Free, White and 21
(American, born 1943)
1980. Video (color, sound), 12:15 min.
In 1979, after working in The Museum of Modern Art’s curatorial ranks for 12 years, artist Howardena Pindell was in a car accident that left her with partial memory loss. Eight months later, during what she describes as “one of the hottest summers in New York,”1 she set up a video camera in her apartment, focused it on herself, and made Free, White and 21, a deadpan account of the racism she experienced coming of age as a black woman in America. She developed the work out of her need to heal and to vent: “My work in the studio after the accident helped me to reconstruct missing fragments from the past….In the tape I was bristling at the women’s movement as well as the art world and some of the usual offensive encounters that were heaped on top of the racism of my profession.”2
Born in Philadelphia in 1943, 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 Free, White and 21, she illustrates the stark divide between black and white Americans by appearing as both herself and as a white woman. The video opens with a glancing 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 searing experiences with statements like, “you really must be paranoid,” and “you won’t exist until we validate you.”3
When she comes onscreen as herself, Pindell first recounts the abusive racism that her mother endured, and then talks viewers through the milestones of her own life—including elementary and high school, college, and young adulthood—via the discrimination that made her advancement such a struggle. At one point, she peels a translucent film off of her face, as if to reference the facial masks and other cosmetic products marketed to women to beautify and transform their looks. But this film has not changed the artist’s looks, and especially not the color of her skin. Instead, it serves to re-emphasize the fact that they were transformed by a white-dominated American society—into a liability.
A camera that captures moving images and converts them into electronic signals so that they can be saved on a storage device, such as videotape or a hard drive, or viewed on a monitor.
A term describing moving-image artworks recorded onto magnetic tape or digital formats, or generated using other mechanisms such as image-processing tools, and available for immediate playback.
1. A technique involving the use of two or more artistic media, such as ink and pastel or painting and collage, that are combined in a single composition; 2. A designation for an artist who works with a number of different artistic media.
An image, especially a positive print, recorded by exposing a photosensitive surface to light, especially in a camera.
One who applies paint to canvas, wood, paper, or another support to produce a picture.
A work of art made with a pencil, pen, crayon, charcoal, or other implements, often consisting of lines and marks (noun); the act of producing a picture with pencil, pen, crayon, charcoal, or other implements (verb, gerund).
A closely woven, sturdy cloth of hemp, cotton, linen, or a similar fiber, frequently stretched over a frame and used as a surface for painting.
Permitting the passage of light.
Representing a form or figure in art that retains clear ties to the real world.
The arrangement of the individual elements within a work of art so as to form a unified whole; also used to refer to a work of art, music, or literature, or its structure or organization.
Derived from the French verb coller, meaning “to glue,” collage refers to both the technique and the resulting work of art in which fragments of paper and other materials are arranged and glued or otherwise affixed to a supporting surface.
Non-representational works of art that do not depict scenes or objects in the world or have discernable subject matter.
Finding Her Voice
Pindell credits both the Civil Rights and Women’s Liberation Movements with helping her to discover her own voice: “I developed a number of tools for inward looking, personal assessment through the women’s movement’s consciousness raising processes in order to understand how racism and sexism work within the art community as well as the community at large. I found my true voice through the African American movement but received my training wheels in the women’s movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s.”4
More than Video
Video is only a minor part of Pindell’s artistic output. She began her career as a painter, exploring both figuration and abstraction. Additionally, she produces drawings, photographs, collages, and mixed media and sewn compositions on canvas. Her early work was predominantly figurative. She then shifted towards abstraction, ultimately settling upon compositions in which she merges the two styles. “I kind of make a mishmosh of it,” she has said.5 Though she works across a wide range of mediums, in much of her art she aims to challenge established social and artistic structures.