Jo Baker’s Birthday, 1995, from the portfolio 10x10: Ten Women/Ten Prints, Eleven color silkscreen on paper, 22 x 22 in.

Mills College Art Museum Collection, Museum Purchase, Mrs. John C. Sigourney [Mary Singleton], B.A. 1949, Fund, 1995.12.i

Jo Baker’s Birthday is from Faith Ringgold’s French Collection, a series of painted quilts depicting the fictional life of Ringgold’s heroine, artist Willia Marie Simone, and her encounters with various artists in 1920’s France. The borders of this quilt tell the story of Simone painting a portrait of French cabaret dancer and vocalist Josephine Baker. The composition references Manet’s Olympia, 1863, as Baker’s bare chest, ornate jewelry, the large flower in her hair, and her leisurely pose in the left foreground echoes that of Olympia herself. And yet here the roles have been reversed—in Manet’s painting, the nude, white Olympia is being offered flowers by her Black maid Laure. Ringgold has used the fictional narrative of Simone painting this portrait to reimagine the history of Black artists, and specifically Black women, within the world of art history. Ringgold instead positions Baker as the principal figure of this scene, reducing the role of Baker’s white maid by placing her even deeper in the background as she arranges fruit on a table in what appears to be a different room. In addition to Manet’s Olympia, Baker’s maid references Matisse’s Harmony in Red, 1908. Through borrowed elements from famous French artists, Ringgold reshapes art history to include the subjective experience of Black women, bringing them out of the background and into the forefront.

Simone Gage