In this video Pindell recounts a litany of racist experiences that she and her mother endured. She interrupts her narrative with actions like wrapping her head with a gauze bandage. Pindell alternately appears as a character in whiteface and a blond wig, who undercuts the artist’s testimony with disparaging remarks. “I had faced de facto censorship issues throughout my life as part of the system of apartheid in the United States,” Pindell, who worked as MoMA’s first Black woman curator during the 1970s, later recalled. “In the tape, I was bristling at the women’s movement as well as the art world.”
Gallery label from 2022
Born in Philadelphia in 1943, Howardena Pindell grew up when the South was still lawfully segregated and racism was rampant nationwide. She was 21 when the Civil Rights Act passed in 1964. In 1980, she set up a video camera in her apartment, focused it on herself, and made Free, White and 21, a deadpan accounting of the racism she experienced coming of age as a black woman in America. She emphasizes the stark divide between black and white Americans by appearing as both herself and as a white woman in this video. It opens with a shot of the artist in whiteface and wearing a blond wig, in the guise of a white woman from the 1950s or 60s. This character is the free, white, 21-year-old to which its title refers, who appears throughout the video discounting Pindell’s experiences with statements like, “you won’t exist until we validate you.”
Publication excerpt from Modern Art & Ideas, Coursera.