Howardena Pindell: A New Language
July 2–October 30, 2022
On June 28, 1987, Howardena Pindell delivered an incensed paper during the “Agendas for Survival” conference at Hunter College in New York.1 Informed by her curatorial research on the overwhelming whiteness of institutions and programs, which she had originally started as part of the Museum of Modern Art’s Byers Committee in 1971 and which she continued privately during the 1980s, Pindell described the exclusion of artists of color as all but tokens before pledging “a new language.” “I am not a so-called ‘minority,’ ‘new,’ or ‘emerging’ or ‘a new audience,’” she stated.2 “These are all terms used to demean, limit and make us appear to be powerless. We must evolve a new language which empowers us and does not cause us to participate in our own disenfranchisement.”3
A New Language is also the title of Pindell’s current touring retrospective in the United Kingdom, with stations in the university towns Edinburgh, Cambridge, and Bristol. Currently at Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge—former home to British art collectors Jim and Helen Ede—Pindell unfolds her new approach—from abstraction to filmic confrontation—over three galleries on two floors in the annexed exhibition galleries.
On the ground floor, A New Language begins with a medley of multi-media paintings and drawings, ranging from the 1970s until today. These works were created after Pindell left her curatorial position at the Museum of Modern Art and confront seminal themes in Black History, including the transatlantic slave trade, the systematic abuse of power from positions of wealth and empire, and the bias of segregated medical treatment. For instance, see Separate but Equal Genocide: AIDS (1991–92), a diptych made up of a black and a white sutured US flag. The work forms a memorial to Pindell’s bi-racial cousin who, at the age of thirty-five, passed away from complications from AIDS. The banners contain the names of people who died with AIDS—some of these were children who received contaminated blood transfusions and were personally known to the artist—while red stripes at the right edge of each flag list theories on the origins of the AIDS virus.
Meanwhile, Columbus (2020) belongs to a group of Pindell’s most recent black vinyl paintings, created in the wake of George Floyd’s murder in 2020 and acting as tokens of the atrocities committed in the name of wealth and empire. Below the painting rests a charcoaled pile of hands, cut off at the wrists, as was a common punishment for the Indigenous population of the Belgian Congo under the rule of Leopold II. Pindell’s research findings, meanwhile, connects these crimes in Congo to three of the wealthiest families in America who have recently come under fire for their cultural laundering in museums and gallery institutions across the US and Europe. This section also features two video drawings—War: Agent Orange (Vietnam #1) and War: Starvation (Sudan #1) (both 1988)—which the artist took from television war footage from Vietnam and Sudan and embellished with a slew of arrows, numbers, circles, and points. Here, they function like an alternative dictionary pointing to invisible, yet-unnamed histories and markers of conquest and occupation, pain and aggression.
Moving onto the second gallery, we encounter the stencil paintings, a series from the late 1960s and early 1970s known to Pindell’s UK audience through its most recent display at Victoria Miro Mayfair in London in 2019. In Cambridge, three paintings in different shades of green—varying from a saturated grass-green to an olive and green rust—as well as a fourth one in copper function like the flickering image interference found on televisions in the twentieth century. Like a clean slate, they offer rest and respite from the atrocities and abuses detailed in the first gallery, and pave the way to Pindell’s seminal video work, Free, White and 21 (1980). Created in 1980, shortly after the artist suffered a near-fatal car accident, and following as well her recent resignation from MoMA, the semi-autobiographical video simulates a dialogue between Pindell and a white woman (Pindell in make-up and a wig) about racial discrimination in an interlocutory format that was first put forward by Toni Morrison in her rousing speech, A Humanist View, delivered at Portland State University in May 1975.4 Throughout the video, Pindell’s personal experiences are repeatedly punctured with the naïve white woman’s ignorant and snappish interjection: “You really must be paranoid! I have never had experiences like that!” Free, White and 21 was the first video and semi-autobiographical work in which Pindell openly articulated her personal experiences of everyday racism.
Upstairs, Kettle’s Yard offers screenings of Rope/Fire/Water (2020), in which graphic archival photographs of lynchings and the 1963 Children’s Crusade protests in Birmingham, Alabama, alternate while Pindell doles out her research data in accompanying narrated passages. She had originally pitched the idea for this piece to her fellow founding members at A.I.R. Gallery who rejected it on the grounds of being “too political.” Twenty-five years later, The Shed commissioned the work in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and the ensuing demonstrations. Showing this piece, a harrowing watch due to its graphic depictions of racism, the curatorial team compiled a self-care and wellbeing support guide, offering grounding exercises to cope with the difficult themes on display.5 In fact, it is the first time that an established art gallery outside London has offered such support to visitors, marking a turning point or shift in nationwide curatorial thinking that arguably privileges the visitor over the artist. This perhaps also explains the sometimes diluted or superficial treatment of Pindell’s work in the exhibition. See Plankton Lace #1 (2020), for instance, a sutured painting in the shape of a prehistoric fossil. Made at around the same time as the Rope/Fire/Water video, which reflects on the role of water in transatlantic slave trade, this painting belongs to a series of painterly puddles portraying water as a beautiful, nourishing, and life-giving substance. For Pindell, interest in seascapes harkens back to a trip to the glaciers in Norway and the fact, encountered in the artist’s research, that some of this milky turquoise ice dates back to prehistoric times, having sustained life on earth for millennia. For Plankton Lace #1, the artist was particularly drawn to the micro-organism’s bioluminescent properties, used simultaneously to dazzle and avert predators. But here, the wall text limits its commentary to questions of climate change, a decision that ignores much of Pindell’s intricate intellectual labor.
Ultimately, though, the exhibition in Edinburgh, Cambridge, and Bristol comes full circle by tying itself thematically to Rope/Fire/Water, Pindell’s recent retrospective at The Shed. Both shows sought to portray Pindell’s artistic and curatorial practices through the prism of Black history, with a specific focus on trauma and care. Both shows also highlighted Pindell’s practice for what it is, a profound examination of the systematic abuse of power and the destructive legacies of racist colonialism. Working as both an artist and a researcher or curator demands double the stamina, energy, and mental capacity, but it also entails double the discrimination, pain, and exhaustion associated with such an artist-activist endeavor. Both of Pindell’s practices must necessarily hold equal weight, however, for Pindell’s is a project rooted in the “and”, not the “either/or.”