Featured in
Issue 230

Howardena Pindell’s Confrontations with Racism

A retrospective at Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge, highlights the artist's uses of collage and abstraction to circle blatant and coded atrocities

BY Lauren Dei in Exhibition Reviews , UK Reviews | 28 JUL 22

Howardena Pindell’s mixed-media work unfolds with the even-paced clarity of a case study. Pindell – a painting graduate from Boston and Yale Universities – combines the influence of her mathematician father with extensive historical research, curated in analytical sequences. In ‘A New Language’ – the artist’s first solo institutional exhibition in the UK – developments in Pindell’s socially conscious practice appear like points plotted on an ascending graph.

In Gallery 1, Untitled (1969–72) is a series of acrylic paintings on unstretched canvas, dense with pastel-coloured circles spray-painted through a cardboard stencil. Circle and ellipse motifs are omnipresent in Pindell’s work. In an online conversation with Fiona Bradley, director of Edinburgh’s Fruitmarket Gallery, where the exhibition was installed prior to Kettle’s Yard, Pindell details how her circles refer to a memory. A fellow graduate student, Nancy Murata, who started using circles in her work, triggered a childhood recollection in Pindell: at a roadside root-beer stand in northern Kentucky, she remembered receiving drinks in chilled mugs marked with large red painted circles to differentiate utensils according to pernicious Jim Crow laws, which racially divided southern America until 1965. 

Howardena Pindell, Columbus, 2020, mixed media on canvas, 2.7 × 3 m. Courtesy: the artist, Garth Greenan Gallery and Victoria Miro

The artist continued to explore the possibilities of the circle in works such as Parabia Test #3 (1974), which comprises a collage of hole-punched chads transcribed with Phoenician lettering. An ancient civilization based primarily in modern-day Lebanon, Phoenicia existed from c.1500 to c.300 BCE. Pindell copied the characters from 1960s news articles about a stone inscribed with Phoenician language that had allegedly been found in Brazil in 1872, which provided potential evidence of contact with the Americas long before Christopher Columbus’s famed ‘discovery’ in 1492. 

In Gallery 2, Pindell adds photographic imagery to her lexicon, sprinkled into Tarot: Hanged Man (1981), for instance, a glittery stream-of-consciousness collage on canvas, and the television stills foregrounded in the video drawings War: Agent Orange (Vietnam #1) and War: Starvation (Sudan #1) (both 1988). Columbus (2020), another mixed-media work on canvas, spreads its declarations like a tablet, reporting the brutal torture of indigenous peoples during Columbus’s expeditions. The piece is punctuated with a pile of cast severed hands, referring to the mutilation of the native Taíno who failed to deliver the requisite gold to their Spanish captors.

Howardena Pindell
Howardena Pindell, Parabia Test #4, 1974, ink and paper collage on paper, 28 × 22 cm.

Courtesy: the artist, Garth Greenan Gallery and Victoria Miro

In her film Free, White and 21 (1980), Pindell plays two roles: herself, recounting the micro-aggressions and abject abuse she has suffered as a Black woman; and a white feminist detractor who minimizes those experiences. Produced two decades later, Rope/Fire/Water (2020) features black and white archival images of lynched bodies interspersed with long periods of black screen. Pindell’s subtitled narration soberly describes racially motivated murder, torture and contemporary cases of police brutality to the commanding tick of a metronome.

Howardena Pindell
Howardena Pindell, Rope/Fire/Water, 2020, film still. Courtesy: the artist, Garth Greenan Gallery and Victoria Miro

‘A New Language’ is the first exhibition I have visited that offers an after-care plan of grounding exercises. In the post-show reflection space, I scribble absent-mindedly on multi-coloured paper circles – oversized versions of those in Pindell’s work – my words unclear through tears. I return to Songlines: Connect the Dots (2017), a cloud-like collage in Gallery 2, before leaving. The wall text describes it as ‘an intense relief, a kind of visual healing, some distance from what you have seen’. A momentary dissociation from a nightmare. 


With a throughline of painstaking precision that creates coherence out of chaos, Pindell’s means of reckoning with these inexplicable horrors evolves from abstraction to direct filmic confrontation. Hers is a language established in its truths.


Howdena Pindell’s ‘A New Language’ is Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge, until 30 October 2022

Main image: Howardena Pindell, Rope/Fire/Water, 2020, film still. Courtesy: the artist, Garth Greenan Gallery and Victoria Miro

Lauren Dei is a writer based in London, UK.