Howardena Pindell: Rope/Fire/Water, curated by Adeze Wilford, is a confluence of radical notions: anti-racist curatorial practice, consciousness raising through creative pedagogy, and the restorative properties of artmaking. These possibilities abound in the titular focal point of the exhibition. The 19 minute digital video, commissioned by the Shed, sketches a gut-wrenching image: Pindell chronicles the harrowing details of racist terror from the 19th century to the present in a gentle yet assertive tone. The video is a belated completion of a heretofore unrealized performance piece about racism, rejected by the white women artists of A.I.R. Gallery in the 1970s, despite Pindell‘s status as a founding member.
“Rope/Fire/Water” (2020) harkens back to an earlier work of video art, “Free, White, and 21” (1980), in which Pindell satirically masquerades as a white woman at various points, microaggressing the artist’s reality with thinly veiled racist remarks. Embodying this trope allowed Pindell to recollect her life experiences after suffering partial loss of memory from a car accident, and simultaneously offers a searing critique of the racism perpetrated by white women.
In “Rope/Fire/Water,” a metronome keeps pace, as the black screen intermittently flashes archival photographs of lynchings and of the 1963 Children’s Crusade protests in Birmingham. Pindell weaves stories of particular attacks with general statistics. The work is not merely didactic; it becomes a device for processing a traumatic childhood memory: she once caught a frightful glimpse of a Life magazine photograph of a Black man being burned alive by racists, all while her friend’s mother cooked fragrant meat.
Ancestral presences also loom large in two mixed media paintings on the wall leading up to the video. Wilford designed the exhibition such that the viewer is primed by “Slavery Memorial: Lash” (1998 — 1999) and “Canal s/Underground Railroad” (2015 — 2016), which ground the origins of anti-Blackness in colonialism, slavery, and their afterlives.
The spiral design of the exhibition walls directs visitors toward two large-scale paintings after viewing the video, both of which encourage further processing of racial trauma. “Columbus” (2020) and “Four Little Girls” (2020) have black backgrounds with grey text referring to European imperialism, Indigenous dispossession, and white supremacist terror against African-American communities. The canvases, rendered in inky black, evoke a profound sense of loss and mourning — memorializing the four little girls murdered in the 1963 Baptist Street Church Bombing, in addition to all victims of racism and colonialism. Materials assembled on and below the canvases — black gloves, darkened flowers, and burned children’s toys — evoke Black funerary traditions. The formal process of assemblage recalls the Kongo ancestral mourning rituals in African-American communities that art historian Robert Farris Thompson explores in Flash of the Spirit: African & Afro-American Art & Philosophy (1983).
Concurrent with the painful storytelling and violent imagery of “Rope/fire/water” is the peaceful respite offered by the installation of Pindell’s large scale thematic and abstract paintings. The commemorative paintings push the viewer to process traumatizing histories, while Pindell’s stunning, colorful abstractions provide a space of pleasure as one first enters and later exits the exhibition.
Bix Archer, an educator at the Shed, shared that visitors often ponder if the video and paintings are by the same artist. The contrast becomes less stark when one considers the use of numbers, statistics, and small parts that form a whole as motifs throughout her work. Pindell, the daughter of a math teacher, is often most recognized for her number drawings and hole punch collaged paintings; she feels at home working with numbers and small, intricate parts.
In uniting the personal and the political, Pindell’s creative process — both in film and mixed media painting — initiates experiences of learning and healing, for both herself and others. Her ambition to face the truth of history’s brutality and its contemporary legacies is communicated with urgency. As such, the exhibition functions as an archive of aesthetic and political works that teach, process, and attempt to heal from the catastrophic impacts of racism.
Howardena Pindell: Rope/Fire/Water continues through April 11, 2021 at the Shed (545 West 30th Street, Hudson Yards, Manhattan). The exhibition was curated by Adeze Wilford.