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'The Healing Project' Asks: How Do We Survive in America? And How Do We Heal?

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Man with dark hair and beard in denim jacket and white t-shirt standing in front of red wall art that says "The Healing Project" in a circle
Artist and activist Samora Pinderhughes is the force behind 'The Healing Project', a multidisciplinary art project about survival and healing.  (Chloe Veltman/KQED)

Samora Pinderhughes spent the past eight years exploring two questions.

“One is, how do we survive in America? And the other is how do we heal on a daily basis?” says the Bay Area-raised composer, pianist, filmmaker, singer and activist in an interview with KQED.

The result of his investigation is The Healing Project, a kaleidoscopic, highly collaborative creative endeavor comprised of a 15-track album; an exhibition at San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA); an audio archive of interviews with more than 100 people across 15 states who’ve encountered structural violence like incarceration, detention or community shootings in their daily lives; and a concert series, including a performance on Saturday, April 2, at Stanford Live.

“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?'”

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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.”

‘Grief Cloths’ by fiber artist Nnaemeka Ekwelum. Left-hand wall. ‘The Healing Project,’ installation view, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 2022. (Courtesy Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Photographs by Charlie Villyard. )

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.”

A selection of images by Pitt Panther. (Courtesy Pitt Panther)

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.”

‘The Healing Project’ runs through June 19 at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. More information here.

Samora Pinderhughes performs with Elena Pinderhughes, Howard Wiley, Marcus Shelby, and Bobby Gonz at the Bing Studio at Stanford on Saturday, April 2. Details here.

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