In 1926, the historian Carter G. Woodson instituted Negro History Week. The second-ever African-American recipient of a Ph.D. from Harvard (after W.E.B. DuBois), Woodson wanted to acknowledge the vibrant cultural achievements of African-American individuals that were rippling through the country. At the time, Harlem was brimming with poets such as Langston Hughes and Claude McKay, while Louis Armstrong and Fats Waller were developing Chicago’s jazz scene. In 1976, President Gerald Ford officially transformed Woodson’s initiative into the month-long celebration we honor to this day: Black History Month.
While it’s impossible to capture the full impact of black artists on art history, we asked prominent art historians and curators reflect on 20 living African-American artists who are making a mark on painting, photography, performance, and sculpture. Below, with the artists listed alphabetically, are their reflections.
Since the 1960s, Howardena Pindell has used unconventional materials such as glitter, talcum powder, and perfume to stretch the boundaries of the rigid custom of the rectangular canvas painting. She has also infused her work with traces of her labor, obsessively affixing dots of pigment and hole-punched paper circles. Despite the effort exerted as she creates these paintings, Pindell’s rich colors and unusual materials give the finished works a sumptuous and ethereal quality.
In 1967, Pindell was the only African-American to receive an MFA from Yale’s prestigious painting department. Moving to New York City after graduation, she diligently submitted her portfolio to galleries, eliciting positive responses only to have her work rejected when she was interviewed and “revealed” to be a black woman. As a woman and an African-American, Pindell was doubly subjected to a scopic gaze. In her work, she utilizes narrative and performance in the service of understanding her social condition, insisting that the social violence against her black body is coupled inextricably with her subjugation as a woman. An ardent feminist and founding member of the women’s cooperative A.I.R. Gallery, Pindell has organized against racism and advocated for inclusive policies in the art world.
From her earliest works, Pindell has refuted the societal faith in seeing or the visual encounter, posing this question: If a person is socially constructed as a gendered or raced subject, could that invented subject be deconstructed, reconstructed, or recontextualized as an aestheticized object? Pindell’s work deprivileges the very system of seeing, and disrupts our models of how seeing, knowledge, and power operate. In her 1980s “Memory” and “Autobiography” series, she asserts that her personal experiences were neither singular nor particular to her historical moment and condition. Physical pain, existential crises, a sense of uprootedness as a descendant of enslaved people—these are collective memories and collective traumas. Pindell’s forms are to be taken literally as a chronicle of shared experiences.