This essay was produced in conjunction with the exhibition Peter Williams: With So Little To Be Sure Of, curated by Larry Ossei-Mensah, on view at CUE Art Foundation, February 23 - March 29, 2018. This text is included in the free exhibition catalogue available at CUE.
“Huge amounts of medical and scientific scholarship have been devoted to the question (assuming it is a question) of what kind of species Black people are and what characteristics they possess.”
- Toni Morrison “The Origin of Others”
Painter and mixed media artist, Peter Williams unpacks troubling histories of white supremacy and systemic oppression to create revelatory collective narratives about the persistence of violence against Black bodies. The devastating trend of unwarranted killings of Black boys and men at the hands of police officers, most of whom escaped federal conviction, catalyzed a departure from Williams’s lighter, more spiritual and reverent figurative abstract-portraiture towards more traumatic motifs. His latest body of work, With So Little To Be Sure Of, interrogates the systems and industries that perpetuate and uphold operational practices, legislation, and ideologies that normalize the dehumanization, subjugation, disenfranchisement and belittlement of African Americans. In With So Little To Be Sure Of, Williams’s focus on Black identity centers on the most devastating and distressing depictions of subjugation: naked, pants around ankles, cannibalized, bullet-riddled, beaten, choked, molested, brutalized, castrated, lynched, decapitated. At the core of the work, beyond the artist’s cathartic and obsessive need to reinterpret such vicious violations, is a call to action, a call to bear witness and awaken from what he believes is “an overwhelming cultural apathy.”
After encountering the collection for the first time, I was left with more questions than answers. I wondered about the artist’s intentions. Can artwork that is so heavily triggering catalyze anything more than lethargic indifference or rage? Is the contemporary art world stuck in a Black-death-porn loop, that reveres and collects portrayals of violence more than depictions of Black joy? I also thought about definitions—long histories of supremacist categorization and Othering that have enabled, and vehemently reinforced, violence against Black bodies. How can an artwork that documents centuries of atrocity be anything but horrific?
Each painting is a spectacle, a window that peers into an unsettling scene in which surreal figurations have been subject to ruthless acts, with some rendered inept by the abuses they have suffered. Williams presents conceptual notions about space and the figure that have distinct narratives, situated within American history, as well as global colonial histories. The characters Williams illustrates are embedded with familiar allegories from American popular culture, radical political satire and African cosmologies. The artist also draws from classical architecture, and stylistic approaches engaged by Post Impressionists, Pointillists and Spanish Renaissance artists like El Greco. Archival prints of American lynchings have an especially resonant influence on the collection. Black men are largely portrayed as jesters, hanging bodies, or passive and humiliated victims. The act of re-envisioning stereotypical or defiled Black characters recalls the artistry of Michael Ray Charles, whose repurposed 19th century minstrel propaganda works to expose both the subtle and overt dehumanizing characterizations of race in western popular culture. Or Emory Douglas who developed empowering imagery for the Black Panther Party that likened corrupt police officers to pigs, and showcased Black bodies as valiant heroes within their communities. Williams also activates the symbology of the pig to represent whiteness, not just as a body, or subject devoid of racial distinction, but as a defiant effigy for the greater apparatus in which America functions and enforces its power through varied institutional structures. Like Douglas, Williams’s pigs also wear police uniforms and are often placed in direct conflict with Black male figurations. In some instances, the pigs surround and attack Black bodies. In other scenes, Black representations tame the pigs as if they were lions in a Barnum and Bailey side show.
Williams critiques power by displaying it as an excessive physicality between polarized subjects: the victim and the victimizer. This power play is particularly apparent in the paintings Dance, 2017, Resistance, 2017, and Resistance II, 2017. In Dance, three figures, two pig-policemen and an African American man, struggle at the forefront of a tense scene. The red coloring of a stop sign in the background bleeds across the canvas and obscures jagged fragments from the pig-policemen’s blue bodies. The composition captures an aggressive accosting of the man, whose face expresses anguish and confusion at the forcefulness of the pig-policemen’s actions. The frame traps the man between the pigs, as his body, head and one of his hands are contorted into painful angular positions. In Resistance and Resistance II, the African American man is a jester, a Yoruba inspired Esù-Elègbàra trickster, who taunts and tames the pigs in abstract circus arenas. In both compositions, the pigs are depicted as gigantic monsters, stripped of power, and controlled by the jester, who is victorious despite being dwarfed by the size of the pig-policemen.
Each character is a hyper-realized personification, an identity flattened of nuance or complexity to reify racial stereotypes. The work is blatant and jarring because it seeks to declare unabashedly that violence against Black bodies is pandemic. To view the work is to rupture any illusions about a post-racial America. To observe the work is to be reminded that America’s colonial, segregationist, and supremacist histories persist. Williams’s caricatures of violence are timely testaments about the pervasiveness of grotesque racialized exploitation. One of the most alarming aspects of the collection is the style Williams engages to reveal the violence. Barbarism is simulated as bright, whimsical acts that recall the aesthetics of animations from the early twentieth century. Many of the animations produced by major and independent companies in the 1940s and 50s left an indelible imprint on Williams, not only because of the rampant, often joyous displays of violence, but also the normalization of racially insensitive depictions of non-white figurations. The colorful palette Williams employs and the glee with which the caricatures impose their power, invokes a similarly tantalizing and disgusting abjection. In the painting, Mosaic, 2017, a Black artist stands painting at the sidelines of a dense landscape filled with smiling portraits of pig-policemen. Variations of red mosaic engulf the canvas. Smaller frames depicting distressing scenes cut through the mosaic: a pig-policeman shooting a man, a decapitated head, a battered man. Mosaic speaks to the layered ways violence against Black bodies is framed by national media outlets; the policeman is always determined to be innocent despite evidence of misconduct.
Williams’s examination of the interplay between America’s fetishization and abhorrence of violence as it relates to contemporary civil rights presents a profoundly revelatory critique about the gaze and the universalization of observed violations against Black bodies. Bearing witness is a confrontational negotiation, a reflective assessment that is as much about the reaction of the viewer as it is about the content. Williams joins a controversial canon alongside other contemporary artists like Dread Scott, Kara Walker, and Makode Linde, among others, whose stark imagery, sourced from painful colonial histories, elicits a critical engagement between the viewers and the traumas portrayed. To view their works is to be implicated in brutal narratives that fostered the development of powerful nation-states around the world. In the last decade, the evolution and accessibility of handheld recording devices and social media archives have escalated the documentation and global relay of site-specific traumas. The ability to document and share instances that once happened in isolation and at the mercy of the testimony of police officers, has facilitated new hopes for real accountability. This documentation has also increased the immediacy of the gaze, and incites stark polarity in the responsiveness of viewers who are either emboldened to engage in organized collective disobedience or lulled into numb disinvestment. Williams’s series of paintings overwhelms viewers to move past a voyeuristic position, and to critically reflect on their roles as they observe harrowing offenses. Will they accept that violence against Black bodies is not imagined? If so, will they continue to peaceably watch as it occurs? The blunt realities visualized in the series are difficult to ignore.
Sandra Bland, 2016 recalls the horrid and avoidable death of the activist and educator who died mysteriously while in police custody at a Waller County Texas jail. The painting, Sandra Bland shows a nude woman, hands and arms bound behind her back as she is consumed by a large blue-eyed white characterization. Small Black bodies, limbs and eyes ooze out of the pores and orifices of the massive head, formed by an amalgamation of what it has consumed. The massive head stares blankly into the distance, tilts backwards, and swallows the woman’s body whole. My experience of viewing was one of visceral nausea. Every part of my being tensed and grieved over the hopelessness of the image. Williams’s paintings are charged by such traumas, the repetitive egregious and inconceivable actions that are inflicted upon Black citizenry.
With So Little To Be Sure Of documents white supremacist violence as an all-encompassing, cannibalizing monstrosity that devours itself as it consumes Others. Histories of violence are mirrored in the contemporary moment. The lynching of 1890 recurs in New Hampshire in 2017. Enslavement in 1690 is echoed in the labor models upheld within the contemporary Prison Industrial Complex. The Black Codes of the Jim Crow South have evolved into racial profiling, stop-and-frisk, and minimum sentencing legislation. History is now. Williams engages this vicious cycle, mocks it, and displays it with a striking peculiarity that tugs at the nonsensical realities that allow the violence to recur. With So Little To Be Sure Of haunts our cultural imagination with the nightmares that African Diasporic identities have been forced to adapt to and survive. No one is safe. All voyeurs, including the artist, are charged and queried.
This essay was written as part of the Art Critic Mentoring Program, a partnership between AICA-USA (US section of International Association of Art Critics) and CUE, which pairs emerging writers with AICA-USA mentors to produce original essays on a specific exhibiting artist. Please visit aicausa.org for more information on AICA-USA, or cueartfoundation.org to learn how to participate in this program. Any quotes are from interviews with the author unless otherwise specified. No part of this essay may be reproduced without prior consent from the author. Lilly Wei is AICA’s Coordinator for the program this season.
Angela N. Carroll is an artist-archivist, a purveyor and investigator of art history and culture in Washington, D.C., Maryland, and Virginia. Carroll contributes contemporary art, performance, and film criticism for BmoreArt Magazine, ARTS.BLACK, Sugarcane Magazine, and Umber Magazine. She received her MFA in Digital Arts and New Media from the University of California at Santa Cruz and currently teaches within the Film and Moving Image program at Stevenson University in Baltimore, Maryland.
Mentor Sara Reisman is the Artistic Director of the Shelley & Donald Rubin Foundation, whose mission is focused on art and social justice in New York City. Recently curated exhibitions for the foundation include Mobility and Its Discontents, Between History and the Body, and When Artists Speak Truth, all three presented on The 8th Floor. From 2008 until 2014, Reisman was the director of New York City’s Percent for Art program where she managed more than 100 permanent public art commissions for city funded architectural projects, including artworks by Mierle Laderman Ukeles, Mary Mattingly, Tattfoo Tan, and Ohad Meromi, among others for civic sites like libraries, public schools, correctional facilities, streetscapes and parks. She was the 2011 critic-in-residence at Art Omi, and a 2013 Marica Vilcek Curatorial Fellow, awarded by the Foundation for a Civil Society.