To speak to painter, filmmaker, and educator Howardena Pindell is to grow your reading list. As I write this, I’m waiting for the multi-hyphenate to email me the title of one more book she’d forgotten to recommend; she’s kindly requested that I insert it into our interview. She’ll squeeze that dispatch in between conducting M.F.A. critiques at SUNY Stony Brook, where she has taught for the last forty years. The trajectory of her relationship with institutions began with fine arts degrees from Boston University and Yale, which led to twelve years in various departments—mostly curatorial—at the Museum of Modern Art, during which time she co-founded a women-run gallery, A.I.R., in her native Philadelphia. Pindell has, as in her first video piece, Free, White, and 21 (1980), used media to explicitly comment on her triangulation between Blackness, feminism, and an art world dominated by whiteness and its agenda. She has also used multimedia methods to critique the intangible wounds left by the same structural racism that kept her video piece Rope/Fire/Water from being developed for decades. Formally, Pindell has imbued abstraction with a new materiality—she created her Untitleds, beginning in 1973, with glitter, with layers of hole-punches, with stitched-together canvases, with thread, with graph paper, all unsequestered by a glassed frame. In 2018, she was the subject of a traveling retrospective whose aim was a comprehensive survey of one of the first Black women to carve out a consistent place for herself in the arts industry and its attendant academia. The retrospective’s title, however—What Remains to be Seen, points to the missing work, the unrealized ideas, which institutional access demands.
Rope/Fire/Water, Pindell’s newest show, commissioned by curator and art historian Adeze Wilford for The Shed, finally births one of these ideas. The centerpiece of the show, which gives it its name, is Pindell’s first film in twenty-five years. It was never meant to be one; she conceived of it as performance art in the 70s. She envisioned a large image on the wall—a photo she’d seen as a child in Life magazine. The picture showed the lynching and murder of a young Black man. That image, with white men standing around the burning body, remains in the film. Pindell told me that she would have had the room dark (like a screening room), illuminated only by the light of the grotesque visual. She would have had someone stand in Klan robes, and would have meat cooking, the smell permeating the air. But A.I.R. Gallery, though founded as a feminist gallery, was at the time uninterested in a conversation around lynching.
Time, as The Shed’s show makes plain, hasn’t dismantled systemic racism, but a Western construction of history would have us believe that this is the case. Pindell’s multimedia pieces Columbus and Four Little Girls invoke the impossibility of representing the real histories of the Global South that capitalism, in the process of globalizing, partly obliterated—for the sake of cacao, as was the case in El Salvador, or silver in Honduras. At the bottom of Columbus lies a jumble of cast plaster hands dipped in black paint, the individual hands practically indistinguishable from each other in the small pile. Their uniformity, backgrounded by a canvas bearing witness to acts of torture deployed by colonists, faces both the incaluability, and the standardization, of trauma as a tool of Western cultural production. That Pindell was welcomed to create A.I.R. insofar as her politics were assimilatory, that she recently sued G.R. N’Namdi Gallery for selling her work while withholding her share for the years they worked together, and above all, that police lynch an increasing number of Black Americans each year, uphold a statement which Pindell printed on the canvas of Columbus. “Wealthy, prominent families,” it reads, “profited from the plunder…and laundered it through culture.” Adeze Wilford helped to pull the idea for Rope/Fire/Water from its fifty-year-long hibernation into the museum space; Wilford and Pindell spoke to me about what access to that space cannot do, and that more difficult problem, what it can.
THE BELIEVER: The American public has been reevaluating the role of museums in forwarding progressive change, as we’ve been rethinking every institutional space. Tthe combined public health crisis facing Black Americans, posed by both COVID-19, whose effects worsen for non-white racial groups, and police brutality, affirm that representation of marginalized Americans in the culture industry isn’t creating enough material change.
Philadelphia artist Tiona McClodden, for example, asks that “institutions with public audiences be spaces of mobilization and organization for real and thorough change.” She demands “action in real time” from institutions—”there should be a sharing of resources. This could be mutual aid gestures, such as offering space, skillshares, sharing equipment, etc. There is also the issue of the redistribution of funds that many institutions are hoarding.” Laura Raicovich, president of the Queens Museum, agrees: “…if you’re still on ‘listening,’ there’s a problem. You’ve got to be figuring out what to do and doing it. Obviously you have to continue to listen.”
ADEZE WILFORD: One of the things that’s interesting about working at The Shed is the fact that we’re a commissioning institution, and so I fully believe that Tiona is correct in saying that real change has to happen in tangible ways, and one of the things that excited me about The Shed is how directly we give artists resources, through artists fees, but also through sending books, or getting them directly into contact with different fabricators. For us, it’s always about monetary assistance and about providing a platform, a space, for artists that sometimes haven’t been given the same opportunities as their counterparts in other institutions to have really important moments in their careers. I think that the museum as an institution can’t be a space that is only mired in the past; it has to be something that’s evolving, and for the public. I firmly believe that access, all types of inclusion, have to be a part of the museum’s mission because otherwise you’ve just got objects in a space without real interaction, engagement. So I definitely do think that finite ways, both financially, but the resource sharing is an important way that museums can meet this moment.
HOWARDENA PINDELL: I don’t think museums would be willing to open their doors because of COVID. If they are open now, there is a limit to how many can be in their galleries at the same time. The only museum I can think of that has a fairly large section for their educational programs is the Metropolitan Museum. Their educational spaces are separate from the collection and are on the street level, but it would be up to them as they are a huge institution and the COVID makes it more complicated. The large museums I see as more corporate in structure. People would need to reach out to their educational departments. The MoMA, in the early part of the pandemic, said they were shutting down their educational programs. I assume that many of the museum staff have been furloughed. I do not have a personal knowledge of museums hoarding money. They, if they are open, have limited attendance rules due to COVID, so they do not have that source of revenue, if they are open at all. I see museums as inflexible corporate structures, but my experiences are quite dated as I worked at MoMA from 1967-1979. However they have recently, before COVID, made major changes towards diversifying the collection and hanging works in the collection by artists of color and women. Ann Temkin, Chief Curator, rehung the collection for the opening of the new expanded galleries of the museum.
BLVR: Responses to even that diversification can be pretty telling about how little institutions are willing to make actual, internal changes. The San Francisco MoMA’s Chief Curator, Gary Garrels, resigned in July after no small reaction to his comment regarding SFMoMA’s acquisition of more work by Black, indigenous, LGBTQ, and female artists: “Don’t worry, we’ll still collect white artists.”
HP: Oh Lord. Really?
BLVR: Yes. Inflexible, as you said. Adeze, did you first discover Howardena’s work in a gallery, or during your time at Northwestern?
AW: The first time I came in contact with her work was when I was an undergrad, and we were in a survey, talking about African-American abstraction. But the first time I remember being in front of her work in a physical space was—and this was several, several years ago—MoMA had organized a suite of performances to go along with their installation of Jacob Lawrence’s The Migration Series, and Steffani Jemison had organized a performance and an activation in the galleries, not in the room where Lawrence was installed, but actually in their permanent collection galleries, and one of Howardena’s large-scale white paintings was up, and Steffani had a man with a horn playing compositions front of the work. I remember having this magical experience and moment in the gallery. Why it’s important that Howardena’s work is shown publicly, and not just in museum storage, is the amount of detail and texture in her paintings. I’ve tried to take photographs of her work, and it doesn’t ever feel the same. When you’re standing in front of it, it sort of vibrates. You just feel this reverence, standing in front of Howardena’s canvases.
BLVR: I wanted to talk about historical holes—Howardena, in your curatorial talk with Adeze, you noted that people are presently trying to find the site of the mass graves containing Black victims of the destruction of Black Wall Street in Tulsa, Oklahoma. This reminded me of Suzanne Lori-Parks’ The America Play, about a Black gravedigger digging the Great Hole of History, that Lori-Parks positions as a chasm holding silenced trauma. You invoked this with periodic blackouts in the video. Is diligent archivism the way to pull ourselves from this getting lost in this hole, this silence?
AW: Of course. One of the things that I found most important about the work that we have been doing with Rope/Fire/Water is the attention to detail to historical forces, and Howardena going directly to journalists who were writing about these incredible acts of violence in real time rather than—you know, she used first person narratives and sources as the backbone of the piece rather than other diluted sources that came from other scholars, although she did use those resources as well. It’s an important endeavor to highlight history in a specific way, and once you collect it, putting it into the world, either through art-making or through scholarly text, that becomes important, and that is an archive. But it has to be something that’s activated. It can’t be something that is tucked away on microfiche in a library that people don’t have access to. So yes, I believe that archivism is a way to break the silence, but it has to be one that is an active and a participatory archive rather than something that sits in an ivory tower. And I think artists who are building archives of their peers, and of their own work—of things that they are interested in and excited about, those, I think, are exciting sites of activation.
HP: Yes, archiving is one way to do it. Like Adeze said, the problem is, where do you put the newly uncovered materials? Libraries are one possibility, but the Studio Museum in Harlem does not have a library. There is the Schomburg Center in Harlem which has an excellent library that could potentially store archived materials as well as the new National Museum of African American History, Smithsonian, in Washington, D.C. But currently, all Smithsonian Museums are closed because of COVID, when they could be a central locus for the collection of artifacts as well as publications and papers. Harvard University had an information gathering project which is listed in the acknowledgements of the film; they made an extensive list of individuals killed by the police, separating the data by race and gender. There are more publications now than ever before. When I was growing up in the 1940s during segregation and Jim Crow, it was a rare occurrence to come across publications about African American History or First Nation History. I have gotten a number of them quickly from Amazon. I recently purchased the updated edition of Martin Meltzer’s Slavery: A World History, and The Uncovered Story of Indian Enslavement in America by Andres Resendez. I was shocked to see how much slavery was embedded in the European social structure. The church was giving slaves as gifts. This was white on white slavery. The Vikings enslaved their own communities and focused on the British Isles as a source of slaves to sell. For them, slavery was normal. In spite of the discouragement of our times, we have access to more information, so that we cannot be easily fooled unless we join the cult of white supremacy. And so a number of our African American men and women, before COVID and Trump, asked their elders to stop talking about racism as it is “over”… as it is “not that bad” anymore. They must be in shock with the rise of the cult of Trump. With almost half of the country accepting their racism, and feeling safe and secure in it, we have a huge and volatile challenge ahead of us.
BLVR: So when archiving, how can we avoid historicizing racism—positioning it as a thing done, behind us? Rope/Fire/Water creates a collapse of time—the ticking metronome signifies a countdown to something coming, although your montage at times takes us forward through history, which, as we’re taught history in schools, is a linear progression away from racism.
AW: I really do find the non-linear and almost circular narrative that exists in Rope/Fire/Water to be important. One of the things that it does is it makes it very clear that history isn’t something that happened in the past, something we’ve moved on from as a nation. The way that Howardena flows in between happenings of the 19th and early 20th century, up until a very personal anecdote of a family friend, and an experience that she had as a young woman, back into the Transatlantic Trade and then into the 1963 Children’s Crusade. It shows that all of these things are building blocks unto one another, and that they are happening, not in a vacuum, but on a direct foundation of the past. Rope/Fire/Water can serve, as Howardena’s said, as a warning. The timing of the show, and its opening date, were purposefully chosen. She really did want it to be something that was a wakeup call for people as we were dealing with the current administration and voting the next president into office. How do we make sure that this type of action doesn’t continue on in the future? It’s important to note that there are moments of progress, however, white supremacy is something that impedes progress with intention. It’s not a coincidence that progress is slow. That’s by design.
BLVR: Where does sensory activation fit into this challenge? Of color and smell? Back in '99, for example, you said that feminism in part freed you to use materials like fragrant powders, perfumes, sequins, and glitter.
HP: Oh, I was an outsider in the white feminist movement. I ran into more race hate from white women than from white men. My motivation to use perfume more so came from my experience as a child smelling cooking food at the same time as I saw an image of a lynched individual burning to death surrounded by a smiling, gleeful lynch mob. One of the members of A.I.R. Gallery, for years, has been saying to gatherings that I “do not know I am Black.” I use the color of water in my work to reflect climate change and the deadly Middle Passage across the Atlantic. One of my older students, a very talented painter from Haiti, created a painting about enslaved Africans committing suicide and jumping overboard, and their spirits beckoning others to follow their lead after realizing that drowning was better than the alternative.
BLVR: How do you feel about Rope/Fire/Water being exhumed from your mind, fifty years after you first conceived of it as a performance, and still being so relevant?
HP: I feel the video is less hopeless now considering the president has been voted out of office. However, I feel he will be a thorn in our side, since around sixty million people voted for him. The piece turned into a film thanks to The Shed; it has morphed into something stronger and long-lasting, as a performance is limited by time. I feel less hopeless because of that, too: the video will be seen by more people, making hidden history more accessible. With the addition of new publications illuminating the world’s past and oppression, there may be more hope for future generations who will have access to the information as they mature. Many of us in the older generation have started out with little to read about our history on the planet. I feel it is imperative that we learn about the enslavement of indigenous populations all over the world. Their enslavement was usually about plundering their rich resources like gold, rubber—and currently coltan used for electronics. India now has two-thirds of the world’s enslaved men, women and children. For a deeper understanding of oppression, please visit Asiba Tupahache’s website, Spirit of January. She is from the Matinecoc Nation on Long Island.
BLVR: Adeze, you cited Jacqueline Goldsby in your curatorial essay—she wrote that lynching “commands the public’s attention and yet wills the nation into a collective silence”—and you and Howardena both feel that the kinds of images in Rope/Fire/Water, as they are archival and unedited history, can fuel the current determination in the air for radical change. The images and videos of police brutality beginning in May, though digital and therefore modifiable—are not, at the moment, willing America into silence. What do you think are the specific conditions which allowed these lynchings to spark nationwide organization for justice? Do you think white silence will creep back in?
HP: The shocking images in my video do help to change people, especially if they prefer silence. Images help to change people’s consciousness of what happened in the past, their perception of the present, and their concern about what might happen in the future. The murder of George Floyd touched the consciousness of a wide range of people. It was the straw that broke the camel’s back. I was surprised to see so many whites stepping forward, even with COVID, to say, “No, this is wrong.” George Floyd changed the world. The observers who videoed his death and our wide ranging communications via cell phone, television and in some cases, the police body cams or police car cams, changed the world, giving us the moment of truth that could not be covered up. One of my friends who is First Nation said that people from indigenous nations had a ceremony where George Floyd was murdered. There was dancing and music. My friend sent me the video. We, however, did not see it on TV. I do not believe the media covered it. Remember there are sixty million people out there who believe the Big Lie. That was Hitler’s tactic… the Big Lie. [Trump] adopted this tactic. Even his followers who die of COVID tell the hospitals that they are not dying of COVID because it does not exist. It is a hoax. It is more like they are members of a cult. Cult leaders demand loyalty, no matter how big the lie. I suggest that people look up Steven Hassan, a very astute anti-cult writer and speaker. His website is called Freedom of Mind. Look for the BITE model which describes a cult. I also recommend ICSA, the International Cultic Studies Association. They are an organization of health professionals and former cult members. They have an excellent publication called ICSA Today.
BLVR: Now that we are transferring to the Biden administration, the news of which actually broke as I was seeing the show, do you have faith that white America will avoid a simplified, partisan version of a step forward? Neutralize change? Because Howardena, as you’ve pointed out, this is a “genocidal virus”—most affecting those without privilege of social distancing, so incarcerated folks, constitutionally permitted slaves. This will likely continue under Biden, and under Obama, civil rights violations (over 250 Black Americans were shot by police, and he went on record saying he had “no sympathy” for those rioting in Ferguson) didn’t evoke the kind of nationwide riots that George Floyd’s murder did.
HP: In spite of the vote, I do feel we are still polarized. Economically disadvantaged people and the incarcerated, due to morbid racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, are the most severely impacted as well as the caged migrants along the border who are deeply affected by this genocidal pandemic. People who live in poorer countries whose wealth has been stripped by colonizers, and continues to be stripped, are the most vulnerable. People without sufficient housing or who live in crowded conditions are more vulnerable. Also, they are without fresh water or food, and are horrendously vulnerable as a result. Often their governments are far right wing.
BLVR: As Claudia Rankine says in Citizen, “Because white men can’t police their imagination, Black men are dying.” Howardena, the abstract pieces you created for this show are quite whimsical. You’ve referred to them, the process of stitching the canvases together, as your healing process after creating more overtly political works. But could they also be thought of as a retaliation, or reclamation, of the imagination? Especially because white men like Kandinsky, Matisse, cubists like Picasso, etc., occupy so much of the American conversation about abstraction?
HP: White men developed abstraction as part of their colonizing. In going to other non-white cultures they were inspired to construct a different visual narrative. Impressionism was influenced by Japanese art, mainly from Japanese prints and, yes, Cubism was developed by Picasso and Braque; but they shared the same studio and had, in the studio, African sculptures.
It was their exposure to African sculpture that led to the geometricism of form and Cubism. One could look at the geometrical images on mud cloth from Mali as well as the abstract geometric designs of the Ndebele people. The women paint their homes with colorful abstract designs and wear colorful clothing and adornments with geometric designs. As a result of the colonizers plundering African culture, the thread of European art was changed forever, while scant praise was given to the source. Kenneth Noland’s work, I understand, was influenced by designs on Navajo woven rugs.
AW: One thing that I’ve been thinking about for a while, not just related to the show, is the power of Black radical imagination, and the strength that it takes to imagine a liberation while you are enslaved, to imagine a liberation while you were under the thumb of Jim Crow, and what it means to hold yourself in a high regard while the world is trampling on you. And that is a real motivating factor for me. I’m thinking specifically about Howardena’s piece Slavery Memorial: Lash (1998–99). It’s a really beautiful painting, but when I do tours, or when I’m speaking about the show, I talk about how there’s this list of African-American inventors that we have growing in the gallery, and it’s a really powerful gesture and intervention, because it speaks to a people who were kidnapped, removed from their ancestral homelands, brought through the Transatlantic slave trade, creating the African diaspora. And instead of having that break them, they remained tied to the land where they were born, and brought aspects of their culture with them, but then were also able to go on in life and invent things and radicalize what people were able to do in industries like agriculture and fashion. It’s such an important thing to highlight because it’s very easy to just deal with the trauma. It’s very easy to only think about the hardship, but to have that moment of hope…that’s important to me. To acknowledge that these experiences were harrowing, a trauma that’s embodied, that passes down generationally, but there’s also this moment of…I don’t want to say “joy,” because that’s maybe not the word. But we should recognize that that moment in history didn’t flatten people, it allowed them to re-invent themselves. I find that important, and something that it’s kind of trite to hold onto, but it’s worth it to hold onto, this idea of something not breaking you. The idea that you can still imagine a feature that is better than your current existence.
BLVR: I don’t think that’s trite. It’s the counterforce to getting used to conditions of oppression.
BLVR: Howardena, Columbus ties the history of settler colonialism in the Global South to Black American liberation. Holes in history can be found all over Africa —there is no way, for example, to know how many indigenous Congolese people died during Belgian Congo beginning in 1885. It’s an interesting parallel that you say you and your assistants lost count of the hands you traced and modeled.
HP: Speaking globally, it’s important to understand that people are migrating because often the colonizers destroyed their systems of governing and plundered their wealth. To get a fuller understanding about what happened in the Congo, research the Belgium Congo Genocide. It is overwhelmingly horrifying. Cutting of the hands of men, women and children is just the tip of the iceberg. I have Congolese DNA. I wonder how many of my relatives had their hands cut off. The Congo has the highest concentration of coltan—which I mentioned earlier—the complex substance used in electronics. So now, there is additional conflict caused by Western outsiders who want to mine and steal it.
— Bessie Rubinstein