THE NATIONAL GALLERY OF ART (NGA) recently acquired “Free, White and 21” (1980), a seminal video installation by artist Howardena Pindell. She was 37 years old when she filmed herself facing the camera recounting her personal experiences with racism and bias as a young Black woman in America. Pindell also performs as a white woman who responds unsympathetically and antagonistically to her experiences with discrimination. The artist’s deadpan delivery weaves complex and conflicting perspectives of racism.

“Throughout the video, she adds to or takes away materials from her head and face, concealing and revealing the social construct of race based on skin color,” the museum states in its description of the work. “These segments alternate with footage of Pindell—dressed as white woman with a blond wig, skin-lightening makeup, and sunglasses—responding to her own testimonials with victim-blaming statements.”

In 1979, New York-based Pindell was in a serious car accident that left her with partial memory loss. Eight months later, she set up a camera in her apartment and filmed “Free, White, and 21.” It was the first video and performance work she produced and her first foray into political and autobiographical issues in her work. It was 1980 in the heat of summer. She wrote about the 12-minute video in “The Heart of the Question: The Writings and Paintings of Howardena Pindell”:

    Although I was beginning to be outspoken about issues of de facto censorship and racism in the art world, my work as an artist was usually devoid of personal, narrative, or autobiographical reference. I considered myself fairly voiceless in those days. Several months after I started teaching, I was in a freak accident as a passenger in the back seat of a car on the way to my job. One minute I was fine, the next I was in an ambulance. I had amnesia—a temporary loss of some of my long- and short-term memory. I was also aware that there were those who were pleased: because of my injuries, there was the possibility of my voice being muted. I know now that the desire to keep me silent, and to be pleased that I might be, by default, forced into silence, was an extension of the legacy of slavery and racism.

“One minute I was fine, the next I was in an ambulance. I had amnesia—a temporary loss of some of my long- and short-term memory. I was also aware that there were those who were pleased: because of my injuries, there was the possibility of my voice being muted.” — Howardena Pindell

The same year she made “Free, White and 21,” the video was shown publicly for the first time in “Dialectics of Isolation: An Exhibition of Third World Women Artists of the United States,” a group exhibition at Artists in Residence (A.I.R.), a cooperative feminist gallery in New York City, co-founded by Pindell in 1972. By 1975, she had stepped away from the gallery, frustrated that her colleagues weren’t interested in the intersection of racism and feminism.

More recently, the influential video was on view at the Baltimore Museum Art and featured in “Howardena Pindell: What Remains to Be Seen,” Pindell’s five-decade, career retrospective co-curated by Naomi Beckwith and Valerie Cassel Oliver.

Pindell spoke about the work in a video by the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA). “I was feeling very pissed off at the Women’s Movement. When I brought up issues of racism, what I found was that white American women didn’t want to talk about it. They would just say, “This is about politics. I don’t want to know about this,” Pindell said. “I wanted to say what I felt. I wanted to express what my memories were in a way. It was really trying to put myself back together again.”

 

 

BORN IN PHILADELPHIA, Pindell was an undergraduate at Boston University, where she studied painting. After earning an MFA from Yale University, she moved to New York City, where an arduous job search eventually landed her at the Museum of Modern Art. In 1967, she started as an exhibition assistant. During her groundbreaking, 12-year tenure at the museum, she became an assistant curator in the Department of National and International Traveling Exhibitions, and then rose to associate curator and eventually acting director in the Department of Prints and Illustrated Books. She departed MoMA in 1979 and joined the faculty at the State University of New York, Stony Brook. Shortly thereafter, Pindell was in the fateful car accident. She remains a full professor at SUNY Stony Brook.

Pindell’s multidisciplinary practice spans figuration, abstraction and conceptualism. She tackles a range of issues, from racism and feminism to violence, AIDS, homelessness, and exploitation. Her emphasis on color, structure and process is exemplified in her signature un-stretched canvases, textured collaged paintings featuring countless paper dots made with a hole punch.

“Howardena Pindell: Rope/Fire/Water,” her solo exhibition at The Shed in New York is on view through March 28 and includes her first video in 25 years.

“I was feeling very pissed off at the Women’s Movement. When I brought up issues of racism, what I found was that white American women didn’t want to talk about it.” — Howardena Pindell

In 2020, “Free, White and 21” was gifted to the National Gallery of Art by Garth Greenan, whose eponymous gallery co-represents Pindell. The museum announced the acquisition earlier this month. The work is the first video by the artist to enter the collection, which already included several works by Pindell: three prints, one early work on paper, and a promised gift of one of her highly detailed collage paintings made with hole-punched paper dots.

NGA told Culture Type there are no plans to put “Free, White and 21” on public view at this time. The video is also in the collections several other museums, including of the Studio Museum in Harlem, Walker Art Center, Museum of Modern Art, Whitney Museum of American Art, Institute of Contemporary Art Boston, and Kemper Art Museum at Washington University in St. Louis.

At the conclusion of the video, Pindell, in character as a white woman, speaks dismissively and derisively to her Black self. She said, “You ungrateful little…after all we have done for you. You know we don’t believe in your symbols, they are not valid unless we validate them. And you must really be paranoid. I’ve never had an experience like that. But, then, I’m free, white, and 21.” CT

 

IMAGES: HOWARDENA PINDELL, “Free, White and 21,” 1980 (single-channel video with sound, color, 12:15 minutes). | National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of Garth Greenan, 2020.20.1. Courtesy the artist and Garth Greenan Gallery, New York

 

FIND MORE about Howardena Pindell on her website

READ MORE about “Free, White and 21” from Howardena Pindell’s published writings

 


Artist Howardena Pindell and curators Naomi Beckwith and Valerie Cassel Oliver discuss Pindell’s video work “Free, White, and 21” (1980). | Video by VMFA

 


Artist Jeffrey Gibson discusses “Free, White, and 21” (1980) by Howardena Pindell. | Video by Whitney Museum

 

BOOKSHELF
“Howardena Pindell: What Remains to be Seen” documents her traveling retrospective, which opened at MCA Chicago, traveled to the Virginia Museum of Fine Art, and concluded at the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass. The exhibition catalog includes an essay dedicated to “Free, White and 21” (1980). The artist writes about the video installation in “The Heart of the Question: The Writings and Paintings of Howardena Pindell” and in “EyeMinded: Living and Writing Contemporary Art,” art historian Kellie Jones published an interview with Howardena Pindell on a range of topics, including “Free, White and 21.”

 

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