Visitors would hear before seeing Free, White and 21 (1980), a video in which the artist Howardena Pindell testifies to everyday racism and sexism. In this work, reportedly born of her therapeutic effort to recover lost memory after traumatic injury, Pindell’s monotonal testimony seems symptomatic of physical and complex trauma. Her truth is contested by a familiar, self-appointed, white arbiter whose micro-aggressive withholding of recognition undermines repair. As a sonic and visual element, the work challenges visitors to resolve a source of potential discomfort and confusion by seeking, hearing out, and understanding its protest.
The ongoing local and global charge to end white supremacism and its violence through transformative racial justice remains contested to this day, including by a resurgence of white nationalism. This response is anticipated by Glenn Ligon’s Untitled (Two White / Two Black) (1992), which combines narrative and print techniques to reflect on ordeals of invisibility, whiteness, and othering as addressed in Zora Neal Hurston’s How It Feels to Be Colored Me (1928) and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952). Ligon’s technique both animates and obscures these plaintive texts, evoking an unwillingness to acknowledge and heed anti-racism alongside the enduring need to bear witness to its plain, if unpleasant, truth.
Howardena Pindell (American, b. 1943), still from Free, White and 21, 1980. Color video with sound, transferred to digital file, 12:15 min. Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, Washington University in St. Louis, University purchase, Bixby Fund, 2012.
Glenn Ligon (American, b. 1960), Untitled (Two White / Two Black), 1992. Portfolio of 4 prints: softground etching, aquatint, spit bite, and sugarlift, 25 1/8 × 17 1/2″ each. Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, Washington University in St. Louis, University purchase, Charles H. Yalem Art Fund, 1997.