"The project as a whole is about the experience of dealing with American institutions that create poverty," says Pinderhughes. "Because I think a lot of times, we don't ask people about their experiences with these systems, like, 'What's your day to day reality? What are you facing? How do you heal yourself?'"
Pinderhughes' album, Grief, is at the core of the project. The song "Holding Cell," which vividly explores the two questions, imagines letters written by three inmates. One is on death row. Another is an undocumented immigrant in a detention center, and a third is in prison awaiting trial. While the chorus highlights the failures of the prison industrial complex across the spectrum ("Holding cell, holding cell / I can’t get well while you hold me"), the second verse points to a more healing future:
I want a quiet
life In a flat
with Church on a Sunday I got a voice
And I got a laugh
And I’ll use it one day
The Healing Project involves dozens of collaborators, among them Pinderhughes' own sister, the renowned flautist and vocalist Elena Pinderhughes. Elena is featured on the album and will appear in live performances alongside her brother; filmmaker Christian Padron collaborated on several music videos based on songs from the new album and additional films; and weaving/fiber artist Nnaemeka Ekwelum's series of brilliantly-colored, intricate "Grief Cloths" adorn the walls of the YBCA exhibition.
"When I was weaving the 'Grief Cloths,' I wasn't just thinking through my own personal grief," says Ekwelum, who started making the flowing sculptures from plastic lacing, yarn and other materials in response to his father's death in March 2021. "I was also thinking about the collective grief of this moment we're all living through, with so much despair, dysfunction and structural damage."
Ekwelum says the "Grief Cloths" not only embody personal and systemic grief, but also point towards healing.
"I'm coming into weaving from a place of anxiety or a deep sadness. And then by the end of the weaving process, I have this beautiful object that I've created from these difficult feelings being reflected back at me," he says. "I'm modeling a way to transform pain into something beautiful that doesn't eclipse the significance of what you're feeling, but can memorialize it in a way where you can look at it and accept the lessons from it without feeling totally deflated or intimidated by what it is."
The Healing Project also includes significant contributions from incarcerated people.
A small, blue-colored room in the corner of YBCA's galleries is devoted to select voices of the many people Pinderhughes interviewed for the project, heard via a looped audio feed. One is activist and artist Keith LaMar, a death row inmate in Ohio, who's been in solitary confinement for the past three decades. He is scheduled to be executed next year.
"The truly tragic element of my situation is that it's not personal," says LaMar (whose meditations can also be heard in a series of videos on social media featuring a sparse musical tracks by Pinderhughes). "This could happen to anybody."
Then there are the hand-drawn, black-and-white works on paper by Pitt Panther, such as representations of George Floyd and Black Power symbols. Panther is currently serving a prison sentence in Virginia.
"Pitt Panther sends me these pieces through the mail," says Pinderhughes. "He's one of my favorite artists in the world."
YBCA's Chief of Program Meklit Hadero says one of the powerful things about The Healing Project is that it centers real human lived experiences at the same time as exploring massive and seemingly intractable societal problems.
"A lot of times when we talk about these big systems, we talk about them from places of statistics or numbers or ways that feel so impersonal that things can get brushed aside," Hadero says. "It becomes real when it's about people."
Pinderhughes hopes The Healing Project will create space for people to come together to grieve, and mend, and ultimately imagine a more equitable future.
"It's my attempt," he says, "to communicate an abolitionist vision."