Howardena Pindell: “I could have died – that’s when I decided to express my opinion in my work” | Art
HOwardena Pindell’s art may appear to have been made by two separate people. There are the huge canvases where stenciled dots or tiny perforated paper discs pile up like drifts of leaves, which she started doing while working as MoMA’s first African-American curator in years. 1970 in New York. And then there’s the work that has challenged social injustice with brutal frankness since the ’80s.
It’s clear, however, from speaking with the 78-year-old before her first UK solo exhibition in a public gallery, that her swirling abstract constellations aren’t entirely devoid of politics. As a young curator, she had seen artists with day jobs in a museum abandon their creative lives. Not her. She found time to paint because “racism [at MoMA at the time] meant that I was excluded from certain activities. I loved being an artist and had the stamina to work at night.
In 1979, this institutional racism grew too much and Pindell’s activism made its way into his art. After years of exclusion from working groups and the disinterest of some of her white colleagues in the experiences of black women, she left MoMA. Then, when the gallery staged an exhibition with the N word in its title, Pindell and his friends protested – only to be accused of censorship. The year ended in a major car accident that left him with head injuries and memory problems. His response was to seize the day and make his voice heard.
Free, White and 21, Pindell’s impactful debut video, challenges the contemptuous attitudes she encountered among white feminists. In it, she calmly recounts personal experiences, such as being tied to a bed by a kindergarten teacher or being offered an offer by an old white man at a wedding, to a skeptical blond interlocutor who said, “You really have to. be paranoid. These things had never happened to me. Since then, she has done uncompromising political work, tackling everything from the Vietnam War to the AIDS crisis.
Pindell traces his initial awakening to a childhood ordeal. “I was at a friend’s house and in Life magazine I saw a lynched African lying on a log, burning from the inside out. White men stood around him, looking delighted. My friend’s mother cooked meat, and the smell and sight kept me from eating meat for a year. When she suggested a work using photography to AIR Gallery, the cooperative of female artists she co-founded in the 1970s, she turned it down. Last year, following the murder of George Floyd, Pindell returned to the picture for his second video, Rope / Fire / Water. It’s a masterfully minimalist evocation of brutality with its voiceover offering a dark history of racist attacks.
While ultimately the work was “curative,” she is only optimistic with hesitation about increased exposure of black artists – “mostly men” and not in the “large” gold-necked “galleries” – at the sequel to Black Lives Matter. Rope / Fire / Water concludes with Martin Luther King’s warning words: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. Pindell’s eyes remain fixed on this large image.
Injuries and Rights – Five Works by Howardena Pindell
Rope / Fire / Water, 2019
“A horrific Life magazine lynching photo I saw as a kid was the reason I created [the video work] Rope / Fire / Water. It covers lynching, slavery and the civil rights movement. I am also referring to the middle passage, where captains of slave ships threw slaves overboard for safety or had them hang head first over the side of the ship. The sharks ate them from the head up.
Separate but equal genocide: AIDS, 1991-1992
“These flags are about 6 feet high. The red script represents blood. My cousin had AIDS. He could pass for black or white and found that health care changed depending on what race he was perceived to be. The majority of the names are children who died of AIDS in hospitals in New York and the Bronx. It’s something you don’t hear about. The others are people I knew.
Plankton lace # 1, 2020
“Plankton floats above the ocean and is vital for the planet. But when it blooms it becomes poisonous [it’s thought to worsen with global heating]. The way the circles move in the painting suggests ocean currents. It must be really hard to swim through all these different currents.
Free, White and 21, 1980
It was my first video. I was originally reacting to both racism in the white feminist art movement in New York City and in general. I did this after a car accident where I could have died. I decided to express my opinion in my work when I realized how short life can be. The bandages refer to my head injuries.
“Circles are an iconic shape: the sun, the moon, the earth, the planets. After I started using them in my work, I remembered a time I drank root beer with my dad as a kid. It was during segregation, when it was ordered by the court that utensils had to be designated if someone of color could use them; they painted huge red dots under the cups.
Howardena Pindell: a new language is at the Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh, until May 2.