“What black is this, you say?”

Amanda Williams at Rhona Hoffman Gallery


“What black is this, you say?”, Amanda Williams’ solo exhibition at the Rhona Hoffman Gallery, emerged from the crucible of summer 2020, when the death of George Floyd propagated a wave of outrage. On Blackout Tuesday—June 2nd, 2020—more than 28 million Instagram users dutifully changed their profile pictures to black squares. As Williams explains in an artist’s statement, she rose to the occasion in her own distinctive way:

I’ll be honest: I wasn’t feeling the black out. I hate stuff like that, but I caved. Wanted to be in solidarity. But Color is everything to me. You can’t just say ‘black’… which one? So I’m gonna inaugurate a different black each day until I don’t feel like it anymore. Why? Cuz I’m black and I can!

Best known for “Color(ed) Theory,” which saw her painting abandoned houses across Chicago’s heavily African American South Side in a range of bright hues, Williams’ use of color ruptures convention and definition. It’s a clever gambit: while laying claim to the promise and peril of racial identity, her appropriation of different shades and a variety of materials highlights the fluidity and instability of racial categories. Existing as it does in a society that still quietly respects the “one drop rule,” American blackness partakes heavily of certain kinds of American whiteness—both culturally, through the overlap of folkways, religious beliefs, and cultural features, and genetically, through the tangle of bloodlines. (While different subpopulations have different admixtures, on average, African Americans are about a quarter European American by ancestry). While anyone interested in the American idea would be interested in exploring those themes, Williams senses she is uniquely entitled to do so right now (“Cuz I’m black and I can!”)


Amanda Williams, Feel the Warmth and Luxury, 2020. Faux fur, gold leaf on wood panel,
16 x 9 inches. Photo courtesy of Rhona Hoffman Gallery.


Williams’ works are a study in these alternating similarities and differences. Feel the Warmth and Luxury, two squares of black faux fur that gleam under the gallery lighting, references norms of style that would not seem out of place in broad swaths of white, Hispanic, or Asian America (though they might be alien to the bien pensants). Yet nearby: "Your love of bird watching could have caused your death that day. Your Harvard degree does not insure your safety.” Williams’ lived experience departs greatly from that of white America, at least as it is officially registered in our media and academia (and, it bears emphasizing, as it is genuinely experienced by most of the middle and upper classes).

Williams develops and commits to her ideas over time, a journey memorialized in Hoffman’s chronological arrangement of images. One small, early watercolor—"You’re not African-American, you’re black”—black (08.23.20), a quartet of bright red streaks slicing through a stormy, almost maroon background—is recapitulated as a large oil painting with the same title.

The show also exposes the range of rhetorical strategies that Williams uses to drive her message home. While unafraid of humor (“I thought red kool-aid was juice til I was 10 years old”), Williams generally strikes a serious tone (“Until the day he died, my father drove out to Pullman Bank on 111th [even after it was bought by US Bank] to do his banking because it was the only bank that would give him a small business loan to start his accounting firm in 1977; loyalty”). Alongside her memorable captions, Williams’ abstractions read as another species of rhetoric—open-ended enough to invite different interpretations yet oriented toward the central conceptual pole of blackness.



LEFT: Amanda Williams, "Until the day he died, my father drove out to Pullman Bank on 111th (even after it was bought by US Bank) to do his banking because it was the only bank that would give him a small business loan to start his accounting firm in 1977; loyalty"—black (06.05.20), 2020. Oil on linen stretched over panel. Photo courtesy of Rhona Hoffman Gallery.


RIGHT: Amanda Williams, "You’re not African-American, you’re black”—black (08.23.20), 2020. Oil on linen stretched over panel 60 x 60 inches. Photo courtesy of Rhona Hoffman Gallery.


While it will take us many years to make sense of 2020, Williams’ series is a good place to start. Her deft use of social media, which enables real-time feedback in a way that was once impossible, epitomizes the mood of this Year of Elevated Cortisol Production. Imagined, instantiated, and collectively experienced over a brief yet intense span of weeks, Williams’ creations will be better understood in the fullness of time.


“What black is this, you say?” ran at Rhona Hoffman Gallery from November 6th through December 19th of 2020.


Nathan Worcester is the managing editor of the New Art Examiner. He lives in Chicago.




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