An Incomplete History of Protest: Jeffrey Gibson on Howardena Pindell
Aug 27, 2018

"Is it a form of activism to expose yourself?" asks artist Jeffrey Gibson, as he discusses Howardena Pindell's video work Free, White and 21.

My name is Jeffrey Gibson, and I’m here to speak about Free, White, and 21, the artwork from 1980 by Howardena Pindell. I think Howardena’s video is incredibly generous, and speaking to people who would have had, and have, a shared experience with her. The idea of just speaking from your very honest, earnest, transparent biographical narrative to expose injustices and a kind of emotional restraint and intellect is something that comes through really clear with this video.

"I went to a high school in Philadelphia which was for girls, which emphasized academic achievement. Everyone was very competitive with one another for grades. I did very well in the history classes and asked that my history teacher put me in the accelerated class. She told me she would be happy, with my grades, to put me in the accelerated level. However, she felt that a white student with lower grades would go further, therefore she would not put me in the accelerated course."

Howardena’s video just strips away any of the performance, and you’re getting to see almost like the person behind the scenes of the performance. And in this day and age, especially politically there’s something so provocative when people really let down the performances, and expose who they are as individuals. Is it a form of activism to expose yourself? This is truly who you are, and allowing other people to see it, and allowing it to provoke in other people their own fears, and their own judgments, and their own moralities. It challenges all of the borders about how we define ourselves, how other people define us. It calls for a need, for new ways of describing ourselves, and describing other people.

When I started painting on hide, I realized I didn’t have to think about positioning the viewer anymore. A viewer looking at a painting on hide was suddenly thinking, this is not through the history of Western painting. So then I could actually think about painting. I could think about formalism on my own terms, I could think about color on my own terms.

I think with text initially they were messages to myself. when I was looking for words, "I know you have a lot of strength left," I was able to pull out of there, I have strength left. It speaks to a relationship. So there’s a you, and there’s an I. This idea of reminding of yourself that you can do this, you will do this, you will make this happen is really, I think, what that piece is about. 

That’s why I actually love art and being an artist, is because there’s all of those histories still yet to be written—there’s all of those connections still yet to be made, and there’s a whole new lexicon of symbology that has yet to be identified.