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Howardena Pindell’s art can seem as if it were made by two separate people. There are the huge canvases where stencilled dots or tiny, hole-punched discs of paper amass like drifts of leaves, which she began making while working as MoMA’s first African American curator in 1970s New York. And then there’s the work that has challenged social injustice with a gut-punch directness since the 80s.

It is clear, though, speaking with the 78-year-old ahead of her first UK solo exhibition in a public gallery, that her swirling abstract constellations are not entirely devoid of politics. As a young curator, she’d seen artists with museum day jobs give up their creative lives. Not her. She found time for painting because “the racism [at MoMA at the time] meant I was left out of certain activities. I loved being an artist and I had the stamina to work at night.”

In 1979, this institutional racism grew too much and Pindell’s activism made its way into her art. Following years of exclusion from work parties and enduring some of her white colleagues’ uninterest in Black women’s experiences, she quit MoMA. Then, when the gallery staged a show with the N-word in its title, Pindell and her friends protested – only to be accused of censorship. The year ended with a major car crash that left her with head injuries and memory problems. Her response was to seize the day and make her voice heard.

Free, White and 21, Pindell’s forceful first video, challenges the dismissive attitudes she met from white feminists. In it, she calmly recounts personal experiences, such as being tied to a bed by a kindergarten teacher or being propositioned by an old white man at a wedding, to a doubting blond interlocutor who said: “You really must be paranoid. Those things never happened to me.” Since then, she has made uncompromising political work, tackling everything from the Vietnam war to the Aids crisis.

Pindell traces her initial awakening to a childhood ordeal. “I was at a friend’s house and in Life magazine I saw a lynched African man lying over a log, burning from the inside out. White men were standing around him looking thrilled. My friend’s mother was cooking meat, and the smell and sight made me unable to eat meat for a year.” When she suggested a work using the photograph to AIR Gallery, the women’s artists cooperative she co-founded in the 70s, it turned it down. Last year, following George Floyd’s murder, Pindell returned to the image for her second video, Rope/Fire/Water. It’s a masterfully minimalist evocation of brutality with her voiceover providing a bleak history of racist attacks.

While finally making the work was “healing”, she is only hesitantly optimistic about increased exposure for Black artists – “mostly men” and not at “big ‘gold collar’ galleries” – in the wake of Black Lives Matter. Rope/Fire/Water concludes with Martin Luther King’s words of warning: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Pindell’s eyes remain trained on that big picture.

Wrongs and rights – five works by Howardena Pindell

Rope/Fire/Water, 2020
“A gruesome lynching photo in Life magazine that I saw as a child was the reason why I created [the video work] Rope/Fire/Water. It covers lynching, slavery and the civil rights movement. I also make reference to the Middle Passage, where slave ship captains would throw enslaved people overboard for insurance or would dangle them head first over the side of the ship. The sharks would eat them from the head up.”

Separate But Equal Genocide: AIDS, 1991-1992
“These flags are about 6ft tall. The red script represents blood. My cousin had AIDS. He could pass for Black or white, and found the healthcare changed depending on what race he was perceived as. The majority of the names are children who died of AIDS in hospitals in New York City and the Bronx. It’s something you don’t hear about. The others are people I knew.”

Plankton Lace #1, 2020
“Plankton floats on top of the ocean and it’s vital to the planet. But when it blooms, it becomes toxic [it’s thought to worsen with global heating]. The way the circles move within the painting, they’re suggesting ocean currents. It must be really hard to swim through all those different currents.”

Free, White and 21, 1980
This was my first video. I was reacting originally to both the racism in the New York white feminist art movement and in general. I made it after a car accident where I could have died. I decided to express my opinion in my work when I realised how short life can be. The bandages refer to my head injuries.

Untitled, 1974–75
“Circles are an iconic form: the sun, the moon, the Earth, the planets. After I started using them in my work, I remembered a time drinking root beer with my dad as a child. It was during segregation, when it was court-mandated that utensils had to be designated whether someone of colour could use them; they painted huge red dots under the mugs.”

— Skye Sherwin

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