'It's time to broaden what the definition of black art means' | KUOW News and Information

'It's time to broaden what the definition of black art means'

Feb 23, 2018

Carol Rashawnna Williams is a visual artist in Seattle. Climate change is a frequent subject for her.

She believes art can be a powerful medium to help people understand the connections between climate change and racial inequality.


“It’s directly related to race, although it’s never talked about that way,” she said. “Communities that are usually affected the most by climate change are communities of color.”

But Williams told KUOW’s Kim Malcolm that some people have questioned the nature of her work as a black artist.

Williams said that a few years ago, a well-known artist came to her studio to evaluate her for an award.

And when she saw Williams' work, she asked:

“Where are the black people? Where is the representation of African-Americans in your work?”

Transcript

WILLIAMS: And I was shocked by that question. There's this notion about what is supposed to be black art. And because we live in a society where there's institutionalized oppression and racism and all those isms, what comes out of that is this ideal that black art is supposed to represent black people.

And I definitely believe there was a time in American history where that was extremely important because there were no images — positive images — of African-Americans. And now today the art world is saturated with artwork that is done by African-Americans and usually the top four topics have to either do with slavery or oppression, have to do with music or sports.

And it's not that I don't think those are important, but I think that it's time to broaden what the definition of black art means.

And after that comment was made about my work, I was like, wow. The statement was said in a way that was like, 'You would become way more prominent if you had people of color in your imagery.' And the art world expects that of people of color. And the system expects that of people of color.

And so there's this box that, and I don't think that it just happens with African-Americans, I think it's across the spectrum. I think that artists of color are expected to create art that represents their particular culture. Well I'm an American. That's my culture.

And I am African-American, and there are pieces that seep through my art in terms of that as well.

MALCOLM: If that jurist walked into your studio today what would you want to say to them now?

Carol Rashawnna Williams
Credit Courtesy of Carol Rashawnna Williams

WILLIAMS: I think my answer would be: What makes me a black artist or an African-American artist or an artist of color or whatever you want to identify me as is the fact that I paint. It's the fact that I even have the resilience to get up and put paint to canvas or paint to paper.

And so the fact that I'm even in the position to be able to be thinking about these concepts and to be able to put it on paper is very important. And that in itself is an act of resilience which makes me black.

Carol Rashawnna Williams is part of the Artifacts Seattle Arts Collective. Their show, "We Almost Didn't Make It," runs at the Center on Contemporary Art through Feb. 24.