Chicago Artist Explores Blackness as Both a Color and Identity in New Exhibit

For the first time ever, the arts nonprofit 3Arts is gifting a trio of past grant recipients with a second award — this time, for $50,000. 

Among those recipients is Chicago-based artist and architect Amanda Williams, whose latest exhibition responds to the social media trend Blackout Tuesday, in which Instagram users posted black squares to show solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. 

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“In a city like Chicago and growing up black on the South Side, you cannot ever be separated from your race,” Williams said.

For the past six months, she has been identifying a different “black” every day on Instagram. It has since turned into the exhibit, “What black is this you say?

“So this is a great way to really dissect to minutia, which part of your Black. Is it the Black where you put sugar on your Frosted Flakes? Or is it the Black that you think you’re better because you know which fork to use to eat your shrimp at a fancy event? So it really does cross generations, regions, socioeconomic status and chromatic color that in fact no one is Black. There are very dark-skinned and very light-skinned people, but that blackness is something that either you choose to embody, or there are ranges of it that are projected onto you.”

Now on display at the Rhona Hoffman Gallery, Williams brings her digital images to life with oil paints on canvas.

“The emphasis then in translating that into an artistic format is that these are very dark greens and blues and purples, and sometimes browns. But none of that is black,” Williams said. “It works at three scales, small scales of water colors that mimic the intimacy of the screen. Then to scale up to a medium and high size.”

The square color swatches are accompanied by descriptions of the type of black like, “Birdwatching could’ve caused your death black,” or “red Kool-Aid black.”

“It’s a gentle way to poke at people rethinking who they are and who they want to be in this moment when the universe has given us a chance to do different things,” William said.

For Williams, this series is about giving Black people an opportunity to identify their blackness, while recognizing and respecting how it might be different from someone else’s.

“The ability to define ourselves for ourselves is critical and something we’ve not been able to do. We never get to the point where we can think about how we can do it a little bit better, because we’re so busy trying to stay alive. So the hope and wish of this work is that you get a moment to think about it,” Williams said. “We’ve also lost sight of the ability to be different and to be ok with being different because we’re so used to being forced to have to either be in step or not.”

Follow Angel Idowu on Twitter: @angelidowu3

Angel Idowu is the JCS Fund of the DuPage Foundation Arts Correspondent.

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