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Howardena Pindell Continues To Challenge Race & Gender Discrimination Through Art

Since the 1960s artist Howardena Pindell has been inspiring the next generation of black women in the art world to continue breaking down barriers and creating spaces for women of color to be heard. Two black women working as curators organized an exhibit featuring her work at VMFA. Gabrielle Jones has more for Virginia Currents.

WARNING: This story contains one incidence of a very offensive racial slur. It appears once in the audio and transcript of the story. We understand that this may be offensive to some readers and listeners, and wanted to offer the opportunity to choose not to move forward.

Learn More: The VMFA exhibit “Howardena Pindell: What Remains To Be Seen” is open through November 25.

Howardena PindellTranscript: Howardena Pindell is in her 70s and still creating art.

Howardena Pindell: I don’t tire of being an artist.

When she was eight, a teacher told Pindell’s parents she was a talented artist and encouraged them to expose her to the art world. At a museum, she was drawn to a sculpture by conceptual Marcel Duchamp.

Pindell: One of my favorite pieces was a piece I think it’s called “Why Not Sneeze” or Please Sneeze,” something like that. And it was the work that’s playful.

The VMFA exhibit “Howardena Pindell: What Remains To Be Seen” features the artists’ paintings, mixed media and video art so vast it spans two galleries.

Naomi Beckwith: It’s true there is an embarrassment of riches.

That’s Naomi Beckwith, Manilow Senior Curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, and co-curator of the exhibit.

Naomi BeckwithBeckwith: There is an incredible numbers of work in the world and our only challenge really was editing. What we had to do was find the story and the through-line that could carry audiences through a story about what’s happening in her work.

Pindell experiments with smell and texture in her work. Some of her pieces feature tiny, colorful circles layered on board, canvas or paper.

Valerie Cassel Oliver: Howardena has been a very forward thinking, innovative artist from the 1960s and is still moving forward in that vein.

Valerie Cassel Oliver is co-curator and VMFA’s Lewis Family Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art.

 Cassel Oliver: It was time, quite frankly, to showcase her work, to provide a platform for greater recognition of all of the many strains that she’s been working within and the impact that she’s had within them.

She says Pindell’s impact is even bigger than her body of work.

Valerie Cassel OliverCassel Oliver: There’s such a deep appreciation and honor for how she has moved through the art world. How she has created and forged new paths particularly for black artists, for black curators, for black educators.

To understand Pindell’s impact, Beckwith says put yourself back in the 1950s where the art world was only concerned with the art work, not the culture or the artist.

Beckwith: Howardena was a pioneer in saying there’s no way that we can look at this work again without thinking about my life, without thinking about my body as a black woman, without thinking about the social and political situation that I’ve come from. She wanted to debunk all of that.

Pindell went to college at Boston University. She was the first black woman to earn an MFA from Yale. Then, was the first black woman curator at New York’s Museum of Modern Art-- all while continuing to create her own artworks.

Pindell: I ended up in museum work kind of by default. And, I kind of dismissed the idea of teaching because...you know...I kept hearing my Mother saying how much she hated teaching.

In 1979, Pindell quit working as a curator and moved into teaching because of racism and gender discrimination in mainstream museums. She shared a story about getting backlash for protesting a show by a white, male artist titled with the n-word…..

Pindell: What I found was the attitude of the kind of mainstream art world was that we were censoring an artist. And then I started thinking about censorship issues, like they were censoring people of color and women. You know, they’re silencing our voice.

"Untitled #2" 1973 by Howardena PindellPindell says the gallery was dismissive when asked about the title.

Pindell: And the show itself was about black charcoal. If you called and said why did you give this title to the show the receptionist would say well the works are in charcoal and charcoal is black and black is nigger. How they could be that insensitive, I don’t know, but it made me really think twice about staying in the field.

That’s when Pindell applied for the job at Stony Brook University she’s now held for almost 40 years.

Pindell: I found that I love teaching. And I kind of built my attitude toward my students on a teacher I had, Walter Merch, who was a very humble and a very kind man. And, he would sit and speak to each of us in the class, and he just exuded love and respect -- it didn’t matter what color you were. And, that really made it so that I had a model to follow that I really believed in. I feel like I’m going to cry...he was really wonderful.

In 1979 Pindell’s life changed.

Beckwith: One of the challenges has been trying to marry the work that happens after 1979 with the work that comes before then.

After being in a nearly fatal car accident, Pindell started to incorporate more of her identity and activism into her work.

Beckwith: That moment in her life was incredibly important, traumatic, but also important. The work still builds from ‘79 on, with the inclusion of the human body and the figure, with the inclusion of political statements.

Pindell: Knowing that something so horrific could happen -- I could have been dead. So, I found that I wanted to express myself in terms of my concerns, and also to look at my own life. So, I did a series called ‘Autobiography,’ and the piece that kicked-off ‘Autobiography’ was the tape "Free, White and 21."

Featured in the VMFA exhibit, Free, White and 21 is a video artwork where Pindell plays two characters. One black and one white.

Pindell: So I put on a blonde wig, and I had sunglasses from when I was a child, and I just had this dialogue between myself as a white person, and myself as myself. And, I tell stories back and forth, and the persona in the blonde wig rather and white stage makeup would say...you know well that didn’t really happen to me, but after all I’m free, white and 21.

Beckwith and Cassel Oliver put together an extensive catalog to accompany the exhibit.

Beckwith: Exhibitions sadly only last a few months, but catalogs are the record that are there forever.

The full color coffee table book with over 250 pages is like it’s own work of art.

Pindell: The catalog, I’ve never seen a catalog like this. Just the whole idea. The images. Just the text...the chronology. The fact that at the back of the catalog you have images of the pieces, and where they are or are not, whatever. I’ve just never seen anything like it, I was just astounded.

"Video Drawings :Swimming" 1975Pindell is already preparing for her next show at a new exhibition space in New York called The Shed.

Pindell: And I’m working on a piece, several pieces actually. One about lynching, where I’m going to include smell -- for a reason. I suggest people don’t eat before they come to the show.

The other works Pindell is currently planning also reflect on past or current atrocities.

Pindell: I mean this is strong stuff. But, you know, to come to the realization that all of the whitewashing of history, really world history, that it’s got to stop.

Pindell has spent a lifetime making thought-provoking art and building spaces for women of color to express themselves on their own terms. VMFA’s Cassel Oliver says this legacy is important to honor.

Cassel Oliver: When you really think about the history of black artists in mainstream museums, the histories of black curators in mainstream museums, Howardena is a pioneer in that realm. Because, we have not always been in position to author our own narratives.

After five decades of creating, Howardena Pindell continues to look for the next idea she wants to express.

Pindell: And I see it sometimes as a kind of play, and that’s why it’s something that I don’t run out of looking forward to the next work...looking forward to the next project.

The VMFA exhibit “What Remains To Be Seen” is open through November 25. For Virginia Currents, For Virginia Currents, Gabrielle Jones, WCVE News.