Autobiography, a selection of works on paper and canvas from a larger body of work, addresses multifaceted aspects of my being and experience. I chose not to focus solely on that which has brought me distress, such as my direct personal experience with issues of abuse, some of which were brought about by encounters with racism, sexism, and issues of class, but expanded it to include my inner spiritual as well as outer journey. This journey extended over twenty years and has taken me to remote parts of Africa, the Caribbean, India, Japan, Brazil, and northern and central Europe.
I sought solace during these trips in studying and practicing, in some cases, universal spiritual traditions as a link to understanding the culture. I was also searching for alternative modes of living, thinking, and seeing. The unifying factor I found in each spiritual tradition, Western and non-Western (predominantly evident in the non-Western), was a concern for the visual expression of the “divine” through beauty, often misread by those with a Euro-American bias as a pursuit of vacant decorative frills.
“Beauty as a concept in Mende (Sierra Leone) thought operates on three planes of existence—in the world of spirit, in the world of nature, and in the life of humans. The spiritual and the natural are seen to establish the standards and values of the human experience. Tingoi, the spiritual notion, is the mystical ideal to be yearned for but never attained.” (Sylvia Ardyn Boone, Radiance from the Waters [New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986], 129)
Autobiography was initiated in 1980 with the videotape performance work Free, White and 21. The six key paintings shown in the exhibition, chosen from eight, represent markers for me, peak experiences, some of which were not altogether pleasant. Fire (Suttee) is symbolic of my four trips to India during which time I became aware of the use of fire to cruelly censure brides who present to their grooms an insufficient dowry. Suttee was an ancient rite in which a wife was placed alive on her husband’s funeral pyre. Now banned, it is still practiced in remote villages. Numerous women’s organizations in India have been trying to address the problem through various political action groups. Earth (Eyes/Injuries) represents my experience as a passenger in a car accident in 1979 and the ways in which it affected and changed my life, work, perceptions, and memories of other traumas. Air (CS560) and Separate But Equal symbolize my feelings about universal struggles for dignity, civil and human rights, as well as some of my personal agonies. To emphasize this, I have put my own blood on the canvas (Air [CS560]) prior to gessoing it.
Water (Ancestors/Middle Passage/Family Ghosts) represents my family’s multicultural heritage as well as hidden American history. The Search (Chrysalis/Meditation, Positive/Negative) focuses on the uplifting as well as deleterious aspects of deep meditation. It additionally deals with my disillusionment with Western and non-Western charismatic “religious” figures who deceive their followers, demanding blind faith, obedience, noncritical thinking, and an open purse.
The thick paint strokes in the large paintings represent both notes and sounds of a mantra as well as scarring, echoing both a rupture and a healing. The strokes are also symbolic of ritual scarification in Africa for beauty, knitting together keloids, fusing into a whole fabric, skin, or canvas. In this series, I wanted to reflect the horror of some of my experiences and my struggles to overcome their effects by traditional spiritual as well as nontraditional means.
My photographs, visual records documenting each journey, provided for me a quiet outlet and a form of meditation “space” necessary in order to execute the larger works. The sheer pleasure of mixing the values and colors as well as unifying the images brought me the kind of serenity that I had experienced in deep meditation without the negative side effects. Paradoxically, in many of the countries that I visited where the beauty and serenity of the spiritual practice were uplifting, they were in stark contrast to often harsh and brutal daily realities for the majority of the people. I feel that the interface of beauty and cruelty has become more evident in my work after my car accident (1979) and more pronounced since my extended stay in Japan in 1981–82.
Excerpted from Howardena Pindell: Autobiography (New York: Cyrus Gallery, 1989).