Amanda Williams’ latest multi-platform project ‘What Black Is This, You Say?’ examines Blackness in its multitude of variations

Amanda Williams’ latest multi-platform project ‘What Black Is This, You Say?’ examines Blackness in its multitude of variations
By Darcel Rockett

Blackout Tuesday, June 2, was over two months ago — the collective response, an action to racism and police brutality following the killings of George FloydAhmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor. Artist Amanda Williams — known for her “Color(ed) Theory” project wherein she painted condemned South Side houses in colors like Harold’s Chicken Shack red, Newport 100s teal, and Crown Royal bag purple to acknowledge the racially tinted architectonic blight of Black communities — got swept up in the moment, the day when millions of social media users posted a black square, alongside the hashtag #Blackouttuesday to show solidarity with the #Blacklivesmatter pairs.

According to a post on Williams’ Instagram page, she hates stuff like that — stuff being the overwhelming “sense of urgency” people have to have (a resolute answer or a finite way) that they can understand very complex things that have been going on a long time.

“In this instance it’s racism,” Williams said. “As an American society, we generally want to have an answer and feel better about it, whatever it is. Social media then exacerbates that. It’s 140 characters, if you have a Twitter account, and you got to respond to some comment that was made or not made on someone’s life we don’t’ even know.”

The Bronzeville resident’s response? Continuing her artistic practice of color theory, but this time, the focus color is black. It’s a series called “What Black is this, you say?” The premise: Various photos of black items posted on her Instagram account that are accompanied by text/caption that describes the hue at which you are looking. The words can be funny, or right on the nose.

“My beginning of the series was actually a little bit of a pushback both of the need for people to think there has to be an immediate answer, usually not a well thought out answer, and simultaneously that Blackness is monolithic,” Williams said. “So, all Black people need to get on board with subscribing to a certain way of expressing Blackness, or frustrations with injustice. And there’s less and less tolerance for more than one way to do that.”

Williams pondered how to bring that kind of nuance to the public and Black people — that sometimes you don’t want to embrace some identities or want to reject other identities that are part of Black history and ethos? How do you do all that in art while having the ability to poke at and use the instantaneousness of Instagram or a social media platform?

So far, Williams has posted over 80 nuanced looks of Blackness on her Instagram page. Some captions reflect a kinship among strangers through a shared experience like going to Evergreen Plaza in your youth or everybody’s grandmother having an Andriana Fur, another culturally collective/connected moment. According to Williams, in her using terms like “you, I, and we” brings it back to viewers having to confront whether that image represents you or not — that it is Black, but it not be “your Black.”

Other projects have come from Williams’ ongoing work on Blackness. EXPO CHICAGO extended an invitation for her and Erick Williams, chef/owner of Virtue restaurant to co-host a July 16th virtual dinner party, a first for the international exposition of contemporary and modern art called “Dine&.” The program pairs culinary experiences with conversations led by figures in Chicago’s artistic, cultural and business communities. According to Stephanie Cristello,artistic director of EXPO CHICAGO, Williams and Williams (no relation) conceived a four-course menu for participants to enjoy in their homes (with heating and plating instructions).

“There was black rice, black-eyed peas, blackened kale, purple carrots, beets, blackened salmon – all of these things that really play on that idea of Amanda’s work,” she said. “Even though everyone was joining virtually, they were able to taste and smell the exact same thing. It really was this sensorial experience for all of the participants. Amanda and Erick talked about issues of race embedded in Devil’s Food Cake vs. Angel Food Cake and Amanda was able to take that idea and talk about her use of language and the “What Black is this, you say?” series. It was a very different way of having this conversation about the everyday labels, things and tastes that we experience through art.”

Proceeds benefited Enrich Chicago, a nonprofit organization working to address systemic racism in the arts.

“What I love about Amanda’s work and what she’s getting at is one of the terrible byproducts of racism,” said Nina Sánchez, Enrich Chicago’s director. “There’s a dehumanization and there’s a flattening of our identity…there is no one type of Black experience, no culture, no people is a monolith. Part of what racism does is it dehumanizes and makes us be lumped together in ways that are not productive, in ways that are limiting. I would check Amanda’s Instagram on the regular. My colleague and I would read each other the caption for the day and chat about it over Zoom. That’s where I think the genius of Amanda’s work is, because how many dialogues and open forums can you have, right?”

Williams is still growing her Black multi-platform conceptual project. She’s transitioning some of her Instagram series photographs to paintings for an upcoming gallery exhibit. And Williams’ collaboration with EXPO and Open Editions yielded a set of six dinner napkins in different shades of black and textures. The collectibles were paired with an artist-designed swatch card, which features the fabrics in a conventional grid, paired with captions used in the original series. The product’s first run sold out since its launch July 16 (another is available for pre-order); the funds also given to Enrich Chicago, Williams’ choice.

“The moment of the universe, needing to talk about a difficult conversation, and my ongoing work where I’m always trying to find ways to insert difficult conversations into new spaces just aligned,” Williams said. “This is one of those moments where you seem like a genius because the work that you’ve been doing meets the moment. But artists are always working ... I’m always doing (work) around color having a dual meaning – it’s a chromatic material, a medium, but it’s also a racial signifier. Much of my work is grappling with that duality, how to bring to light that duality and the unique voice that people of color, especially in Chicago, have in expressing that duality in the way we move through the spaces of the city.”