(American, born 1943)
(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. via
WATCH Free, White and 21