Peter Williams @ MOCAD & Trinosophes

Where do Black people go during times fraught with pain and sorrow?

Installation Image Peter Williams: Black Universe, MOCAD

Peter Williams’ query is one with a storied lineage within the Black community. Over the course of 45 years, Williams, a senior professor of painting at the University of Delaware with time spent in the Detroit arts community and as a professor at Wayne State University, has tackled problematic social structures of white supremacy and discrimination with uncensored perspectives. Curious and inquisitive, he is often in a state of mental travel and critical culture investigation within his practice.

These themes set the foundation of Peter Williams: Black Universe, an Afro-futuristic narrative that takes the viewer on a journey through consciousness and pursuit of a better life. Within this universe, Williams creates a melanated race who travels to outer space with hopes to discover new planet homes and an end to systemic constructs of oppression, racism and injustice.

Co-curated by Larry Ossei-Mensah and Rebecca Mazzei, Peter Williams: Black Universe exhibits at Trinosophes and Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD) through January 21, 2021. The installation is experimental and actively fuses abstract strokes with contemporary figuration. Narration and Transitions at Trinosophes begins as a meditation. Its energizing colors, use of repetition and symmetric designs flirt with sensuality, sarcasm, spirituality and identity. Through use of abstraction, Mazzei notes that the viewer is experiencing a “painter’s painter” working through ideas and experiments that create space to sort through ideas.

Peter Williams, OWL, 2019, Oil on Canvas; 24×20 inches

 

Peter Williams, SQUEEZE II, Oil on Canvas; 24×30 inches

Bird Man closes Narration and Transitions. The active piece steers from the serene and transitions to dark humor and an evolving narrative. The larger canvas preludes Williams’ Black Exodus suite of paintings on view at MOCAD. The figurative composition is a self-portrait of the artist after a major surgery. A bit disoriented, the subject sits, appearing unbothered, in the middle of the frame with a dragon devouring his slumped body. Movement seems to be controlled by the wizardry figure in the lower right corner raising its wand. This sense of energy and twist on a thematic composition that could be viewed as defeat, may be informing what’s to come.

Peter Williams, BIRD MAN, 2019 Oil on Canvas; 48×60 inches

 

Peter Williams, SPECTACLE, 2019, OIL ON CANVAS, 48×48 inches

MOCAD’s Black Exodus gets to the gristle of the narrative using color as a luring factor toward bigger ideas and societal confrontations on large canvas. Here, Williams uses dark humor, allegory, art history, and witty satire as a way to challenge us to confront the truths about society and ourselves.

In Spectacle, blackness is on display. The tone is blunt and touches on the eerie and invasive feeling of being watched and observed. The figures are constructing the building blocks of their new alien planet. Wearing garments from historical myths, they have a heightened awareness of their surroundings but make no effort to perform, if you will, or oblige the onlookers’ expectation for something to happen. The last laugh, however, is owned by the “spectacle” with his sharp, hard gaze refocusing the lens by peering through a monocle implying a shared curiosity and the discomfort of surveillance.

Peter Williams, BLACK PEOPLE’S OIL, 2019, Oil on Canvas, 72×96 inches

Ossei-Mensah worked with Williams in 2018, for a show at the CUE Art Foundation, and speaks to the allure of Williams’ knowledge and experimentation with color theory. “It’s a common place to enter while suggesting that you spend more time not only looking at the full picture composition but paying attention to the details,” he says. “These are the little norms that I think make Peter such an incredible, not only artist but just a thinker reflecting on the Black experience.”

Peter Williams, ROCKETTRY, 2019, OIL ON CANVAS, 60×72 inches

The central element in Black People’s Oil  is the figure trudging through swamp-like oil in a spacesuit emblazoned with ‘Black Lives Matter’ on the front and the letters ‘B L M’ scrolled on the arm of the suit. A ‘BP Oil’ blimp flies above, likely referencing the 2010 oil spill that deeply affected the Gulf of Mexico and another flying car resembling the Pan African flag reads ‘Black People.’ A goggle lens frames the Black figure in the space suit. The piece is a complex visual suggesting routes of escape, but also questioning if that means something better or the type of desired difference that alleviates one from oppression and despair.

Rockettry doesn’t answer that but serves as a call to action. Here, Williams paints a community of people working together to build their mode of transportation and way out of a corrupt and disastrous planet. Car parts and tools are scattered, men and women work individually and collaboratively on vehicles. There’s a lot of  movement on canvas that offers commentary on the inventiveness that can be birthed within a confined environment. The details are pivotal as Ossei-Mensah references. Notice the brown man slumped over holding cans of fuel cell,  another holding his Cuba identification card, and a  community member wearing a shirt that reads: Roses are red/violets enjoyable/don’t blame the Mexicans cause your unemployable. In the upper right corner, a burnt orange, sun-like shape overlooks the community working to create a way out, but this is not a beam of light. The words: Fascist, Pigs, KKK, FBI, Lies, Bitch, Ice, Trump with multiple HaHas are carved on the figure. The community continues on their mission.

I Fell From the Sky references the history of painting the human form. We see astronauts floating in a “suspended state of consciousness” and uncertainty regarding their future – a testament to the present day in the midst of a global health pandemic,  hyper-visible racial and political tensions. The astronauts hands are  covered with white gloves, referencing the minstrel show and television shows illustrating Black people as cartoon buffoons. The visual statement traces a traumatic past that has seeped into mainstream consciousness in various forms from  — some of which holding such an aesthetic appeal the foundational roots have been obstructed from memory or a desire to know. But Williams doesn’t paint frivolously. History is significant even while the artist deciphers thoughts and colliding worlds.

The figure at the core of the canvas is flying in a space suit designed with stitches of Kente cloth – an homage to Ghana in West Africa. The symbolism here is communication. Gold articulates status and serenity; yellow is fertility; green speaks to renewal; blue aligns with spirit and harmony; red is passion and black represents a union with ancestors and spiritual awareness. These elements arrive in the conscious state, perhaps serving as a guided language for Williams while conceptualizing the series and dialogue that discusses the Black experience.

Peter Williams, I FELL FROM THE SKY, 2019, OIL ON CANVAS, 72×96 inches

Peter Williams is an educator and artist with the condition of Black lives always at the forefront of his creative transport. In Black Universe, we journey along an experiential thinker and conversationalist en route to another world within and beyond the known. He extends the invitation to use your imagination when digesting the complexity of his works and exploring how to come to terms with the world that presently exists. The solution does not rest in escapism that suggests something new is better, but the power to choose and decide how to make the lives we lead on this planet our version of utopia.

Peter Williams at MOCAD (Museum of Contemporary Art – Detroit) and Trinosophes.

*Writer’s Note: Thank you to Rebecca Mazzei,  Larry Ossei- Mensah  and Zeb Smith for conversation and insight.

Queen @ Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History

Queen: From The Collection of CCH Pounder on exhibition at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History

Queen exhibition at Charles Wright Museum install image courtesy of LaToya Cross

“This looks like a movie set,” exclaimed a youthful voice. The brown boy was on a school trip to the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History and expressed his awe and excitement as he and classmates swirled through the ‘Queen’ exhibit.

A movie set? I could see that. When you enter the AT&T Gallery at the Wright, there is a richness  in the collection and a feeling that you’re in the presence of stars.

On loan to the museum by award-winning actress and avid art collector CCH Pounder ( NCIS: New Orleans), the pieces are from her private collection and during my visit, (prior to Gov. Whitaker’s ‘Stay at Home’ executive order due to the vast spread of COVID-19), the Wright had recently received a new visual bringing the exhibition to a total of 53 artworks that explore Black women across four themes: beauty, agency, strength and dignity. The makers of the paintings, mixed-media installations and sculptures are artists from across the African Diaspora.

Curated by Sarah Anita Clunis, Ph.D., from Xavier University of Louisiana,  “Beauty” opens the gallery space and immediately I am fascinated with Willow Moon  by the late Jamaican painter and mixed-media artist, Tamara Natalie Madden. The woman’s brown skin brushed with rich golden hues and highlights of oranges and reds is illuminating. The definition of the collar bone teases the subject’s soft sensuousness.

Tamara Natalie Madden (Jamaican), Willow Moon, “30 x 20”  Oil on canvas, 2009

In Madden’s work, allegories are significant. There’s a mirrored likeness between the woman and the bird perched on her fingers, from the color palette to the focused gaze in their curled eyes. The bird cameo (a staple in Madden’s paintings) represents struggle, survival and freedom – an offering of the makers’ personal story and battle with a rare form of cancer that led to her passing in 2017. The body is adorned by a quilt with intricately designed fabrics. This attention given to the detailed threads is a compliment to Madden’s Jamaican roots where quilting is a form of familial storytelling and clothing complements one’s essential beauty. An aura is projected evoking a message of divine femininity.

Steve Prince’s Angela, Messenger of God follows this artistic motif in relation to spirit and divinity. The hoop earrings and afro puffs make Angela’s spiritual prowess relatable to the everyday girl. Her posture is bold yet relaxed and absent of worry while owning space and possibly controlling the elements surrounding her. The grayscale drawing is symbolically complex but there’s evidence of floating hearts, stretched out hands, and feminine-structured silhouettes. The motion and rhythm in Prince’s line strokes appear as guided spirits dancing amid the stillness of “the messenger.”

Steve Prince Angela, Messenger of God, 48 x 84”, Conte’,  201

A loving and nurturing essence exudes in Earth Mother, a charcoal rendering by Yrneh Gabon Brown. Originally part of Brown’s installation, Memba Mi Tell Yu (Listen Up, Take Note) that addresses climate change and the effect it has on the California ecosystem, respect and care for the environment is represented in this work. She is a source of life, spirituality and healing. She is soft but not fragile and always a warrior.

Yrneh Gabon Brown, Earth Mother, 78 x 53”  Charcoal, 2017

Kine Aw (Senegalese), Coiffeur, 78 x 52” Acrylic, oil and tar, *year not provided*

Memories of going to the hair salon  prompted my liking of Coiffeur;  the coming-of-age essence of getting your hair done in momma’s kitchen and as we got older, your homegirl’s house and eventually graduating to the physical salon or “shop”. The flowy, cool colors and swaying nature of body posture in Kine Aw’s painting feels like a breezy Saturday afternoon among sisters, not necessarily by blood but cultural kinship.

Fritz Koenig (German), Bust of an African Woman, 31 x 20” Bronze, mother of pearl, and marble, 1969

When considering agency, and occupancy of space, women of color have often felt unwelcomed and isolated. The idea that women, Black women specifically, are not enough is an obsolete ideology that is debunked throughout the exhibition. The  slight smile and lifted chin, regal stones, sophisticated clothing and oozing confidence in Bust of an African Woman speaks to ancestry and legacy. With imagination at play, this is my grandmother dressed to mingle and socialize with her peers. The story has a simple theme: dignity.

If I were to create a soundtrack to this exhibition, I’d blend album cuts from Lauryn Hill’s The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, Jamila Woods’ Legacy! Legacy!  and Rapsody’s Eve, making a bold musical gumbo that feeds the soul with honesty, vulnerability and revelation about the depths of womanhood and the Black experience. The artwork for its release would be Harmonia Rosales’ The Birth of Oshun. The intricately detailed  painting is rooted in traditional Nigerian storytelling and shifts the narrative of Sandro Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, an early renaissance rendering that depicts a white Venus with white Angels flying among her.

Rosales, a contextually clever artist, centers Oshun, painted nude with gold patches representative of the goddesses’ vitiligo, in a seashell surrounded by water and Black angels. The visual is aesthetically appealing and reels you in to the arrival of a deity–pure, sacred and powerful.

Harmonia Rosales (Afro-Cuban American), 55 x 67”, The Birth of Oshun Oil on linen, 2017

‘Queen’ is a visceral experience. The collection encourages the viewer to connect with history, appreciate the present, and admire beauty. We’re taken around the globe with an open invitation to experience a cohesive and complex story that celebrates femininity, identity, power and makings of the Black woman. Perhaps, revealing to the young brown boy visiting with his class that melanated women are indeed, movie star status.

Writer’s Note: Special thank you to Arielle Wallace, Coordinator, External Affairs and Jennifer Evans, Assistant Curator at Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History for their assistance in providing images and artist credits for this review.

*Due to the COVID-19 pandemic and Gov. Whitmer’s extended ‘Stay Home, Stay Safe’ order,  the Charles H. Wright Museum is closed until further notice.