When New York artist Howardena Pindell released her video artwork Free, White and 21 in 1980, it caused an uproar.
In the video, she talks about her own experiences of racism throughout her life – then creates a rebuttal character in whiteface, who downplays the trauma of racism. “You really must be paranoid,” says the character. “That has never happened to me or anyone I know, but they are free, white and 21.”
Looking back at the artwork 40 years later, Pindell says people were shocked. “The general reaction was pretty hostile,” the artist told the Guardian. “Dealing with the black body back then? Forget it. People didn’t want to talk about racism.”
It’s a seminal piece of American contemporary art, and is key to understanding the 77-year-old artist’s legacy when walking into her new solo exhibition, Howardena Pindell: Rope/Fire/Water, which recently opened at The Shed in New York. It features over 15 pieces from wall works to videos, that span the breadth of the artist’s 60-year career, which runs until 11 April 2021.
“The trauma of racism, I feel, is there for everyone to see,” said the artist over the phone from her studio in upper Manhattan.
“If you are not a person of color, you may not even notice what is going on,” added Pindell. “When you look different, you can become a target for others’ unresolved issues, where they take out their rage on people who do not look like them.”
The exhibit includes commissioned work made in 2020, including her first piece of video art in 25 years, which unpacks the history of racism in America, as well as new paintings that address white supremacy and imperialism, as well as abstract wall-works.
The exhibition takes its name from a 19-minute video artwork she created earlier this year, which is based on a childhood experience – Pindell grew up in postwar America – where she recalls seeing racial violence; a photo of a black man lynched in Life magazine.
Initially, she proposed this piece to a group of white women at the AIR Gallery, the country’s first female-run, feminist co-op art space founded in 1972 in New York City, where Pindell was the only black co-founder. “They turned it down.”
Now, she’s finally been able to realize the video, which combines archival images of non-violent protests, alongside a list of the names of black lives who died from police brutality. It’s dedicated to the civil rights leader Congressman John Lewis, who died earlier this year.
The artist narrates the statistics, as there have been over 4,000 lynchings between 1877 and 1950. “It deals with the horrors of lynching, slavery and the children’s march for civil rights also in Birmingham, Alabama, where a church was bombed,” said Pindell.
Another new artwork on view in the exhibition is Four Little Girls, which speaks to the death of a group of black girls at the 16th Street Baptist church in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963, which to Pindell, represents the lingering after-effects of white supremacy.
“I think of the little girls’ families preparing them for Sunday school and someone setting off 15 sticks of dynamite to kill them. Their day started normally,” she said. “They were dead at the hands of racist assassins.”
She’s also debuting her artwork, Canals/Underground Railroad, which traces the use of canals as part of the Underground Railroad during the 19th century, citing the Erie Canal among the routes to Canada.
The artwork features a pair of iron shackles made for a child slave. “They were sold to me by an antique store,” she said. “A man had wanted to open a history of slavery museum, but no one was interested, so he scattered these objects around antique shops.”
The artist’s own first-hand experiences of racism were set in the art world. Pindell worked at the Museum of Modern Art for 12 years, from 1967 to 1979, in the art education department and later as a curator in the prints and books department.
“It was toxic. There were nice people, but my boss was mean,” said Pindell. “We had to sign up to go to the bathroom or the library. The threat was, ‘We’re going to come and get you if you stay too long.’”
Though she had a nice office and remembers some aspects of the job as “glamorous” and “thrilling”, Pindell was inevitably not an insider. “I was on the outside of their social circuit.”
That racism still resonates with her today. “I am troubled by the encouraging of hate and division and racism by our most powerful government official, as Covid pushes us even deeper into the abyss,” she said. “There are the pro-science and the science deniers, who have led to a lot of unnecessary deaths. I am worried about the election and the supreme court.”
Part of her deep dive into history addresses the problems around Christopher Columbus in a piece titled Columbus, where Pindell writes across the artwork: “Lynching of First Nations people, taking body parts as trophies.” Despite the recent protests to have various Columbus statues removed from across New York City, and the rise of Indigenous People’s Day, there’s still much that is overlooked.
“Selling Indigenous people in Europe is what Columbus did, unknown to most of us,” said Pindell. “It’s something we don’t hear about.”
Pindell is now an art professor at Stony Brook University, and is a natural advocate of education (in fact, she owns so many books, her floorboards have started to sag).
But it wasn’t easy to source a variety of books, while she was growing up in the 1940s in Philadelphia. “There were very few books about African Americans or people of color, in general. If there was an image, it was a stereotype, a minstrel image.”
She hopes people continue to broaden their breadth of knowledge through books. “I love books, as there are now books available concerning our history. I suggest that people be informed, so that they can be informed, contributing members of society. We have so many more options now, but we also have so many troubling issues.”