Experiencing Howardena Pindell and VMFA through the Lens of Intersectionality

VMFA asked Chelsea Higgs Wise, a Richmond-area activist and clinical social worker, to share her thoughts about the Howardena Pindell exhibition at VMFA, on view through Nov 25, 2018. Here, Wise shares her insights on the exhibition’s personal and societal significance, as seen through her own intersectional lens.

Intersectionality represents how individual social constructs overlap into the larger context of our individual identities. The exhibition at VMFA, Howardena Pindell: What Remains To Be Seen, is a tour into the mind of a womanist who identifies through multiple mediums of expression. Just as many women compartmentalize our skills to be recognized in multiple rooms of society, every section of the exhibition deserves the patience for proper ingestion of Howardena Pindell’s story.

Pindell’s journey presented at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts is unique to the artist but not unusual. We’ve heard the tale: the impressive work ethic of a brilliant black mind, occupying double roles, only to still fall short on respect from her white colleagues as well as the white-dominant art world. Pindell worked as the curator and an artist in an institution that held the same high prestige then as it does today, but she left after conflicts over her advocacy in the art world. At the talk “Conversations with Howardena Pindell,” held on August 24 at VMFA, she told stories of her activism, including her protest of The Nigger Drawings, an exhibition organized by MoMA, where she was employed as a curator at the time. Historically, US institutions, most museums included, have practiced racism, resistance, and a silencing hand over the mouth of any person of color who dared to want their voice included. After all, this is America.

Having grown up in RVA, I cannot brag about visits to many local art museums, nor can I claim that I have an eye for art. I was asked at the exhibition opening by a typical “artsy” person if I wrote on art, and my answer was that I “commentate through black culture, and art is our influence.” That was my “hot seat” response to create a space for me as a community voice in that room. Whether the room as a whole welcomed me or not, I was invited to share my words. As a community organizer, I often stand alone in spaces not created for me, but my presence and, more important, the presence of Pindell’s work is another disruptive move by VMFA.

My intersectional lens is one of a black woman, middle class, college-educated clinician, and mother who focuses on restorative justice through a theory of narrative change.

I’m no art connoisseur, but I am known for dramatic geek-out responses to black feminism and was thrilled to be put on to Howardena Pindell by VMFA. Reflecting on how our country has omitted voices of color systemically through institutions and industries, including art education, I’d be willing to bet that even some art groupies in Richmond wouldn’t have known about Pindell without the launch of this exhibition. So, after diving into the book Howardena Pindell: What Remains To Be Seen, I learned that the artist’s lifelong collection of work was being elevated by the exhibition’s curators: Valerie Cassel Oliver, of VMFA, and Naomi Beckwith, of the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. The two accomplished African American women joined forces to curate VMFA’s exhibition, which was first on view in Chicago. As a clinical social worker, I felt my soul fill as I recognized VMFA was using an intersectional transformation to disrupt its own institutional patterns.

Chelsea Higgs Wise and Howardena Pindell
Each of us has a sacred story that molds our identity. Because of the diversity of Pindell’s work, she is able to attract us based on our varying origins of experiences. The artistic eye that connects to an abstract art lover with works such as Untitled (detail), 1973 is an avenue to validate her name in the classically trained dominant art world, while the many blatant social-justice works produced in her post 1979 period root her in self-determined black liberation. Identities such as Traveler, Woman, Artist, Memoirist, and Feminist are labeled in the exhibition, so as we journey through it, we may intersect Pindell’s messages through her many lenses. She is a woman after all, and spaces are not made for our voices in the US. Women have adapted to using an intersectional approach as Pindell did, as a holistic avenue to elevating her narratives when her surrounding world has refused.

Howardena Pindell speaking the gallery
Working to change the narrative within her own atmosphere of whiteness, Pindell demonstrates how intersectionality is inclusivity. She offers a variety of representative pieces responsibly made for digestion, while also protecting our sacred stories. She allows interpretative space through the abstract use of circles, arrows, pipes, and numbers in the first section before diving head first into a full course of emotion in her video Free, White, 21.

As a narrative changer, I was pleased to see a video, upon entering the exhibition, which laid the foundation of What Remains To Be Seen through the words of the living artist and the curators. The relationship of the three women was apparent from the video, and as a black woman who leans toward representative art, I excitedly felt like I was entering a space for me. I listened to the entire intro intently. I let it loop through the beginning to absorb every word. The narrative created by the curators matters for the visitors, who weave their sacred stories into the world of Howardena Pindell and vice versa.

As a Richmonder, I’m overwhelmed with the many layers impacted by such an exhibition. It is another moment when VMFA is expanding its outreach to intersect communities—and not just with awesomely priced wine coupled with live entertainment by Lonnie B and Kelli Lemon. VMFA continues to open the doors for curators, artists, and community creatives—just what Pindell has advocated for her entire career. I am hopeful to watch my city become the model for moving the needle and understanding that in order to get more folks to connect their stories to our local cultural institutions, there needs to be a shift to more socially and intellectually representative voices at the forefront.

As a community facilitator, I believe in the power of holistic conversations to ignite action. VMFA has filled quite a role as an institution by bringing Oliver and Beckwith’s exhibition to Richmond. Howardena Pindell has and continues to be active in her role as an intersectional influencer. This groundbreaking exhibition as well as the stories told by the two curators and the artist herself create a protective space for our own stories. The final layer is the community’s response to this progressive disruption and the demand for more inclusion of these voices throughout our “chocolate city.”

Chelsea Higgs Wise earned a BSW from Longwood University and a Clinical MSW degree from VCU. She offers facilitated dialogue services on various topics, including race. To learn more, visit www.chelseahiggswise.com.