Antoine WilliamsAn Interview with artist Antoine Williams

by Art + Dialogue intern Maddie Fritz

M: How has your style developed through the years and how did you, as an artist, arrive at the works that are featured in the show?

A: So, I started out being interested in science fiction, like watching graphic manga, beginning to get into hip hop and street art culture, and from there, I got into politics. Really just the combination of all three together: hip hop, science fiction, and politics. I began to incorporate these into my work and sought to satisfy all three. I drew figures from TV and from graffiti, and draw inspiration from industrial surfaces and found objects which have a socioeconomic or racial attachment to them. This show and its subject matter is really an extension of the work I already do. I kind of already made work about race and class, as an artist, you get to be around all types of people, so I’m really interested in that. This show is my practice.

M: How did you become an artist and are there specific life events that have impacted your work and/or contributed to your evolution as an artist?

A: I think I’ve always been a creative person, over time you come to realize that you’re an artist, and once you realize it you can do something with it. Honestly, I’ve always made work, but I think my work starts to get more political after the 2000 election, like when Bush didn’t win but he got elected, I thought something was weird about that, and then 9/11, where I would see things on television, and I would see an US tank blow up an Iraqi hospital, but then the news would talk about it as if it wasn’t a bad thing. And then you’d hear  politicians blatantly lie in the news. You know, what I would see with my eyes and what was being reported, I felt that something was wrong. I started to get more interested in why these things were happening like this. And as a grew up, there were things that I noticed, but when you’re young, you know, you hear things like, “black people aren’t that smart” or “black people aren’t as good at math” and then it would be explained away as “they have smaller brains” and I was thinking, you know, that can’t be true, but I didn’t know why. Why was it that a lot of people I knew were locked up? And it’s not because they were bad people, but they still ended up in jail. My art is me trying to figure that stuff out. Maybe a specific moment would be 9/11, but all my life I had these questions and they were all about race. But yeah, I’ve always had those questions and through my art I’ve tried to answer them or address them.

We’ve been made to believe that there’s one history. Take the Civil War, you’ve got an entirely different history when it’s told through the eyes of female slaves. In my work, I like to research these subjects and find out these things and then try to identify with them in a way. Like, why does America lock up so many more people? And let’s talk about that from the perspective of someone who can be one of those people. And this is perspective that you don’t see a lot. Or often not at all in mainstream society, or even in art.

M: Is there anything you want to tell young people who are growing up with and facing this level of racial tension in their country? Also, is it that racial violence is broadcast more often or because the violence is more prevalent?

A: It’s not more prevalent, white cops have been killing black people since there were black people in America. I think this goes into perspective. You talk to a lot of black people and they’ll tell you that this is nothing new. Black people have been saying the exact same thing, a lot of these cops are crooked and a lot of these cops beat people up. Mainstream society does not listen and it’s not until they actually, it’s sad, but you have to get it on camera for people to see. Because of technology, I think that’s what’s changed, now we’ve got the technology for people to see it. And I’m interested in, now that people are seeing it, what’s next? What are we going to do to change our lives, what part of this is going to be used as a political tool, is this going to lead to progress? I think that oftentimes with race, the conversation in mainstream society is not often with young people, but you go to tumblr or twitter and you’re able to have more nuanced conversations. And that’s why I think a lot of young people can benefit. 

So, with young people, I mean, need to put your voice out there and I wouldn’t be afraid to say what we feel. But, there’s a lot of venues, and often times I don’t think people look at art as a venue to put out things they want to say. I think oftentimes it’s easy to feel isolated and as if you are all alone in the world. There’s other people out there. But yeah, I think they just have to keep on. And also, they need to have, like, I mean I’m thirty-five so, I guess that sixteen-year-old will have to deal with that pain and maybe I won’t. But, I think, you know, I was talking about nuance, but the bigger issue really is structural changes, like racism. Past structural changes are why a lot of these young black people are being killed by cops. I feel even, more of a shift towards that, rather than like intra/interpersonal, because that’s what’s going to matter. You bring in a disproportionate number of black and latino out of poverty, and give them more education, more opportunity, and all of these things matter, but it’s a hard conversation. For young people of color, it’s just important to have these kinds of conversations. For young black people, it’s like, don’t be afraid to have these conversations. I think we’re in a new realm because we have this technology that we didn’t have before. Oftentimes I think of how things would have been different, like the Civil Rights Movement. The struggle is not going to look like what it did in 1954, the problem is there a lot of people who are still stuck there. And it’s like, no, it’s going to look different and we may have the same problems. A lot of young people don’t learn anything and that’s one of the frustrations that comes in. Media still comes into play. Like, when Obama said the n-word, people were just shocked that he said the n-word, rather than what he was talking about. And that’s a very old way of thinking. You know, younger people don’t care as much. But yeah, I’m ranting, I hope somewhere in there there’s an answer.

M:  How does your work ignite these conversations that are so necessary?

A: Well, yeah, and here’s what I try to do with my work: so I have these creatures and I want them to suggest a certain ethnicity and a certain class, right? But I also want to suggest a certain mood. So I may want something to look somewhat threatening or suggest something’s in peril. [Regarding his work ‘North Charleston’] I hope that there’s a certain tension in that piece. That piece is about interactions that a lot of black people have with cops and that tension that happens there. So if you’re not black or you just have a great relationship with cops, I can tell you all day how horrible that is, but some people just can’t relate because, you know, they’ve never been there. But, I think, tension, people understand fear. People understand joy and happiness. I’m trying to, through my personal experiences or experiences that I can relate to, I’m trying to translate through universal emotions of fear, pain. I think people can understand that. You may not know what it’s like to be pulled over by a cop, but everyone still understands fear. And that’s what I’m trying to get across. I’m not necessarily trying to answer the question, but am trying to put things out there. So, I want people to have a more gut response to my work and then let’s talk about that. It’s hard to convince people that ‘cops treat me differently’ but it’s much easier to communicate fear. If this induces fear, then that’s what I’m feeling, that’s what it’s like.

Antoine Williams has original work featured in the Art + Dialogue show in the Cowan Humanities Building at Greensboro College.

For more information on Antoine Williams and his work, please visit www.rawgoods.org.

Art + Dialogue:  Responding to Racial Tension in America

Sept. 24 – Oct. 11  @  Greensboro College

Art + Dialogue (A + D) is a collaborative project bringing community together using visual art as the catalyst for dialogues around racial tension in America. A + D aspires to make the issue of race and racial tensions more tangible to its audiences and participants and promote greater understanding of different perspectives and experiences.

For a full calendar of events, click HERE.


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