Notes on the Collection: A Third World Sisterhood

Last month, we kicked off “Notes on the Collection,” a new blog series by Pérez Art Museum Miami’s (PAMM) first Ford Foundation Curatorial Fellow Ade Omotosho, where he focuses on artworks from the museum’s permanent collection. Every first Friday of the month, Omotosho will share his notes on his personal thoughts, feelings, and experiences with various artworks that he hopes might provide a generative way to think about PAMM’s diverse collection.

Below, check out Omotosho’s Notes on the Collection: A Third World Sisterhood.

Howardena Pindell. Free, White and 21, 1980. Color video with sound, 12 min., 15 sec. Collection Pérez Art Museum Miami, gift of Jumaane N’Namdi. Image courtesy the artist and Garth Greenan Gallery, New York

In the Nedra and Ron Kalish Gallery on the museum’s second floor, the voice of a woman billows out from a TV monitor. Some steps away, in an adjacent gallery, a series of 12 photographs line a long, white wall. The works, Free, White and 21 and Silueta Works in Mexico, belong to Howardena Pindell and Ana Mendieta respectively and are now on view in the current installation of PAMM’s permanent collection titled Within Genres. The artists were contemporaries during the height of second-wave feminist activity in the art world and their pioneering work provides stunning examples of the artistic innovations of the period. The proximity of the works in the galleries reminded me of the unique history they shared as members of A.I.R. Gallery in the 1970s and 80s and as participants in a little-known but formidable exhibition that afforded them the agency to stake their claim inan art world that routinely alienated them.

The exhibition was entitled Dialectics of Isolation: An Exhibition of Third World Women Artists and opened in the fall of 1980 at A.I.R. gallery in New York City, the first all-women’s cooperative gallery founded in the United States. It was co-curated by Cuban-born performance artist Ana Mendieta with Kazuko Miyamoto and featured artworks by eight women artists. One of these women was Howardena Pindell, a cofounder of A.I.R. gallery and its only African American member. Pindell’s contribution to the exhibition was a video entitled Free, White and 21, wherein she recounts traumatic experiences of racism throughout her life. For the duration of the video’s runtime, her recollections are interrupted by an antagonistic character, White Woman, played by Pindell wearing whiteface makeup and donning a wig reminiscent of those worn by the stereotypical middle class white woman of the 1960s. The character trivializes Pindell’s accounts, dismissing them at every turn, and accuses her of being paranoid. Although deeply personal and primarily a means to express her experience on her own terms, the video is also symbolic of the treatment that women of color faced in the art world and the feminist movement during the time.

The tensions of second-wave feminism of the 70s and 80s are magnified in the video. The alternating cuts between White Woman and Pindell dramatize the shortcomings of white feminists in acknowledging women of color in the women’s movement and their failure to reckon with the nuances of class and race. In her artist statement for the exhibition catalogue, Pindell writes, “The white feminist who wishes equality for herself too often remains a racist in her ‘equality.’” Her observation reflects the ways in which the concerns of women of color were ignored by white feminists involved in the movement who prioritized their social position to the detriment of others, excluding them from efforts towards women’s liberation.

Mendieta and Pindell were women artists of color working at the time who felt this exclusion. They were both outsiders and inevitably, tokens, in the largely white women’s movement and art world. But they didn’t recede from these social affiliations. Instead, they found ways to center themselves. Dialectics of Isolation provided a space to bring together the voices of these artists, united by the bond of their shared oppression. It crystallized the collective experience of women artists of color and their struggle to carve space for themselves in the art world and in society in general.

        Ana Mendieta. Silueta Works in Mexico, 1973–77. Digital print, 20 x 16 inches. Collection Pérez Art Museum Miami, gift of anonymous donor. © The Estate of Ana Mendieta Collection, LLC. Image courtesy Galerie Lelong & Co. 

Ana Mendieta moved to New York in 1978, just two years prior to the exhibition’s opening, to work as a professional artist. Six months later, she joined A.I.R. gallery where she regularly exhibited work, including her iconic Silueta series – a performance-photo series of “earth-body” works based on traces of her body’s presence in landscapes throughout the Americas. During her time at A.I.R., she was actively involved with the gallery’s maintenance and developed a curatorial practice that enabled her to build relationships with other women artists. Her enduring legacy to the gallery is Dialectics of Isolation, which provided her a platform to express a solidarity between several women artists of color and highlight their work. In her introduction to the exhibition catalog Mendieta wrote: “American feminism as it stands is basically a white middle class movement. This exhibition points not necessarily to the injustice or incapacity of a society that has not been willing to include us, but more toward a personal will to continue being ‘other.’” For Pindell, Mendieta, and many other women of color, this “will” was an act of self-determination and “third world women” was a designation that affirmed their identities. They drew strength from their difference and from each other to work towards an inclusive vision of women’s liberation.

Pindell and Mendieta pursued different paths in the art world after the exhibition’s run. By 1982, Mendieta’s support for A.I.R. Gallery waned and she eventually resigned. Meanwhile, Pindell continued to publicly critique the prevailing racism in the art world through the writing and research practice she maintained. On September 8, 1985, five years after the exhibition’s opening, Mendieta died from a tragic fall from her New York apartment.

Although the artists only knew each other for a few short years, Mendieta’s life significantly influenced Pindell’s practice. Traces of her influence can be seen in Pindell’s Autobiography paintings, which she began within a year of Mendieta’s death. In an interview with art historian Kellie Jones, Pindell cites her death as the impetus to insert her body into compositions in which she laid down on paintings, traced her body, cut out the trace and then resewed it back into the canvas. The ritual like process of the act is akin to that of Mendieta’s, who impressed her body upon the earth as a response to her cultural displacement and exile.

With Pindell’s Free, White and 21 and Mendieta’s Silueta Works in Mexico on view in Within Genres, the installation offers a fortuitous opportunity to consider together the groundbreaking artistic contributions of these women and rekindles the camaraderie that coursed through Dialectics of Isolation. I spent an afternoon looking at these works. Moving from one gallery to the next, I alternated between Pindell then Mendieta, Mendieta then Pindell, returning to the works again and again for what they might reveal of the period in which they were created or the artists’ relationship to one another. What I realized is that Dialectics of Isolation was as much about art as it was about these women shoring each other up in the face of relentless acts of racism and prejudice. Their example reminded me of the power of collaboration, community, and collectivity.

Pindell’s Free, White and 21 and Mendieta’s Silueta Works in Mexico are now on view in Within Genres on the museum’s second floor galleries.






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