Brittney Leeanne Williams: Juxtaposing Black Bodies
by Cynthia Short
On February 16. 2017, Northwestern University welcomed Black History Month with open arms, celebration and art. Multiple events were held, including a showcase involving a piece by one Brittney Leeanne Williams. Neither Free | Nor” was promised to focus on the tension between the black and white community. It was to illuminate how both parties inhabiting the same place contributed to the unrest, forcing them to put aside their differences and evolve. After analyzing the way 20th century white male artists had pervaded the market with their own ideas of aesthetic, she decided to use those images as a background of African American stories that were less lively: lynchings and other happenings that don’t fit the posh privileged narrative.
Juxtaposing black truth and white reality results in a cognitive dissonance, the state of having thoughts, beliefs, or attitudes that are at odds with each other, especially when it comes to influencing behavior. It invites a sense of rest and accomplishment and then pulls the rug out from under the viewer, as if to say ‘How can you rejoice at this?” It refuses to let our trauma be swept under the rug, while honoring the black body for all it’s overcome.
Williams, while understanding the importance of black history month, believes that it falls short in terms of recognizing African Americans.
“We [as citizens] know that for 365 days a year there are devastating narratives about blackness and black people,” she said, adding, as a society, we should focus on black history all year.
It was open to the public, from 10am to 10 pm, the entire week, up until March 28th. I, like Williams, believes that this is not enough time to showcase our races struggles and triumph. I hope that, through this article, a deep sense of appreciation for our black artists and black culture will be born in those who see it.
Born and raised in Los Angeles, California, Williams is the product of her mother’s firm encouragement. She attended a Chinese school in Alhambra, California. As such, she existed between two worlds, battling the enhanced feeling of not belonging. Her education did benefit her. The exposure to other sides of the human coin resulted in a unique perspective of beauty and attraction. “Tape, Smiles and Peace Signs” illustrates her youthful beliefs and paths through topics such as identity, ethnicity, and self-beauty standards.
She attended The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, held a residency at the University of Chicago, Hyde Park Art Center, and other places.
This artist has all but marked America as hers, with artwork exhibited from Chicago to Miami, Wisconsin to Missouri. She does conceptual work, and did the set designs for Self-Deportation, which has aired in an international film festival. She has been commissioned by Acme Hotel, Oak Park City and a few private collectors. Even Venice Italy was not safe from her genius.
It takes a special sort of thought process to create things of this caliber, which doesn’t come from traditional schooling. Surely, it was a mixture of her mother’s rearing and her own greatness-geared mindset. Williams quotes her interest in the African American body as “a site of suffering, mourning and memorialization” that it is still able to transform and overcome. Fairfield Porter, David Hockney and Alex Katz are artists she’s drawn color pallets from to create a sort of language found in the bodies in her art.. These figures, red instead of the traditional black, are built by exposing personal family troubles and incorporating issues that plague the collective black experience. Then she draws the background, a sort of stage for them to live and bleed upon, based from childhood recollection, flat fields of color and late 1900s-era artists. Through their interaction with the environment, Williams weaves tales of systematic onslaughts that string the body up to match its narrative. These effigies are purposely contorted, so that the physical matches the psychological symptoms.
The artist points out the possibility the viewer is at two landscapes in one frame, admitting that she has reconfigured our idea of space. The red color is born of her interest in the body “emitting a signal.” Red is an attention grabber, like the flash of an ambulance or the bloodshed behind a flag. Through this and all the other factors, Williams visually converses with us. She silently discusses the agony of existing in our skin, the bones that are embedded in us. They crack and moan as we move and in every sub-community occupied by us, the bones get louder, more demanding, until it cultivates into a perturbing chorus. As oppressed individuals, our tongue grow tired of explaining just how we are oppressed we are. Such art is the bridge between the sore throat and the resistant spectator.
My personal favorite of Williams’ is the above painting. At the initial glance, we see a party. The building behind the table resembles a church. We see everyone engaged in conversation. We see a woman, who may be looking for her kids, about to reprimand them for something or another. As we look closer, we see a shape in the trees. A body, hung. We don’t know who it is or was. We cannot tell if it were a child or adult. No one else notices its existence at all. So is the story of black trauma in America. Even in a place of acceptance, we are still invisible.
Williams’s decision to name her show “Neither | Free Nor,” came after reading Galatians 3:28. It explains that the body and the spirit that inhabits it is neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, male nor female, but all of these things in Jesus Christ. Her landscape paintings illustrate this, as there are two sides of these works. The art is neither devastating nor peaceful, innocent or gut wrenching, sensitive or disturbing. It is both these things, in the truth of life and art. You cannot tell white joy without black pain. You cannot converse on black anger and malcontent without revealing the system that breeds this while white peace.
“My main desire is for people to be challenged by my two-dimensional paintings,” Williams tells the Chicago Citizen, “and for the gallery to be a space of healing, exchange, dialogue and an encouragement space where people can see not just a show with pieces on a wall,” she said. “But [my] ideas and concepts [which will] make them think about black history and black people.”
At any given time, we exist between countless worlds and we don’t often get the best of them. And maybe that’s our fault. Or maybe it’s our purpose, to rewrite the stories of everything we touch, every object we orbit, so that its manifestation is no less honest but the truth can be much less haunting.
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