'Free, White and 21', 1980, U-matic, colour and sound, 12 minutes, 15 seconds.
'Free, White and 21', 1980, U-matic, colour and sound, 12 minutes, 15 seconds.

Black, White and Colour: Howardena Pindell at Fruitmarket Edinburgh

Title:
A New Language

Dates:
13 Nov 2021 – 2 May 2022

Times:
Daily, 11:00 - 18:00

Venue:
Fruitmarket
45 Market Street
Edinburgh
Edinburgh & the Lothians
EH1 1DF

The language we use shapes the world around us. Historically, language has been weaponised to empower some and debilitate others. Entrenched in a language developed by white males, the art world is a prime example. American artist Howardena Pindell (b.1945, Philadelphia), in her essay focused on racism in the art world in the 1980s and 90s, writes: “I am an artist”, “I am not part of a so called ‘minority’, ‘new’ or ‘emerging’ or ‘a new audience’” and calls for the need to “evolve a new language”. Pindell’s current exhibition A New Language at the Fruitmarket Gallery addresses this call.

'Untitled (Stencil)', 1970, mixed media
‘Untitled (Stencil)’, 1970, mixed media

Howardena Pindell started her career as an abstract painter. As a black woman in this white male-dominated profession where there was pressure to “white-wash everything to make it palatable”, Pindell immediately faced immense prejudice. At the same time, she also received criticism from the black community for engaging with abstraction instead of directly addressing race and the black experience.

'Untitled', 1969-72, acrylic on canvas
‘Untitled’, 1969-72, acrylic on canvas
'Untitled', 1969-72, acrylic on canvas (detail)
‘Untitled’, 1969-72, acrylic on canvas (detail)

The exhibition begins with Pindell’s abstract works from the 1960s and 70s. Created by spraying thinned acrylic paint through stencils made by punching holes in strips cut from file folders, her works in the first room explore colour theory using the medium of the circle. The circle is a reoccurring motif in Pindell’s work. She has described it as iconic: the shape of the planets, the sun and the moon. Additionally, it is an icon of art history, brought into the spotlight by Seurat, whose works influenced Pindell. The circle also has a darker history and association in Pindell’s life. She recalls driving with her father to a root beer stand when she was seven and being given a glass with a big red circle on the bottom. Her father told her that this was because they were black.

'Untitled', 1974-75, mixed media on canvas
‘Untitled’, 1974-75, mixed media on canvas
'Untitled', 1974-75, mixed media on canvas (detail)
‘Untitled’, 1974-75, mixed media on canvas (detail)
'Untitled (Talcum Powder)', 1973, mixed media collage on board (detail)
‘Untitled (Talcum Powder)’, 1973, mixed media collage on board (detail)

Pindell uses the circular ‘chads’, formed in the production of stencils in her other abstract works. They are layered under paper and paint, organised in meticulous grids and numbered as can be seen in Untitled (Talcum Powder) 1973. Inspired by her father, a mathematician, Pindell notes how she started numbering everything no matter what it was. Her works are very labour-intensive and obsessive. 

'Free, White and 21', 1980, U-matic, colour and sound, 12 minutes, 15 seconds
‘Free, White and 21’, 1980, U-matic, colour and sound, 12 minutes, 15 seconds

In her video Free, White and 21 1980, Pindell provides an account of her experiences of racism. Dressed in white-face, with a blonde wig, the artist meets these statements with scepticism. This video acts as an indictment of white second-wave feminism’s exclusion of women of colour and a move in Pindell’s career to being more political and unambiguous in what she wanted to say.

'Separate but Equal Genocide: AIDS', 1991-92, mixed media on canvas
‘Separate but Equal Genocide: AIDS’, 1991-92, mixed media on canvas

Pindell began to use text on the surfaces of her works as another means of achieving this directness. Her works upstairs in the exhibition are all issue-based. Separate but Equal Genocide: AIDS 1991-92 memorialises individuals who died with AIDS and the unequal treatment faced by black and white individuals. The two flags highlight this racist polarity.

'Diallo', 2000, mixed media on canvas
‘Diallo’, 2000, mixed media on canvas

Diallo 2000 acts as a memorial to two innocent black men shot dead by New York City Police Department officers, underlining racial injustice and brutality towards black males.

'Columbus', 2020, mixed media on canvas
‘Columbus’, 2020, mixed media on canvas

Pindell’s 2020 work Rope/Fire/Water provides archival photos and statistical figures documenting the history of slavery and violence against black and indigenous people to this day. This content, which includes images of lynchings, is horrific to watch. Pindell herself states that she finds it difficult. Colombus 2020 acts as a companion piece to this video, documenting the atrocities committed in the name of imperialism, including the removal of the hands of black people. 

'Plankton Lace #1', 2020, mixed media on canvas
‘Plankton Lace #1’, 2020, mixed media on canvas

Plankton Lace #1 2020 acts as a reminder of the beauty of the natural world whilst also addressing the climate crisis. Plankton, essential to the world’s oceans as a source of food, becomes toxic when it blooms – a process accelerated by global warming. 

'Songlines: Connect the Dots', 2017, mixed media on canvas
‘Songlines: Connect the Dots’, 2017, mixed media on canvas
'Songlines: Connect the Dots', 2017, mixed media on canvas (detail)
‘Songlines: Connect the Dots’, 2017, mixed media on canvas (detail)

Songlines: Connect the Dots 2017, the final work on display, showcases Pindell’s experimentation with materials, textures and colours found throughout the exhibition. This work is beautiful to look at: the canvas is sewn together in a cloud-like form and encrusted with glitter, circles and ellipses. This entrancing work provides what Pindell describes as “an intense relief, a kind of visual healing so that you get some distance from what you’ve seen”. Viewers can use the healing power of art to reflect on the exhibition and allow the new language they have encountered to sink in.

With gratitude to Amy Miles for this review.

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