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29 June 2022

Howardena Pindell Q&A: “A white parent tried to get me expelled from university”

The American artist on her love of Paris, the cellist Yo-Yo Ma and the paintings of Kerry James Marshall.

By New Statesman

Howardena Pindell was born in 1943 in Philadelphia. A painter and mixed media artist, she was the first black female curator at Moma and a co-founder of the pioneering feminist Air Gallery.

What’s your earliest memory?
Lying in my wooden crib with no toys, wondering if anyone knew I was there. Toys were basically unavailable to black children: racism made it hard in the north to go into stores to buy things. Later my mother’s sister, who could pass for white, went to a store and bought me my first toy: a pink and white soft bunny rabbit.

Who are your heroes?
My father. Before he had a family he was the principal of a school in Maryland and he unionised the teachers. There was a legal case that he and the attorney Thurgood Marshall – who later became a member of the Supreme Court – brought against the board of education, because the black teachers were being paid the same as the white janitors. My father put himself out front because he thought he had less to lose. The board of education, which was totally white, fired him.

[See also: Suzie Sheehy’s Q&A: “Australia’s regressive stance on climate is embarrassing”]

What book last changed your thinking?
Research for my film Rope/Fire/Water brought up the issues of slavery buried in the Harry Potter series, where elves were slaves at Hogwarts, fixing meals and cleaning for no pay.

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Which political figure do you look up to?
Amy Goodman, who hosts the innovative news programme Democracy Now!

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In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?
As a woman I am conscious about cultures that disrespect women. I’ve done a lot of travelling, and lived in France, Japan and India. I’ve travelled throughout Africa. In some places women are considered nothing. I’d prefer to stay where I am.

Who would paint your portrait?
Kerry James Marshall, who paints positive, affirmative images of African Americans.

[See also: Nedum Onuoha’s Q&A: “Never did I think I’d meet Nelson Mandela”]

What’s your theme tune?
Anything performed by Yo-Yo Ma. I used to play the cello as a teenager and I played it very badly! So I respect people who really can handle their instrument.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
“Don’t give up.” I was told it by one of my undergraduate teachers in sculpture at Boston University. A white parent tried to get me expelled because I was one of a tiny group of black students. He did not want his daughter to have friends who were black. He offered money to the school to get rid of me. One teacher was very supportive.

What’s currently bugging you?
The two-party system. The Republicans are trying to block everything, and the president gets blamed.

What single thing would make your life better?
Peace of mind. I’m always worried about climate change, the destruction of the environment, the forest fires, the hurricanes, the rising ocean levels, the growing gap between rich and poor.

[See also: Sheila Hancock Q&A: “I met Clement Attlee when I was working at the circus”]

When were you happiest?
When I first visited Paris in the 1960s. I was a college student and I thought it was the most beautiful city in the world.

In another life, what job might you have chosen?
I could have been a civil rights attorney, but I don’t think I’m smart enough.

Are we all doomed?
I worry about the widening gap between the rich and the poor countries. I worry about climate change. I don’t want to say we’re doomed, but it’s pretty scary. You know what’s happening.

“Howardena Pindell: A New Language” runs at Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge from 2 July to 30 October

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This article appears in the 29 Jun 2022 issue of the New Statesman, American Darkness