Howardena Pindell on art as protest, politics, and the power of DNA ancestry

American artist Howardena Pindell reflects on an art career filled with socio-political bite and aesthetic mastery, ahead of ‘A New Language’, her newly opened show at Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge

Howardena Pindell, Free, White and 21, 1980. Courtesy the artist, Garth Greenan Gallery and Victoria Miro
Howardena Pindell, Free, White and 21, 1980.
(Image credit: Courtesy the artist, Garth Greenan Gallery and Victoria Miro)

Howardena Pindell’s practice holds within it protest, politics and abstraction. Addressing race, slavery, women’s rights, feminism and segregation in the United States, her work packs a punch. Her take is calm yet unstinting and tackles the raw end of these issues with a piercing intellectual bite and aesthetic mastery.  

Born in 1943, Pindell was involved in a car accident in 1979, the same year she left her post as a curator at MoMA New York. It was a few months later that she recorded the seminal video work, Free, White and 21 (1980), which saw a shift towards the political in her work, although she has always maintained a painting practice in tandem with this.

Howardena Pindell artwork, Rope/Fire/Water, 2020

Howardena Pindell, Rope/Fire/Water, 2020.

(Image credit: Courtesy the artist, Garth Greenan Gallery and Victoria Miro)

‘A New Language’ at Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge, on tour from Edinburgh’s Fruitmarket Gallery, is a snapshot of a long practice encompassing film, painting and works on paper. 

Although her work can appear disparate at first glance – using new media, lace-making, painting and drawing – elements of resistance persist, often through circle motifs, taken from the circle that marked segregated objects in the American South when she was a child. These elements are present throughout her abstract works and notably in the unflinching film Rope/Fire/Water (2020) about police violence and lynching. Even in her most decorative and delicate works, these messages are communicated loud and clear, whether that be through text or materials and colour.

Howardena Pindell artwork, Rope/Fire/Water, 2020

Howardena Pindell, Free, White and 21, 1980.

(Image credit: Courtesy the artist, Garth Greenan Gallery and Victoria Miro)

Wallpaper*: The title of the show is ‘A New Language’. Why did you feel you needed a new language and how did you come to it?

Howardena Pindell: First of all, the new language would be inclusive, both verbal and visual. One of the things that helps us to have a new language is the expansion of the world wide web, although many people in poor countries don't have access.

One thing I think is important is to explore how different cultures name things and read colours. Various cultures have their own visual and verbal languages, which are also influenced by other cultures, which can create a hybrid.

I think the biggest thing of all that's happened in terms of a new language is that people can now access their DNA. I have Zulu DNA, South African, South Indian, Nigerian, Ethiopian, Portuguese, Finnish, Scandinavian, Basque Spanish, Native American, Inuit, German, Irish, Greek, Sicilian, Cypriot and Bahamian. I'm sure a lot of this DNA came about because of enslavement, because there was so much rape of enslaved women during the African slave trade. 

W*: So, you have been mapping your personal history through your DNA?

HP: I just think it's fascinating. I mean, that changes the language that all of us have when we think of all our different ancestors, and it's complex for everyone. It's not just enslavement, there’s been so much movement of different cultures, some of them nomadic.

Howardena Pindell, Text, 1975 Ink on paper collage. Courtesy the artist, Garth Greenan Gallery and Victoria Miro

Howardena Pindell, Text, 1975 Ink on paper collage.

(Image credit: Courtesy the artist, Garth Greenan Gallery and Victoria Miro)

W*: You are an artist of many mediums and a political artist. Where does your visual language meet your politics? How do they intersect?

HP: I was born during segregation, and I was in college during the Civil Rights Movement. I picketed in Woolworth, Philadelphia, because of their segregated lunch counters in the South.

It was after the head injury as a passenger in a car accident, where I realised I could have died, that I started doing my issue-related work. I felt that if I didn't express myself, I may be gone, so I would rather say what I wanted to say on canvas. 

There are two recent paintings which are about 9ft by 9ft, one is called Four Little Girls, and it was about the four children who were preparing for Sunday school in a church in Birmingham, Alabama. Members of the Klan bombed the church and killed all the little girls, it was a Black church during segregation. 

In my issue-related work, I use text and installation and of course, the large format, the issue-related paintings also require research, and I think the influence would have been my mother who was a historian. Now, there are more publications available to use for research on many issue-related topics. 

Howardena Pindell on art as protest, politics, and the power of DNA ancestry

Howardena Pindell, Separate but Equal Genocide: AIDS, 1991–1992. Private collection, Aspen, CO

(Image credit: Courtesy the artist, Garth Greenan Gallery and Victoria Miro)

HP: Well, I loved to play when I was a child and I think just because my father was a science person, I was given a small microscope instead of a doll. I can remember my pink bunny, so I remember my little pink bunny rabbit and a microscope. 

When I was a child, I used the microscope to look at the drinking water in Philadelphia and it was teeming with life; later I looked at New York water and there was nothing. A couple of months ago, I bought a professional microscope to look at nature close-up, water, leaves, and anything to get ideas for forms.

I’m happy making art and I like experimenting with new materials; I'm happiest making art and trying new things. In my past shows, and in my writing, sometimes. 

Sometimes the past shows up again in my work. I've started to do spray paintings again. 

My art dealer, who's amazing, has got me a large studio and now I’m able to recreate or create new spray paintings. I love making handmade paper pieces and I've been working with Dieu Donné, an artists’ paper-making organisation

Howardena Pindell, Columbus, 2020 Mixed media on canvas.

Howardena Pindell, Columbus, 2020 Mixed media on canvas.

(Image credit: Courtesy the artist, Garth Greenan Gallery and Victoria Miro)

INFORMATION

Howardena Pindell, ’A New Language’, until 30 October 2022, Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge. kettlesyard.co.uk (opens in new tab)