by Grace Hatton, Reverb Editor
On Nov. 7, students, and staff alike crowded into Canon Lounge to hear Jefferson Pinder, a Chicago based African- American performance artist, speak about his video exhibition “Work.” It was shown in the Holden Art Gallery from Oct. 11 until Nov. 19. Pinder was introduced to the crowd by art professor Julie Caro, the curator of the Work exhibition. After being introduced, Pinder stood in front of the audience in one of the suits he wears in many of his videos. Pinder complimented the college and commented on how lucky we are as a student body to live and study on such a beautiful campus.
After the complements, Pinder continued to say there was one thing that could be different about the college. He wished there was more color diversity in the population.
“This place doesn’t look like the rest of the world,” said Pinder. Nods and agreement swept through the crowd.
Pinder then began to share his artistic journey. Pinder, originally from Maryland, studied theatre during his undergraduate career before moving into the art realm and receiving his MFA in mixed media from University of Maryland in 2003. In the early years of his artistic career, Pinder worked with collages, but he sought a way to combine his love of both theatre and art. On his journey to combine the two mediums, Pinder discovered the power of performance art and beyond -the strength of performance art recorded on film and then delivered in video format.
Pinder immediately began to create performance art that dealt with what some might call ‘tough issues’ such as racial identity. During the talk, Pinder said his work deals with such issues because “it’s our responsibility as artists to make more than pretty pictures.” And the performance art videos that were displayed in the Work exhibition were far more than just pretty pictures- as each video entertained and challenged the viewer in its own way as it delved into the issues of work and race.
Work included ten videos, each relatively short in length with the collection lasting around twenty minutes as a whole. During the talk, Pinder spoke about the origins of many of them- including perhaps the most emotionally jarring video in Work; “Passive/Resistance”. Passive/Resistance was created as part of a commission called “After 1968” for the High Museum in Atlanta. Pinder was told to create work that encompassed the experience of African Americans after 1968.
As Pinder conducted research for the commission, he discovered stories of how African Americans used to train to resist pain in order to fight back against their oppressors without raising a fist.
“The highest kind of heroes are the ones who are able to endure hate,” said Pinder. And from this idea Passive/Resistance was born.
Passive/Resistance is presented in a split screen with Pinder’s face on the left hand side and a Caucasian male on the right hand side. All that is shown of both men is their heads. Pinder is slapped in the face, over and over again. The only sound on the video is the sound of the Caucasian hand connecting with Pinder’s African American face. Neither man shows any emotion as Pinder receives the slaps and the other male administers them.
Persistence/Resistance carries on for what seems like an eternity until when it seems as though it can’t possibly go on any longer, Pinder begins to smirk as he’s being hit and the abuse comes to an end. Both men turn to look at the camera and the viewer before the video fades to black.
The other racially charged video that Pinder discussed was The Escape Artist, which features Pinder being tied into a strait-jacket by a Caucasian man. Like Persistence/Resistance there is no background music in this piece. Instead there is only the sound of trains passing, street noise and eventually Pinder’s grunts of frustration as he attempts to escape the strait-jacket. Pinder is hooked up to a harness, then hangs from a tree in front of a courthouse. As Pinder hangs from the tree, and his body sways in an attempt to break free of his restraints the viewer finds themselves being reminded of a lynching.
This association however was intentional on Pinders part. The spot where The Escape Artist was shot was actually the same location of the last known lynching in Maryland. A young boy, around eighteen, was lynched, some reports say in a strait- jacket, in front of the court house in Salisbury, Maryland, in 1935 and Pinder filmed The Escape Artist on the 80th anniversary of that event.
In The Escape Artist after being hung to the tree, Pinder continues to squirm, he grunts and moans in pain as the activity takes its physical toll. The camera zooms onto Pinder’s feet as they sporadically jut out in different directions, reminiscent of a man being hanged. As Pinder struggles to escape, his physical prowess is tested. Eventually he achieves his goal and he bows to the crowd that has gathered in front of the tree. The bowing emphasizes how this piece was a performance, and, in turn, forces the viewer to recognize that they’ve just witnessed a performance of pain and struggle in a similar manner to how lynchings were seen as entertainment less than a century ago.
“It’s the only piece I’ve made where I was genuinely scared,” said Pinder of The Escape Artist.“ It took much longer than I expected to get loose and there was a reflective moment for me when I thought I couldn’t get out.”
Pinder closed his talk with showing clips from his new video project, The Star of Ethiopia and taking questions from the crowd. Topics of the questions ranged from violence in our culture, the use of physical exhaustion in Pinder’s videos and to how Wilson could become more diverse and more.
Pinder answered the questions with enthusiasm and he engaged the crowd in a similar fashion to an actor or motivational speaker. While Pinder didn’t have answers for every question- such as how to increase diversity on campus- what was clear from the evening and from the Work exhibition is that Pinder may be the most exciting, engaging and thought- provoking artist Holden Gallery and Wilson has ever had the privilege to host.