is a painter, museum curator, and art professor who grew up in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where she was born in 1943. She always wanted to be an artist. When she was young, she took art classes on Saturdays. Then she studied art at Boston University and at the Yale School of Art here in New Haven. After college, she was a curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. A curator is a person who acquires art work for a museum and puts it on exhibit. Howardena now teaches at the State University of New York in Stony Brook.
Howardena Pindell fights for equal rights. An African-American, she has worked against racism and discrimination in the art world. When she first tried to show her work, she found that some people in the art world did not want to show art by blacks. Her art is autobiographical, which means it is about her own life and experiences. It describes her travels. It tells about racist events that are painful or offensive. In her work she points out and protests racial prejudice.
In her collages, paintings, and collage-paintings, Howardena mixes different materials, combining photographs, drawings, paper, postcards, thick paint, colored paper dots, glitter, etc. She makes her work from cut, sewn, and pasted pieces.
Howardena writes and speaks out against racism, and tries to help other minority artists. Her own heritage is a mixture of African, Seminole, French, English, German, Christian, and Jewish. She has traveled to Egypt and Africa, Asia, Europe, Russia, Latin America, and the Caribbean, and lived in Japan and India.
When she lived in Japan, she learned much from its culture. She saw that its ancient cities were built on plans which were like mazes. She saw many things shaped like triangles, such as temples, landscapes, and Mt. Fuji. That shape is repeated in sand mounds in Japanese gardens. After seeing these, she decided to try making art work that was not rectangular. Her works might be shaped like triangles, diamonds, circles, S-curves, or mazes. Triangles also remind her of pyramids, which are part of her African heritage; curves remind her of coiled snakes or flowing rivers in India; she likes circles because they are very simple and basic and remind her of nature—the sun, earth, stars, moon.
Howardena cuts out the various shapes she wants to make from canvas or paper, then adds on more cutout shapes and sews them together. Then she might paint the surface, or add collage elements such as postcards, magazine pictures, words, photographs, glitter, etc. Her work is like a quilt or a mosaic—made from many pieces.
In her art work, she explores her own cultural heritage. It is about her travels, personal experiences, and memories. She traces historical and personal references to racism and discrimination such as slavery. Have you ever felt discriminated against? How did it feel?
Howardena Pindell has won many awards for her work. Her art has been exhibited all over the world. You can see one of her paintings, entitled “Autobiography: Water/Ancestors, Middle Passage/ Family Ghosts” right here in Connecticut at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford.
“Autobiography: Water/Ancestors, Middle Passage/Family Ghosts” is a very large (nearly 10 feet by 6 feet) oval-shaped painting that tells a story about Africans’ forced journey to the Americas as slaves. The background is painted blue to represent the ocean they crossed. There is a shape of a slave ship, painted white, and pictures of Black people, symbols of African culture, and a picture of Howardena with her face painted white that was influenced by Michael Jackson’s face in his “Thriller” video. She seems to be floating, and is looking out at us. There are also many pictures of eyes looking out.
What do you think she is trying to say in the painting? Why is the ship white? What do the eyes represent? Why is her face painted white? How does the painting make you feel?