The Thickness of our lives – Q&A about Howardena Pindell with Tressie McMillan Cottom, PhD

We recently had the opportunity to speak with Tressie McMillan Cottom, PhD, about VMFA’s current exhibition Howardena Pindell: What Remains To Be Seen.

Cottom is an assistant professor of sociology at Virginia Commonwealth University. She has spoken across the nation and the world on technology, higher education, race, gender, class, and social inequality. Her latest book, Thick, draws on ten years of writing for the public on many of our society’s most pressing fault lines. It joins her other books, including the acclaimed Lower Ed, in a genre-busting academic career that spans public policy to cultural critique.

Read Cottom’s insights and observations about Howardena Pindell and her work below and then visit or revisit the exhibition before it closes on November 25.

Q: Before seeing this exhibition what, if anything, did you know about Howardena Pindell?

A: I am so embarrassed to say that I actually knew very little about Howardena. When I was doing my research before coming to see the exhibition, I came across an essay that I remember previously reading that mentioned her work in the political context and that was my only exposure to her work.

Q: After seeing the exhibition and learning more about her and her work, why do you feel it is important for people to see this exhibition?

A: I think the exhibition is important for a couple of reasons that struck me personally and that may resonate with other people.

First, I was struck by the fact that I didn’t know her. We’ve had this renaissance here over the last four or five years—or at least people are talking about a renaissance of modern black American art, artists, and this cultural moment—and I would hate to think an artist who is still with us and very much alive and engaged in her political and creative practice would be missed in that moment. Not that she would be missed but that we would miss her. What a loss that would be for us.

Then I’m struck by how political and social the work is and how much of its context still resonates. The work is organized chronologically, but even if it were not, it would all feel very present. Her work starting in ’67 and ’68, where she’s responding to this moment that we think of as being this historical anomaly culturally, actually feels extremely present when you strip away the year. So much of the themes and context of what she’s dealing with really resonated with me—as did her work with technology and the medium of television and digital technology. This all feels extremely relevant today.

By the end of the exhibit I was thinking: this is a really wonderful artist for us to be thinking about with so many of the things we are facing in a digital society that at the same time is still dealing with the legacies of historical, political, and social context of race, class, and gender. She feels extremely present.

Q: What inspired you the most about her work and her life?

A: I was particularly inspired during a point in the exhibit that shows how she makes some of the work. There was this huge, what I would call a “punch hole card” which I spent a lot of time looking at for a couple of reasons. First, as a southerner who is so involved with and committed to black cultural southern art and history, I was struck by how she took the idea of quilting and stitching together these different mediums—which I understand as the sort of thing that women sat around and did in the folk sense in relation to folk art—and she elevated it in this technological sense by applying the mathematics and the logic of stitching together different forms and different functions, which really is something I think only an artist that is living intersectionality would do.

In part of the exhibit, the curator [Valeria Cassell Oliver] talks about how Howardena is really embodying and thinking about intersectionality long before it becomes the academic term and certainly before it becomes the pop culture term. I thought about how even when you’re looking at how she makes the work it is stitching together the different forms of art, which is responding to the different focus, form, and function from the ‘60s and ‘70s, but it’s also responding to the fact that she was drawing from this huge body of cultural histories that intersected with who she was and who she embodied.

Q: Was there a piece in the exhibition that really spoke to you?

A: There were two pieces that really spoke to me. She has this wonderful quilt-like project where she is dealing with the ideas of colonialism and its legacies in the late 1960s and late 1970s. It felt like a direct response to what was happening during that time in terms of a pre and post-apartheid moment, or our awareness of apartheid politics, and how they were tied to how we lived at home in the U.S. It tied those lived experiences of the quest for liberation across this global spectrum, which I think comes through in her travels and how she experiences things globally in her art.

The second one was a piece that was so enjoyable to me for multiple reasons. The piece was the 1980s television…where she creates one of the first video art pieces. The way she embodies the discourse she is responding to in that piece is extremely enjoyable on a base level but also very thought provoking.

Q: Howardena Pindell is such an unsung hero in the art world, and there are so many people who might not know who she is. What would you say to those who don’t know of her and her work? Why should they see the exhibition?

A: I would recommend this exhibit to anybody who is thinking about their place in a world that feels like it’s moving very fast. I’m struck by how much of her work there is and how very productive she has been and continues to be. Because there is so much work, it has this sense of urgency that I think characterizes the moment we’re living in right now where everything seems particularly urgent. As a guiding post to how art can help us think about our place in that urgency and how to both focus on something that we can impact some difference or change while at the same time keeping the bigger vision of what’s going on around us. It really helped me to think at a small scale, like when she uses the little chads which is how we can often feel – like a little chad in a sea of all of this chaos going on – and to focus on small. She also zooms back out to this larger scale and I think that’s a great lesson on someone who is trying to figure out their place in the world right now.

Q: If you could tell Howardena Pindell one thing, what would it be?

A: I suspect that Howardena Pindell does not need to hear a single thing from me—except my gratitude for her work. For someone who deals with these ideas in a very different context as an academic and a researcher, I deal with a lot of the same things that Howardena deals with in her art and she does exactly what I think art is supposed to do which is to take you out of your comfort zone of what we would call your “domain of knowledge” where we feel competent and put us in a world where we feel less so. That is extremely inspiring. I am so thankful to her for being so open and sharing her life with us because it is a truly brave thing to do—and not easy to do and I value her greatly.

Q: If you could use one word to describe the exhibition what would it be?

A: If there was one word that I could use to describe this exhibition, it would be a word that Howardena and I have in common here lately. In one of the descriptions of her work, she describes it as “thick,” and interestingly enough, that is the title of my new book. I was thinking about how that resonates across different time periods and across different domains of knowledge and fields of expertise—particularly with women and women of color across the diaspora in dealing with the thickness of our lives and living all of those layers simultaneously. How are we going to represent that in our work? Her approach to representing the thickness of that was to stitch together all of these materials in all of these new ways through different mediums. I think we are all always grappling with that across time and space and geography and what it means to be really thick in a world that would wish for us to be a little thinner.