “reading” a quilt differ from reading a book?

make

In Ringgold’s quilt, Alice is surrounded by animals on the ground and looking out at her (and us) through windows that resemble portrait frames. Create a dialogue between Alice and the animals.

  • Pick three animals and draw them on a piece of paper, trying to capture their features and facial expression as well as possible.
  • Draw a speech bubble over their heads.
  • Imagine what each of your animals might be saying and write it into each speech bubble.
  • How would Alice respond?  

Faith Ringgold (United States, b. 1930)
Shades of Alice, 1988/93
58 3/4 x 56 1/4 in. (149.2 x 142.9 cm)
Canvas, fabric, acrylic paint
Museum of Arts and Design, New York; purchase with funds provided by the Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation, 1993

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