Howardena Pindell is a hugely influential figure in American art whose six decade-long artistic career and activism has helped enable a subsequent generation of African American women – and indeed African Americans and women full stop - to make their mark in the art world. Born in 1943 in the midst of war, Pindell grew up in Philadelphia, the daughter of a mathematician father and a mother whose birth certificate said “White” but who Pindell says had a skin colour darker than her own, the consequences of which she endured in the segregated white schools in which she was enrolled. Segregation, racism and lynchings in the South and the dynamic, sustained struggle of the Civil Rights Movement were the backdrop against which Pindell grew up. This is the first solo exhibition of Pindell's art in a UK institution.

Persistent and hugely successful, Pindell graduated with a B.F.A in Painting from Boston University (1965), and an M.F.A. from Yale (School of Art and Architecture) in 1967. She rose quickly to become the first African American Associate Curator of Prints and Illustrated Books at the Museum of Modern Art (New York), remaining at the Museum for 12 years, and strongly involved, along with her white female peers, in the women's rights movement, before the disillusionment of white prejudice in the art world – and specifically that of her female boss – led her to take up a teaching position and subsequently professorship at Stony Brook University in New York.

Some few months later, she had a serious car accident, which left her with no short term memory. She used her artistic practice to start to piece together her life from before the accident, working in figurative motifs to the layered abstractions of her 1970s work, and expressing artistically the anger and frustration that had led to her leaving MoMA. It comes out in her seminal 1980 video, “Free, white and 21”, which will be shown at Fruitmarket, a matter of fact telling of racist incidents which the young Pindell has experienced. In it too, she plays a dismissive, sunglassed, white woman, a 1950s-ish throwback, nothing more than some small-minded waspish scion of the suburbs, the self-installed gatekeeper to artistic “validation” and the white art world that knocks back every statement Pindell makes.

It is there, too, in some of Pindell's writings in the accompanying catalogue, not least her major 1980s investigation into institutional art world prejudice, occasioned by her own experiences both as Curator and as a practising artist who bristled at being used as the 'token black artist' in white group shows, yet was simultaneously given a cool reception by black galleries who felt that the times only sanctioned the creation of overtly political work. Neither art world gave much credence to the shades inbetween.

And yet Pindell had found her early artistic drive in the process which she painstakingly developed in the 1970s. Downstairs at the Fruitmarket we see it in the abstraction of dots and grids, the painstaking numbering of elements, the deep colour palette which segued to pastels, to paleness, the paintings formed by painting through a hole-punched template or embellished with the circular holes left over from the hole punching, painted, collaged, and worked in to the canvas – eventually frothing out in great textural, ebullient layers. Sometimes the circles are numbered, laboriously, as if not wanting to lose hold of their uniqueness amongst the many.

The circles recall a childhood moment in which she was confronted with segregation on a trip to the South. At a cafe, she noticed that her father's glass had a red circle on the base. A stark marker of segregation, right down to the glassware from which they drank.

From “Free, white and 21” on, Pindell overtly deals with prejudice, with police killings, with historical brutality from the crimes of Columbus to the “Separate but Equal Genocide” of AIDS. Here as elsewhere, she bears deliberate witness, but will not be defined by it, and asks how far we as a society define ourselves by our ignorance of these histories. There is a return, too, to the dots and collaging of her earlier work, but this time in panels, stitched together like skins, layered upon layer with paint and glitter.

And then the final film in the show, Rope/Fire/Water, made in 2020 for The Shed in New York. In this brutal work, Pindell narrates the barbaric modern history of lynchings. If her voice is contained, the words are deeply shocking, recounting that visceral, gratuitous cruelty of mobs of white men in the American South and the atmosphere of fear from which many black people fled in the Great Migration north, 1916-1940. Pindell moves on to the 21st century echo, listing those killed by police in recent years, and yet here, always working towards hope and stressing the nuances, the shades in between where hope resides for the future, comparing the statistics, leaving the words to do their work against a dark screen.

Howardena Pindell: A New Language, Fruimarket Gallery, Market Street, Edinburgh, 0131 225 2383, Until 2 May 2022, Daily 11am - 6pm

Critic's Choice

Confluence of North is the result of a year-long exchange between artists in Japan and Scotland - which, like so many other things this last year, was swiftly adapted to an online project - to explore the idea of "North". The idea came about when Scottish artist Sue Grierson was on a residency in Fukushima in 2013, two years after the devastating Tsunami and subsequent nuclear disaster which had devastated the area. A frequent visitor to Japan, she had previously worked there with refugees, creating work which responded to their connection to the land, which work she then showed, at their request, in Perth Concert Hall.

Amidst the many cultural responses to the disaster, Japanese artist Maruyama Yoshiko began his project “Spirit of North” in the same year that Grierson visited Fukushima, and the two have continued to converse since that date. Yoshiko's work connects artists around the world who have an idea of North, something which is not dependent on being in the Northern hemisphere, but rather perhaps north as a direction, as a part of being, and conditional on one's notion of place in relation to somewhere else.

Over the past year, four artists from Scotland and four from Japan have paired up to create collaborative work exploring this idea of place, with the resulting works now on display in Stornoway as part of the Faclan Book Festival, with work having already been show in Fukushima and Nishiaizu Town in Japan. Whilst Covid put paid to in-person collaboration, the steep learning curve of online collaboration has resulted in unique works, Su Grierson believes. “Bringing artwork made digitally across the world North to Lewis is a significant achievement in our ongoing connections and understanding of what North means to us all.”

Confluence of North: Spirit of North, An Lanntair, Kenneth Street, Stornoway, Isle of Lewis, 01851 708480 Until 27 Nov, Tues - Thurs, 10am-5pm; Fri - Sat, 10am-late

Don't Miss

Cambodian artist Khvay Samnang's evocative solo exhibition, “Calling for Rain”, in which the heavens open inside the capacious Tramway Gallery, is a call for climate awareness, and one which is, in part, aimed specifically at helping children understand climate issues, but importantly, with an emphasis on hope. Samnang uses dance and storytelling in his striking film which uses the traditions and stories of the Chong people as its basis, an important underlining of the effect of human-caused climate change on the lives of people around the world.

Khvay Samnang: Calling for Rain, Tramway, 25 Albert Drive, Glasgow, 0845 330 3501 19 Nov - 6 Mar 2022, Tues - Fri, 12pm - 5pm; Sat/Sun, 12pm - 6pm

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