Still from Howardena Pindell. Free, White and 21. 1980. Standard-definition video (color, sound), 12:15 min. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Jerry I. Speyer and Katherine G. Farley, Anna Marie and Robert F. Shapiro, and Marie-Josée and Henry R. Kravis. © 2023 Howardena Pindell. Courtesy of the artist and The Kitchen, New York

Howardena Pindell’s Free, White and 21 screened here February 21–March 8, 2023. The video is no longer available for streaming. Join us for the next Hyundai Card Video Views screening later this month.

In 1980, the artist Howardena Pindell turned to the video camera. Poised in front of the lens, she calmly recounts a host of racist experiences that she and her mother had endured. She interrupts her account to wrap her head with a gauze bandage and perform other actions. Pindell also appears donning white makeup, a blond wig, lipstick, and sunglasses, in the guise of a white female antagonist she later described as a “cartoon creature.” This character systematically denies the artist’s testimony. “You must really be paranoid,” she says, before intoning the refrain that became the work’s title: “I’m free, white, and 21.”

The tape marks the first moment Pindell faced the camera, but it was not her first venture into the medium. Throughout the previous decade, the television screen served as an interface in her Video Drawing series, works she made by first drawing loose networks of arrows and numbers on a transparent acetate sheet. She would then use a television’s static electricity to attach the acetate to the screen, and photograph the multilayered composition of drawing and televised feed, capturing resonances between the movements of athletes on TV and her own dynamic marks. This analytical approach to drawing extends to her process-based works on paper, such as Untitled #7 (1973), in which she builds up a surface by accumulating and layering paper circles made with a hole-punch. But in 1980, she wanted to address social justice directly. “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.”

On the occasion of the work’s installation in the collection gallery 201: Holding Space and its inclusion in Signals: How Video Transformed the World, Pindell spoke to Lanka Tattersall and Piper Marshall about this landmark work.

Still from Howardena Pindell’s Free, White and 21

Still from Howardena Pindell’s Free, White and 21

“Things would happen to me that wouldn’t happen to a white woman, but then things that happened to white women also happened to me. It made me more interested in issue-related work about looking at the world and looking at my world and trying to express it in both text, figurative images, and abstraction.”

Howardena Pindell

Lanka Tattersall: Howardena, you showed this work in Dialectics of Isolation, a 1980 exhibition of Third World women artists, coordinated by Ana Mendieta, Miyamoto Kazuko, and Zarina at A.I.R. Gallery in New York, a co-op for women artists that you cofounded. What do you recall from the initial showing of this work?

Howardena Pindell: Hostility. A number of people were hostile about the work. Originally, it was shown with a metronome on top, and so you had this constant ticking, but it became kind of a pain in the neck because you had to keep winding it up.

But the general reaction was pretty hostile and fearful. People didn't really talk to me directly about it. I remember speaking at a university in Vermont and I remember that the audience was full and all white. I was the only person of color, even on campus probably. And a young white woman stood up and said something like, “Well, do you feel better now?” Then I heard, and this was kind of strange, that when it was shown in New Jersey, one of the Black guards found it insulting to Black women who wear wigs. I thought that was really strange.

Piper Marshall: After you made the video, did it open up new modes of working for you?

HP: I have only done three videos. The one that I think is the strongest is Rope/Fire/Water, which is about lynching, slavery, and civil rights. It’s about 19 minutes, and I showed it at the Shed in either 2020 or 2021. And then it’s been going around the UK. And I think it’ll be shown at the Museum of Modern Art in Dublin. So that one has had legs, so to speak, but I think, to my amazement, Free, White and 21 is very much alive. Especially with what’s going on in the government in terms of the right wing and the left wing of the government. The whole racism thing is coming back to the floor. It never went away, but it seems to have increased with people being put in power who are basically fascists. I fear the country will move in the future from a democracy into a dictatorship.

We’re in a very difficult time now, and I think the withdrawal of abortion rights is really, really bad and puts women in a difficult position having no control over their bodies. The video doesn’t get into that, but it does get into the fact that women are under threat, even though in the video, most of the people who were not nice to me were women. Things would happen to me that wouldn’t happen to a white woman, but then things that happened to white women also happened to me. It made me more interested in issue-related work about looking at the world and looking at my world and trying to express it in both text, figurative images, and abstraction.

Stills from Free, White and 21

Stills from Free, White and 21

Stills from Free, White and 21

Stills from Free, White and 21

LT: That’s really useful. How did recollection and testimony factor in the making of this work?

HP: My memory is so bad now. The car accident didn’t help, and I’m old. But I remember I was pretty angry about what I experienced in the art world, and to some degree in the museum world. When I came to New York in ’67 and started working at MoMA, only white men were showing, basically, and you had the first stirrings of the white feminist art movement. The white women wanted the Black women to join them, but when Black women had things they wanted to protest, the whites wouldn’t join.

There was a protest in front of MoMA led by white feminists and I remember sitting in my office when they called me and said, “You have to come down with us.” I said, “Listen, I am the only breadwinner. You all have husbands who pay your bills. I don’t have that, I cannot afford to do that.”

I recall a lot of things. One I still harp on is the kindergarten teacher who tied me to the bed—I can feel that experience to this day. A healthcare person told me that the reason I keep remembering these things is because at the time no one listened to me and said, “That was a bad thing that was done to you.” In my family circle, my parents were older than most parents because my mother had me when she was in her 40s. So I didn’t even have a friend of the family my age to talk to. I keep going over it in my head because I did not have a safe place to talk about what was happening to me. Also, in my family, using critical thinking was not what anyone wanted. They wanted more intuitive thinking.

Part of it is that during and after slavery, if you analyzed what your situation was and what you can do about it, critical thinking would get you killed. Of course there were people who did fight the system. But in general, as a small child I had no one except my parents, and they were very silent about racial issues. In fact, I picketed Woolworths way back then, and I couldn’t tell them what I was doing because they would’ve been angry and upset. Mainly because they would be afraid of something happening to me. But there was no discussion about civil rights. Nothing. It was very strange.

PM: What motivated the shift to address the video camera directly?

HP: I thought it was the only way to take these various vignettes, these various stories, and put them together as a piece. I felt driven to deal with color in it, with different colored clothing and backdrops. I didn’t want to give up my artistic side and just use black-and-white film.

I wanted to show a certain kind of emotion and also imply time by changing my clothes throughout, so that I would have something different to wear for most of the vignettes. My mother was sending me clothes because I couldn’t afford them. Color was always important to me. The person who really made the difference in my life, though I never met him—his protegés taught me—was [Josef] Albers’s color course.

“I’m happy that people are now appreciating it and want to see it. And when they see it, it makes them think.”

Howardena Pindell

LT: Before this work, you’d been working with live video feed, making drawings with televised sporting events. Can you talk about that work?

HP: At the time, I was living in a loft on Seventh Avenue and 28th Street, which was also my studio. I was doing the numbering pieces and was getting very tired of just staring down at these little dots. So someone suggested I buy a TV, so I could look up every now and then at something at a distance that was moving. And I found that really boring after a while. So then I thought I’d play with the TV as a drawing surface, and I bought clear acetate and used pen and ink to draw numbers and vectors, arrows on it, and cut it to be the same shape as the screen. And when I turned on the TV, the static would attach the acetate to the screen. Then I put a camera on a tripod and used a cable release to take the pictures.

But I first showed them when PS1 had their first exhibition. I think I was the only Black person in it. There was no response. And then I think one dealer, someone in Soho, put me in a show, and then Leo Castelli asked for it to be put in a show that he was doing in Europe. And I remember when I delivered it, the young man who accepted it was very angry. That’s one thing I ran into: white men, when I was included, became very angry. So I’m used to some people feeling extremely unnerved by the fact I’m allowed access.

LT: What were your feelings about the reception of Free, White and 21, and have your feelings about the reception changed over time?

HP: I’m happy that people are now appreciating it and want to see it. And when they see it, it makes them think. I can look at Free, White and 21 now because I’ve been distanced from it for many years. I guess you could say I know it by heart. I don’t have the kind of feelings I had when I was showing it; I made it because I was so angry at how the art world was totally turned against people of color.

Free, White and 21. Installation view, Holding Space, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, December 2, 2022–ongoing

Free, White and 21. Installation view, Holding Space, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, December 2, 2022–ongoing

Still from Free, White and 21

Still from Free, White and 21

PM: I’m wondering how you see Free, White and 21 in the context of these urgent efforts to shift institutional practices that are happening in museums.

HP: Well, that’s a relief and that’s a great thing to see. I was very happy to see collections showing women of color, men of color, and white women on the same walls. Personally, I’m very impressed that the museum has made an effort to diversify. It seems to be changing, but then there’s pushback from the political side of the world, like banning books. Does that mean they’re going to ban a catalogue about African American artists? Does that mean we’re going to get legal pushback? Because they are banning books.

It’s push and pull at the same time. Some of the older institutions have their feet anchored in secure moorings, because they have their public and wonderful reputations. But when you get to some of the smaller places or more Southern places, you may find that they don’t do as well. In those places, Free, White and 21 would not be part of the dialogue.

LT: What do you see as the vital modes of talking back to the dominant culture today?

HP: When artists spoke back, Congress shut down funding for individual artists because they did not like their politics. That is still the case. The visual arts are still limited financially because of Congress at that time. Most artists have managed somehow, though some haven’t, and there are some organizations that have tried to step in, but not on the vast scale that the NEA once had. It’s hard to tell because the polarization is so severe.