Amanda Williams and Deana Haggag discuss Williams's artistic practice and exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. Filmed in the Edlis Neeson Theater on October 17, 2017.
Grace Deveney: Hi everyone. It’s really great seeing so many of you here for this talk tonight. My name is Grace Devaney. I am a curatorial assistant here at the MCA. I had the pleasure of organizing the show upstairs, Chicago Works: Amanda Williams with Amanda. So I’ll just be briefly introducing the speakers tonight and I’ll let you get on to listening to this, what’s going to be a really great conversation. So Amanda Williams is a visual artist who has a multidisciplinary practice that is deeply informed by her training as an architect. Williams’ work uses the expressive and symbolic qualities of color to transform everyday objects, parcels of land, and vacant buildings.
Amanda is very busy right now and probably always. In addition to her current exhibition at the MCA, she’s on the exhibition design team for the Obama Presidential Center. And she will also be on the team of architects and designers creating the US pavilion for the Venice Architectural Biennale next year. So she will be in conversation tonight with Deana Haggag.
Deana is the president and CEO of United States Artists, a national funding organization based here in Chicago that supports artists through unrestricted gifts, unrestricted awards, and supports artists working in a variety of mediums from architecture and design to craft to dance to literature to music—the full gamut—and is a really exciting organization making many things possible for artists right now. In addition to that before joining USA, Deana was the executive director of the Contemporary, a noncollecting art institution in Baltimore. She received her MFA in curatorial practice from the Maryland Institute College of Art and a BA from Rutgers in art history and philosophy.
So just to give you some quick notes on tonight, Amanda and Deana are going to be in conversation for around 45 minutes and then we’ll leave about 15 minutes for questions. If you could please all make sure your cell phones are silent or quiet or maybe even turned off, that would be really fantastic, so we can fully enjoy the conversation they’re about to have. All right. Thank you so much for being here and I’ll bring Deana and Amanda now.
Deana Haggag: Hi. Can everybody hear us? A little mic check. Is it on? I think maybe Amanda’s microphone is not working. Wouldn’t it be amazing if you just couldn’t hear her the whole time and it was just me talking to Amanda and all of you watching me?
Amanda Williams: Hello?
Deana Haggag: Got it?
Amanda Williams: Can you hear this?
Deana Haggag: Ooh. That’s good.
Amanda Williams: Hello, hello, hello.
Deana Haggag: Ok. Hello. I’m actually wondering, just because so many people are coming in, if folks could maybe start scooting towards the middle a little bit just to leave some space on the end. Yeah. Hi Chicago. You’re so nice. There we go. Yeah. This looks really good from where we’re sitting, let me tell you. All right. So, good evening everybody. Thank you for joining us. I’m very excited to be here with Amanda who I have gotten to know very well over the past few weeks but have been following for quite some time. And the first show I made it to see as soon as I moved here which was a few months ago.
Amanda Williams: Oh, thank you.
Deana Haggag: I know.
Amanda Williams: What?
Deana Haggag: And I thought–I figured, as you all know, Amanda is very, very busy as Grace mentioned earlier and has a number of opportunities coming up and has been working very hard the past few years. And I think to start I wanted to get a little intimate right away if that’s ok with you.
Amanda Williams: Let’s do it.
Deana Haggag: A couple of weeks ago–
Amanda Williams: It’s like the fifth date so we’re ok. Right? It’s like the fifth date.
Deana Haggag: Yes. Maybe it will be ok.
Amanda Williams: Ok.
Deana Haggag: You can pretend your mic is broken again.
Amanda Williams: Ok.
Deana Haggag: If you don’t want to answer it. But a couple weeks ago I had a dinner with Amanda and I got to know her partner, Jason, a little bit and I got to meet or learn a little bit about their little girls. Amanda has two daughters. And I asked her. I went, “Amanda, you had so much going on right now and it must be so exciting. Like, how do you stay grounded?” Right? Because it can be really hard I think when your career takes off in this way to stay grounded. And do you mind sharing with the audience what you shared with me that night about your family.
Amanda Williams: Sure.
Deana Haggag: And how they keep you grounded.
Amanda Williams: Yes.
Deana Haggag: Newspapers.
Amanda Williams: I think, first of all, Jason was asking some other random question, right? He was like not even interested.
Deana Haggag: No, not at all.
Amanda Williams: But we were talking about the Tribune article that had just come out. And as most of you who are in the audience that know me, know I’m never dressed in Maria Pinto, right? I’m usually dressed in sweats and not a good fashion look. And so, in the Tribune article there’s this beautiful photograph and this article, it’s so exciting. And I ran out on Sunday morning and I get some papers. I’m calling my mother. And so, I get home and I open it up to show the girls. I have two daughters, four and six, Isa and Ia.
And so, when I opened the spread up it actually opens to like the backside and there’s a full-page ad for Aladdin. And they’re like, “Aladdin!” And they take off running with the newspaper. They’re like, “Daddy, Aladdin!” And so, however many copies I had ended up all over our living room floor like on the Aladdin side. Like I was face down.
And there’s also another like I think really beautiful cover that Newcity did a few years ago. And so, I have on this jacket, like my one good jacket, right? And I have the collar turned up and I’m looking down very seriously and as everyone knows I’m like grinning all the time. And so, the guy is trying to get me—the photographer trying to get me to be serious, right, and it’s not working. And I had my daughters with me. They decided to wear tutus. They wouldn’t participate in the photo shoot. Then they got on the ground and started rolling in circles in their tutus on the–and so I’m like “Get off of the…” and that’s the shot. And so, when they saw that cover, they’re like, “That’s when mama was mad at us.” So there’s a way in which you can imagine.
I know you know LeBron or Beyoncé or something. But you can imagine when you grow up in an existence where there’s a lot of visibility and there’s a lot of interest in what you’re doing that that is the normal. Like you’re always worried about balancing it. But Jason and I are really big on making sure that they’re integrated. And as we talked about earlier it’s impossible to be doing this kind of work without 100 percent support not only from a partner, and then a philosophy about how our kids should be integrated, but also my mother, my friends.
So this idea of community that’s constantly talked about with the work is not just disenfranchised. Like that’s an important part of it but it’s also this whole network. Ms. Candace, Christine, and when I write my grants and proposals on these kinds of things, I don’t know if it’s a political act but those are just as important as like the U-Haul to deliver the materials. Right? Like time somebody else had to take away for me to be gold leafing bricks at 3:00 in the morning or whatever is going on in that process. It’s so critical.
Deana Haggag: And I’m curious I think maybe to frame this a little bit from where I’m sitting. So I’m an arts administrator. I’m not an artist, can’t make anything. I have terrible handwriting. And one thing I think about a lot is I mean clearly like you’re mentioning there’s the family community that makes your work possible, there’s this actual neighborhood community that participates in making your work, and there’s every other person that touches it.
But I’m wondering, as someone who has recently been very, very involved with institutions and with the folks that work around that, does that become a community for you to navigate between the Biennale or the MCA or the Pulitzer or any number of museums and administrators. And what has it been like to navigate those relationships as folks who become essentially filters for your work and who have to build their own kind of community for it.
Amanda Williams: Well, first I’ll say I’m super thankful obviously for this opportunity at the MCA. But all of these institutions taking this huge risk. Andreas Hernandez is up in the audience too and we’ve been in St. Louis for a little over a year. We’re closing out on Saturday. And so, in real time the reality between what sounds like a hugely fantastic and romantic idea to bring public works of somebody that’s working in a public capacity into an institutional space that the schisms right is real but they’re things I think that hopefully lead to new strategies for how to think about this kind of work as a new typology or not necessarily new but a new kind of way of operating. And so, I think also for me this idea that I talked about repeatedly with the work and in conversations about it with code switching on this idea, coming from one neighborhood and existing in another and learning to navigate the city and this idea of the language of the city but also actual language.
That’s just another kind of segue when you’re talking about an institutional space. So Leah, who is on staff here as a registrar, is like my BFF now because she was great at helping me think through that portion of that fence that you stole from the site, tossed into you back trunk, took to your garage, moved to your studio. Like as it elevates itself to an art object, what does it mean about maintenance? What does it mean when you have a practice where you’re trying to emphasize things going away or question whether or not there is or isn’t value in that. What does it mean all of a sudden to have to catalogue those things and insure them for risk and think through these processes? And so, it’s tricky.
It also brings up questions about what it means to display these kinds of conversations in spaces that maybe historically were not interested in those kinds of conversations. So, what is that responsibility to those of us who exist kind of in that realm to help in that administrative capacity in addition to that? So that we had just as much fun in the install I would say as I did in the conceiving and the making. Because it was still it was like another layer of that work. And so, to really be with these institutions that have the courage to do this and then to help think through in real time like how that translates is—it’s exciting. It’s overwhelming, right? Because it’s happening all at once.
Often there’s like four places calling about do you want us to maintain this thing, or how should we handle this, or can somebody actually touch it. So that’s very interesting when you’re talking about wanting to engage people in a different way and then maintaining some of the same structures that you had in place to do that. So it’s been great for me and I hope it’s been great for these institutions to have to deal with artists doing all these things they’re not supposed to be doing. It’s like, “Please, please don’t touch that actually. You can’t go in that box, either.” So to really think through if and how it should be different.
Deana Haggag: Do you think that the transition has been smooth, from something that was in your environment to in your garage to into an institution and into a canon or do you think that some of that gets—I’m struck in particular by immediately some of the social narratives that people want to put on your work. Right? Like right off truck and I think that happens a lot to folks who are dealing— to folks who occupy the identity space that both of us do. And so, I’m curious about how do you see that transition now that these works are sitting in a museum on a wall all over the country, or in Italy. Thinking about that transition. Right? And what is it like to occupy that space, and do you think that this is part of a transition that will be easier, or do you think that off-bat people see it as the art that it is without forcing a kind of identity lens on to it?
Amanda Williams: No. I don’t think it’s been successful yet in seeing it as just art. I’m laughing thinking about Basquiat because yeah, I use black a lot. I do, I am extremely pleased with the way I had to struggle with the full trajectory of color theory in this capacity. Right? Because there was a moment in which didn’t even want to show the photographs. So that’s another community that I didn’t mention and many of those people are here. I see Jane and James and Miguel. But the community of artists who were cheering me on because I was definitely afraid of breaking rules and doing things that didn’t kind of fall into a trajectory.
And so, to be doing that for deeply personal reasons because I want to be a better painter. Right? The real genesis of this was I’m a painter. That’s what I feel I am, but it’s not expressing itself correctly. And so, what does it mean to paint at a scale that takes you out of your comfort zone. And so, Trisha Van Eck kind of posed that challenge to me and then we went about doing the work. It was almost more like a support group than it was, like, this need to get all of these people to come help me because I want to engage community at multiple levels and change this outside landscape. Like that’s part of it too. I was really like, “What is purple like when it’s 25 feet in the air and it’s gray outside?”
So I’ve learned so much about color theory from this that often gets skimmed over. But I think Grace has done a really beautiful job of bringing the totality of that conversation. But it is—it’s a challenge, but it’s not something that I’m annoyed by or that I don’t want to discuss, right? This idea of helping people constantly reframe because as you said, as women of color, we’re constantly having to kind of school people and like, “No, actually it’s this.
Yeah, actually I do have an architecture degree. Yeah, I’m a mother too.” Like all these things that make people make decisions about what you should or shouldn’t be able to do. And so, to just be about doing it because that’s super important too, right? It’s not enough to just kind of say it. There’s still, in my mind, a demand on myself about excellence and craft. And so early on I was really annoyed. It’s like, “But it’s a really–“
Deana Haggag: “I love modernism.”
Amanda Williams: Yeah. “Look at my Corbusian color palette.” And so that gets glossed over but it’s also been an opportunity to be that person for the next person that needs to know how to navigate that, right? I really love Corb and so he was a painter and an architect. And he was running around trying to make manifestos. And so, I’m not so into manifestos, but I was like, “Well, what would my palette be,” right? Like so really helping people see that there’s multiple sides to all of these things constantly. I think Spirited Space did a great job with the video of fleshing that out with a little bit, even just the kind of two monitors. Like things that are very accessible to people to help them kind of make those hurdles.
But I do think there’s more work to be done about even the—as great as this is to just help people kind of understand it through lenses that they wouldn’t or—I shouldn’t say afraid, but especially from the critics, right, to really sort of like. Ok. If you took all of that away what else do you see? And it’s ok to be like, “Yeah, I don’t think it’s that good if I don’t have all this other layering on it.” And that’s ok. Right? But there’s never that kind of level of criticism that kind of tries to approach it from that. I shouldn’t say never. It hasn’t really been yet. It would be great to see that.
Deana Haggag: Do you think you’ve gotten better at painting?
Amanda Williams: No. I don’t think. My mic’s not working.
Deana Haggag: Somebody talk to Amanda about painting skills.
Amanda Williams: No. I mean it’s like every artist has some kind of struggle they keep for their entire lives. And it’s not like I need a pep talk. Like my husband is like, so over it. He’s like, “You’re a painter. Just say it and then it is.” He’s like a coach and everything. It’s like a locker room speech. No. I don’t feel like I have the grasp I want to have on it. But I also know I’m, I would say I’m a former athlete but I also know like shoot through the drought. Like you’ve got to—you can’t be worried about missing threes. You’ve got to just keep shooting. If you’re the three-point shooter, you’ve got to just keep shooting.
So I also don’t have any qualms about the fact that I had a really great job as an architect and I quit it to do this. And this is my life’s work. So the struggle is the practice, right? So that’s fine. It was a really great moment though when Grace was like, “So, we’re going to put these paintings in the show.” I was like, “I don’t know. I don’t know.” But then to be able to have your own show as like a survey for yourself to critique what you’re doing. And so, to constantly come in and see it and make and see the connections and see how much a lot of these threads have been there forever. And in my mind, these are totally different shows and totally different bodies of work.
And to see that totality and then to go back and—I used to always be annoyed when somebody would give you the reference of another artist when you’re doing work. They’re like, “That’s great. Have you looked at Smithson?” You’re like, “Oh my god. No, I have not.” But then to use that as a way to think about how you would mine other people’s work or that you could mine your own work. Like I’m just starting that moment. I’ve just produced enough, so.
Deana Haggag: As an aside I really like the visual of Amanda Williams in her home, like, her husband giving her this pep talk and then her two daughters like dragging her back down to planet Earth and then her husband having to help her replenish that confidence again over and over again.
Amanda Williams: Yes. My mother could attest to it.
Deana Haggag: Yeah. That’s pretty great.
Amanda Williams: She sees it. He does it to her too. But yes, constantly. It’s like, “All right, pity party, two minutes. Ok. Get yourself together.” “Mama, can we have apple juice?”
Deana Haggag: Over and over and over again.
Amanda Williams: No one’s interested. Yeah.
Deana Haggag: Amanda, I want to ask you a little bit about your architecture background. So at United States Artists we fund in every discipline. I started at that job this year. I’m pretty versed in visual art, but not in some of these other things, not enough. And one thing I’m really struck by at our work is that increasingly these disciplines feel arbitrary. Right? That artists are working across a million different bounds. They’re breaking every rule. They’re musicians and poets and theater performers and visual artists. But then every time I try to check myself on that, there is a line. Right?
Then there’s a moment when an architect is like, “This is architecture. This is not art.” Or, “We are musicians. We’re not artists.” And I’m curious about how you navigate that space as someone who is trained as an architect, occupies for me at least an incredibly architectural space, but then has manifested an entire career and lexicon as a visual artist. And every time I see a new project of yours, they blur further and further for me and I can’t tell the difference anymore. And I’m wondering, was that conscious or was that—how did that happen?
Amanda Williams: So yeah. I would definitely say it’s a little bit of both right now. So I’m actively searching for projects that would help me blur and it was—
Deana Haggag: Why?
Amanda Williams: Because I’m both of those things, and so that’s not going to go away. And so, once I came to terms with that I was like, “Oh, you can’t hide that whole side.” For a long time, it was like—and because to the layperson they’re the same exact thing. Right? So my dad was like, “What? It’s all—you’re leaving architecture to do art? You’re leaving architecture to do architecture.” It’s like, “No, daddy. This is art on this side.” So once I was like not constantly able to be ok with siloing, so I would like hang out with my architecture friends and then I’d hang out with my art friends.
And actually, I totally forgot this until now. When I graduated from Cornell, they don’t have minors. You’re not allowed to have a minor or a concentrate. Like it says it on my resume but it’s kind of a lie. Like they don’t have an official like, “minor.” I think I say “emphasis” on my resume. But I’d taken all of my electives in art because it was easy. And with architecture it’s a hugely demanding schedule. They give you like one elective, and it’s always at some time when nothing else was offered. And I was like, “Well, I can get an easy A in art, so I’ll take the whole studio suite.”
But the departments didn’t like each other, even though they’re in the same college. So I had to lie to get into the route to start painting. And then I went all the way through the sequence, and literally on graduation day my painting professor thought I was an art student and was like livid when I came across the stage in architecture—he’s like, “Why are you …?” He’s like waving me over. “No.” So, so you can imagine like somehow normalizing something that’s totally nonsensical. Like they’re the same college. Like what is going on here, right?
And then like embracing that and actively working towards it and then some moment where I’m like “Oh, I’m all of this, so why don’t I just seek out projects or make out projects that are really just testing that over and over again.” And then it’s become a self-fulfilling prophecy. So now, people interested in that schism are now seeking me out. And I keep mentioning Andres but Andres and I went to architecture school together, took very different paths that expand what could be considered architecture. And now we’re being sought after and we’re like, “We’re not Otabenga Jones.” We’re not. We’re just two people that have this philosophy but we keep being approached in this way because of this unique skill set that all of a sudden is like, popular.
But in terms of criticism and in terms of those silos, they still exist and it wasn’t really until the first Chicago Architecture Biennial that I realized when I kept getting these questions and it would be like “How does your art inform your architecture?” Like, that’s a dumb question. “Well, how does your architecture inform your art?” At some point I just kept saying, “Well, it’s the same thing. It’s the same question. It’s just one more medium.” And then at some point I was like, Mark Bradford is not Jeanne Gang, but they’re both dope and they’re both thinking about the same stuff. Right? So there’s some moment in which it’s like something going to infinity in math.
You don’t know quite what the moment is, but there’s some moment, right, where it’s clearly not that or not that. But that if we have the liberty to just kind of like, be fluid. But it’s not like post-medium. It’s not just for the sake of doing it. It’s like, there’s still that moment. But I think it really was as a black woman or anybody who has a dual, you know, is marked in society by two things. You just learn to navigate, right, and so it was the same annoyance in college.
It’s like well, are you black or a woman first? It’s like what time, what time are you asking me that? I don’t know. I’m in the bathroom, or I’m being discriminated against because you think I’m going to steal your purse, I don’t know. So, it feels the same to me so there’s not—I don’t feel the angst about having to define for other people all the time. It’s more like a fun challenge for myself about the types of projects I want to do.
Deana Haggag: Do you feel like you have to code switch between those two disciplines?
Amanda Williams: Oh yeah.
Deana Haggag: Really?
Amanda Williams: Still, yeah. All the time. Yeah.
Deana Haggag: Huh.
Amanda Williams: Oh, every day. Yeah.
Deana Haggag: It’s so crazy.
Amanda Williams: You get the little things where it’s like, “Well, I know you’re not practicing anymore. You haven’t built anything in a long time.” Oh yeah. Of course. Why not? Why wouldn’t you throw shade? And they’re like “Well, it is architecture. Is it art?” Yeah. Yeah. Why not?
Deana Haggag: Where do you feel more comfortable talking about color theory for example? That one’s tough, right? It’s like so environmental. It’s so atmospheric. It’s like does that fall, does that land easier to talk about with an art—an art critic versus an architecture colleague?
Amanda Williams: No. They’re the same, but I really do think I have this like friendship with Corb and so it seems like it’s the same thing. Because he was obsessed with the way he was obsessed with color.
Deana Haggag: Both.
Amanda Williams: And so yeah. It’s like well, I’ve got to get my system together.
Deana Haggag: Yeah.
Amanda Williams: Because I’m making space. And then sometimes space is 2D, right, sometimes space is 3D but I’ve got to get my system together.
Deana Haggag: Yeah. I’m curious about—I’m going to get back to Corb in a second. But before we get there, I’m wondering about the first time you came to the MCA. I want to know—
Amanda Williams: So let me tell you—I’m going to tell you all two stories, maybe three stories. So I grew up here, went to Cornell, moved immediately to the Bay Area and then knew I wanted to come back but couldn’t quite figure out how to do that without getting a job again. Like, how am I going to come back here and be this fancy artist?
Deana Haggag: Or artist/architect?
Amanda Williams: No. At the time it was like, no, I just want to sell paintings and eat. But like, eat whatever I want. I wasn’t this starving artist. I knew like no, I want to eat at any restaurant in the city at any given time from a painting I sold. Right? Like that was my aspiration. And so, I was basically mooching off of my parents so I would come for like a month, for three months. And then I had an apartment I would rent and then I’d like live off of them basically, right? And they’re like, “How long you here again?”
And it was like an unseasonably warm spring and I came inside of the MCA steps, and I had this journal, and I was just writing about how great it was to be out in like February. It was something ridiculous like February, March and it was like 70 degrees and I was like just immersed in the city and art and these steps were here and it was so great to be like, just in this space where you could just be in this space.
And then fast forward. I was in this room and there was a panel about diversity or dialogues, like a series. And I was in a particularly cranky mood and the conversation, I felt, was tiptoeing around the subject of race in relationship to museum spaces. And it wasn’t just about institution, but just generally like engaging different audiences. And so, I stand up and I give this whole rant. I’ll never forget. I had like a pink sweater on. I’m like giving a whole rant, and they recorded it and then everybody thought it was so great. Everybody’s clapping at the end and then I was like—and then Madeleine mentioned that a few months ago when the show opened about how she’s like, “I don’t know who she is, but she’s going places. She’s going somewhere. She’s got something to say.”
And so, to fast forward and imagine that I’m part of an effort that they have to really kind of put the commitment to expanding is sort of surreal. And then I was talking to Naomi Beckwith earlier in the day talking about how I think, just as she arrived or right after she arrived, I think I was pregnant with my first daughter. And then she was born early but she was born across the street. And so, for sanity—they have stroller Wednesdays. I don’t know if they still have that. And so, I would come with this tiny baby. She was so little.
And then I’d have her in that stroller though so it was like, oh we’re normal. She can get in a stroller. She’s only this long. She can get in a stroller and we’d come. And there was a Mark Bradford show and so we’d just come like as many Wednesdays as we could to see. So, it’s so interesting to imagine this actually this actually was part of a community or part of my existence well before I imagined that this would be somewhere that I would show or that I’d be able to have these kinds of conversations through the work itself.
Deana Haggag: I’m struck by what you said earlier about the language of a city and how much that’s been really important to the kind of vernacular you’ve built and what it means now to operate in this institution as you have is becoming a part of your language for the city and like, how to navigate an institution such as this versus the kinds of projects you’ve worked on and the streets you’ve operated in. And I am so curious about Venice and about navigating that and that sort of reception for that. She looks really mischievous. I don’t know if you can tell from where you’re sitting right now.
Amanda Williams: I’m curious too. No. All I can say is Andres and I, we’re going to be very courageous. So he’s actually got a—he’s like, “We can do it.” I’m like, “Are you sure? Maybe we should just make a nice canopy and show that we can—” Yeah. Structure.
Deana Haggag: Do you feel like in Venice they’re also struggling with some of these architecture versus art questions?
Amanda Williams: I’m sure they are. The biggest one to me is that it was—so first of all I was—I was telling somebody because I was first introduced to even the idea of these biennales through architecture, I had no knowledge that there was an art biennale. So we were on the cycle of the architecture ones like, “Who is the architect? Who is the curator?” And so, when I realized this go ‘round—not that it hadn’t occurred to me, but it’s like it’s just a perpetual biennale. Like what is it like to live in this city that we all associate with the canals and like all these other things, if you’re not part of an art or architectural or kind of cultural world.
Like, what is it like for that city to just kind of be constantly on display in this kind of weird way. It’s not Disneyland, but it’s part of that kind of typology of like, not quite caricature but cultural heritage sites and like all of these things that start to be about like presenting the idea of itself. And so, we haven’t really gotten into that in terms of what we’re thinking about presenting. But it’s definitely kind of large and I can imagine if we were there and like, trying to mine that that, that would be almost as important as an idea about—so always good or bad is always like, are there black people in Venice?
Like, the first question that you start trying to think through that or communities that might be kindred spirits. But then you realize that there’s also this other identity issue that might be going on that’s equally kind of challenging is like, are they the art? What is the architecture? Is it what we think it is? And if these are supposed to be about ideas at a huge scale what does it mean that it never manifests itself there? So I don’t know. I don’t know what any of that means, but that’s definitely like questions we have on the wall about the project.
Deana Haggag: Yeah. I’m also curious. Have you considered the context of also what it means to represent the United States right now? Right, like to be that person?
Amanda Williams: Oh yes.
Deana Haggag: Because that was the only thought I had in Venice this entire summer was just like, “Oh.” Like, Mark Bradford is our representative in the midst of this.
Amanda Williams: Yes.
Deana Haggag: And what does it mean to think about the urgency of that thing, like being the American squarely on—
Amanda Williams: Oh, definitely.
Deana Haggag: One of the largest global stages there is.
Amanda Williams: No pressure.
Deana Haggag: Yeah. Just a small something to keep in the back of your head.
Amanda Williams: No. I mean definitely, it’s foregrounded. And the brilliance of the curatorial team is that the theme is “dimensions of citizenship.”
Deana Haggag: Totally. Yeah.
Amanda Williams: So you’re not really going to hide. There will be no cute canopy or whatever I’m trying to convince Andres to do. Right? Like we have to bring it. Like this and the irony of it being sponsored by the State Department. There’s just so many—there’s so much. Right? You have to really refrain from trying to like, pull all of it in and really be focused. But we’re part of an amazing ensemble of architects as well.
So that’s also super exciting to imagine that they’ve compiled like a—everybody is going to be bringing it. Right? So everybody has already had practices where they’ve been thinking about these things in terms of the work that they’ve already done. And so, the energy of this moment like how could it not—how could it not permeate but how could is also elevate beyond the obvious tropes and giving too much attention to things that are trying to get lots of attention right now.
Deana Haggag: Yeah. A recommendation I have for the crowd is if anyone doesn’t know how those infrastructures function, like how someone like Amanda makes it to the biennale, I highly recommend that. That’s a Google-worthy thing. Like, how the State Department participates in these—I mean, they blow my mind that a government representative is responsible for helping decide who represents us, especially as administrations change and as their priorities shift. It feels like you, your crew is the last one that sort of snuck in before this massive administration change. And like, what does that mean. Right? Like what does that mean for future—just kill it. Kill it all.
Amanda Williams: Yeah. We have to. But on some level, it’s no different, right, than the question you asked earlier, right? So it’s like I was just sharing with her, I’m one of the 50 artists that the city has commissioned for the year of public art. And like when you’re running around doing whatever you want and nobody cares, it’s like super easy.
Deana Haggag: But when the government is looking at you … .
Amanda Williams: When you got to get the permits and the insurance and that, right? And it’s important in one regard but to again understand how to fold that kind of navigating into your practice so that it’s not—it is part of the practice. Right? It can’t just be this thing.
Deana Haggag: Yeah.
Amanda Williams: And there are examples of other artists who have done that. Right? Kind of figured out ways to make that little component of it their entire practice. So that’s also super helpful to keep that in mind.
Deana Haggag: Yeah. Yeah. There’s a really weird question I want to ask Amanda that she said she wouldn’t answer unless we were on stage. Do you have a favorite color? And then she said some really cryptic shit about how she has like a favorite special color, which is really different than her regular color. Then she wouldn’t give me any answers. Now you have to tell all these people what your favorite special color is.
Amanda Williams: So first I’m going to digress which I always like to do.
Deana Haggag: We’re not leaving until she answers. Going to lock these doors.
Amanda Williams: So I think it was, we were picking out—I was shopping with my mother. I was a teenager and we’re at the store, and we’re trying to pick out a dress out or pick out something she’s got to buy. And I was like “Mom. You don’t want that. That’s like, ‘come to my baby shower’ font. You don’t want that.”
Deana Haggag: You’ve been doing this forever.
Amanda Williams: Yeah. I was like, “Mom, you don’t want that. That’s like, ‘This is my tax document’ font.” And then she was like, “Why do you keep—like why are you talking about fonts? Like, who are you? Just this dress or this.” It’s like, “You don’t want that one. That one says I’m not sophisticated.” But like talking about color and font and it’s like, “You don’t want red. You want scarlet.” It’s like, can you just pick a color that’s not some other word. Like just something in the Crayola box. Right? So in general, I like live in some color that’s kind of like a celadon, jade, somewhere like that.
Deana Haggag: Like green. Are we just—like in the greens maybe. That’s where you’re living. Is that your special color?
Amanda Williams: That is not my special color. Special color. So this year is my 25th high school reunion anniversary and so there’s a gallery inside of my high school. And so, they invited me to exhibit, and so I was like, “Yeah, sure.” And then—asked me and they’re like, “Are you still going to come see us?” I’m like, “Yeah!” So the show that I did is called Portrait of the Artist as her Friends. And so, I have an especially close group of classmates. And so, because they know I’m weird and they just follow instructions, I sent out a Google form and it says “Tell me what color you are and tell me what color you want to be.”
And then I made this series of paintings that are just their responses so this kind of Diptics of all the classmates. And so then like two thirds of the way through I was like, “Oh man. I’ve got to do the assignment but I don’t want to because I’m indecisive as a human.” So I mixed all of their colors. And it is this amazing—It’s like it’s kind of grey-brown-mauvey something. But it definitely wants to be like, color of the year for Benjamin Moore. It’s like this amazing—it’s warm. It’s not grey. It’s trending.
And they could not—so I unveiled this to them last weekend and so they could not believe that they were on the wall this way. But they could not believe that that was a color. They were skeptical. They were like, “Are you sure? Like the chartreuse and the pink and the green?” It’s like yeah, in color theory that makes total sense. If you mix color it usually kind of moves to a neutral, not a dark or a light. And so, it was just like a beautiful metaphor about like, “Oh we’re all the same and on the inside.” But this color is like … man. So that’s my new favorite special color for the moment.
Deana Haggag: So you feel green.
Amanda Williams: Yeah.
Deana Haggag: But you want to be this special color for the moment.
Amanda Williams: Yeah.
Deana Haggag: I like that. Is that show still up?
Amanda Williams: The show is up until November 30th.
Deana Haggag: I want to see that.
Amanda Williams: Yes.
Deana Haggag: I think we have just enough time to get started with maybe some audience questions.
Amanda Williams: Sure.
Deana Haggag: If that’s ok. You can also tell Amanda what color you are and what you want to be.
Amanda Williams: And I’ll put it on the wall. They’ll be like, “What classmate is that?” And because of my crazy class. So everybody’s name, and then somebody is anonymous because they wouldn’t say who they are. So it’s not 100 percent participation, so I can’t really out the person but someone is anonymous.
Deana Haggag: Were you surprised by the colors they picked?
Amanda Williams: Yes. The colors are not skin tones. I thought they’d be very literal, right, and they weren’t.
Deana Haggag: Do they match their dispositions?
Amanda Williams: They do match their dispositions.
Deana Haggag: Some sunny, some light, if they’re kind of mean, is it dark?
Amanda Williams: Yes. Yes.
Deana Haggag: Whoa. That’s crazy.
Amanda Williams: Yes.
Deana Haggag: All right. Do we have any questions in the audience? I see one in the back. You have a white shirt on. That’s all I can see.
Audience: Hi, Amanda.
Amanda Williams: Hi.
Audience: My question has to do with how a lot of times some art spaces go to like, low-income neighborhoods and are kind of like, the first targets for like gentrification. So I kind of want your take how you navigate that kind of like process or like how you think about that when you’re working in those neighborhoods and stuff?
Amanda Williams: Great question. So first of all, I’d like to say that artists are not gentrifiers so that’s a misnomer. So we are like—we’re like the canaries in the mine. Right? So we do things out of logistics, usually financial. And so, we then come and just activate spaces that were already what they were, often. Right? And so, then we just become the precursor to the Starbucks that then leads to the blah, blah, blah that then leads to the so and so. Right? So I challenge the idea that we are the entities that start gentrification. Right? We are not the entities. We are the indicators to the developers or the real estate people that there is value. Right?
And so, for me, this idea of going into neighborhoods is a little bit foreign because I’m actually from the neighborhood, right? So I’m not from Englewood. I’m from Auburn Gresham but it’s very similar. It’s arbitrary boundaries. It could be, do you really know exactly where you are if you’re not looking at the map? And so, it’s never felt like me choosing to go into somewhere and running the risk of doing something that would lead to something else.
Now that there’s attention, that could potentially be a different kind of trajectory. Right? But there’s a way in which you have to kind of hold court on staving off the attention as well as a way to kind of navigate that. So the project I was mentioning for the Year of Public Art there’s a lot of interest around it. It’s exciting. It’s something else that’s part of my public practice that’s the next thing. But we don’t need reporters there. Like I want to hang out all day, which I did two weeks ago on a Saturday with some kids at a high school and I convinced them to watch The Wiz and they did it and then we had Michael Jackson dance contest. My daughters were there, totally unimpressed. Right? But that’s community, right?
Like so to hold on to the kernels of like what you know about already engaging people and it doesn’t always have to be like, transforming the whole block or transforming the whole landscape. Like it has to happen on all those scales all the time. And for me that’s meant also being able to exist in spaces where I can inform policy or I can sit at the table with the alderman in positions of power. Again, not necessarily coming in like, “You’re going to change the legislation.” But being the voice that’s like, “Artists actually need x.” Like, if there were a generic form where we didn’t have to get worker’s comp insurance for our project, that would be really great. Or like just being the person that could help advance that is really important from that standpoint.
And then in terms of the show here, I want to give a special shout out to the members of the community that I brought in. Right? So the piece, the Dream piece, the scaled box. Tameka Johnson, Candace Washington, Jocelyn and Samaria Malcolm, Tavon Tate, Lorenzo Davis. These are people that are part of my everyday life. Right? Like it was so funny because when I thought of the idea, I was like well, what organization will I call to find community members? Right. I was like, wait a minute. I’ll just like yeah, that’s my family. Right? And so, none of those people necessarily knew each other. Like I know them from all different walks of life within Englewood so to be invited to say you own this space here.
You own this piece. Your name is on the wall. You’re part of the wall. You’re part of the art. You’re also, in Candace and Tavon and Lorenzo’s case, they painted these houses, right? And so, then it’s not a big deal. It’s like, “Yeah. That’s what we do.” Like Amanda makes art and it’s kind of everywhere. And sometimes we’re like down the street and sometimes we’re downtown. Can I take the bus there? The interest of like the concern with here as a place is minimized if it’s not part of your daily existence. So this just becomes one more space to express these things that we’ve already been talking about. Right?
And so, I think that’s so critical to not make those distinctions, at least for me. And so, to then maintain that. Like it gets harder and harder like to fight off the idea that you have to like once you have the platform that then you have to be like advertising it all the time. Like no. Like who—like the show at my school is great but like most people probably won’t know about it because it’s for a certain community that I’m part of, right? And so, if you see everything like that then it takes the pressure off of like I’ve got to be the one to save the—this woman said, “How can you save the south side?”
It’s like, I’m not actually going to. And that was like a little depressing in that moment but it’s like, that doesn’t mean I’m not going to keep trying but it just puts it in context. Like everything is towards that goal as opposed to like a single strategy, or what does Detroit need? It’s like a super complex problem, and me painting houses or them doing whatever it not—that’s not the only answer or the single answer.
Deana Haggag: I think it goes back to what you said earlier about how sometimes it’s nice if a critic can just talk about your painting.
Amanda Williams: Yeah.
Deana Haggag: Like you as a painter and not necessarily as oh as an advocate that represents her entire region and every problem that’s ever been faced by—
Amanda Williams: Yeah.
Deana Haggag: It goes back to these narratives that are forced on.
Amanda Williams: So I hope that—it was very longwinded but I hope that answered the question.
Deana Haggag: Is there another—right here. Yes, you. The one looking at –
Amanda Williams: He’s got a mic.
Deana Haggag: Oh, never mind. I lied. We’ll come right back to you.
Audience: Hi Amanda.
Amanda Williams: Hi.
Audience: How are you? My question is regarding color theory. And I wanted you to talk a bit about your color selection process and how you were able to edit color and to pick different colors that evoked strong meaning but also try to navigate away from pejorative meanings or monolithic or essential, essentialist expressions of African Americanness or Chicago black Americanness.
Amanda Williams: Yes.
Audience: And how were you able to choose certain colors if the goal was to also kind of steer away from stereotype? If you can talk about that.
Amanda Williams: Yeah. I was really—that wasn’t a conscious goal initially but it sort of—it was already in the DNA and I think that might lead to also actually like architectural training like making sure that the meaning or the layering is deeper than kind of a one liner or kind of a service thing. But it also was born of like, starting with yourself as the genesis and having the permission to do that as people of color. Like because we always—no matter what the discipline it’s like, “Please speak for the whole race and tell us what we would like to hear, but don’t say it in a way that makes us uncomfortable. Protest but only on the weekends and after I watch my football game.” Right?
But so, when you’re like, “No, you know what? I’m going to talk about 79th and Damon. I like 79th and Damon. It was annoying and ghetto and wonderful. And there was a McDonald’s here and we went to the grocery store here and my brother got his haircut.” So then what are those colors? So, it was a little bit of a struggle initially if I was going to be literal. Because I was like, is it the feelings? Is it the—for a while I was like obsessed with the colors of the building material because I am an architect so I was like the street pole is kind of this green and the brick on the Harold’s—I wasn’t thinking of Harold’s Chicken but like on Ashland at like 67th or 5th or something there’s the Harold’s and the Cadillac that’s like the chicken is always out front right there, right?
So but the wall is this color. I was like oh, I’ll just pick all the bricks in this wall and that will be my color palette to rival my imaginary friends from Newton on. And then when it really was like, wait a minute. I’m a black woman that exists at kind of a certain moment in Chicago south side history. And so that started to be the way that I would test whether the palette was right. So Natalie Moore is a good friend of mine and a few other ladies like that that sort of like grew up on the south side, have these very vernacular, granular experiences but also are debutantes and Ivy Leaguers and shop at Prada and whatever. Right? So like what’s all of that? So then when I say Ultra Sheen and they go, “Oh yes!” I’m like ok. Army and Lou’s, Army and Lou’s didn’t make the palette yet, right?
But there were all of these things that I would mention and then there was like this nodding and this laughing and this like Oh Pink Oil saved my life. Right? And so, the more that I got the reaction. I would say Kool-Aid and it was like, “Hmm.” And I would say Now and Laters or Wine Candy and they’d go, ”Oh, oh, oh.” So that’s literally—so the original I have the sheet, the trace paper somewhere. It’s like 20 things. Right? And then I had to work backwards to like, what do you associate with the color first before the product, and the fact that so much of them were products. Like Currency Exchange I started off with like architecture that has a color. So Currency Exchange was really the only typology that I could zoom in on with that yellow.
And then it got really difficult and so the idea of a cultural space as opposed to a physical space was also really good for me as someone who is extremely literal like, to free up what the palette could be about. And so, what we result in is this palette that’s very authentic to me as a ‘70s baby as coming of age in the ’80s. So it probably doesn’t resonate as much with Cleveland or St. Louis. Some of those things are universal and some of them are like, Chicagoan and like … Harold’s Chicken. But everybody in Chicago is like oh Harold’s. Or the west side will give you a little grief it’s not Uncle Remus. But there’s that synergy that makes it like a coded shared experience in the same way that there’s probably part of polychromy that’s coded and shared in a moment that Corb was trying to draw from or _____ or Iton or—right?
So that became really important to then because it has the DNA of like not being stereotypical but could get misread in that way it was really important that I start—whenever I spoke about it because it was early on described as like happy memories from my childhood. Colors that were happy memories from Amanda’s childhood. It’s like, well, Crown Royal as a product is not a happy memory, but it was marketed to my community so heavily that I think it’s a color that represents where I live. Like that’s highly problematic. And so, this becomes a way to talk about it. But the Crown Royal bag everybody—oh we kept bobby pins in there. Oh, we used it for marbles. Oh, my uncle had it. We didn’t know what was in it. Right? Like everybody’s got a Crown Royal story, right?
So it’s really important whenever I talk about it to try to help not turn Flaming Red Hots into something that’s positive. It’s not. It’s really bad and it’s unhealthy. And it’s ironically because it’s about consumption it crosses all of our social ills in a way. Right? It’s like public health, obesity, food, like you name it, right? Like beauty, cosmetics, food again. So there’s a way in which all of these things are kind of touchstones into these other conversations while at the same time being this shared thing where strangers are like, “Oh, we love the Ultra Sheen in the wall at the MCA.” Like that’s like surreal for them, right? Because they know how much they love it. And so now for that to be a valid color is really important.
Audience: [inaudible] Do you think in your work …
Amanda Williams: An advocacy about –
Audience: Is there kind of a micro advocacy that just takes place because you’re using and identifying with and reconfiguring a lot of the everyday world you experience into this—I won’t call it necessarily rarified things but this other thing that doesn’t lose track of that everyday world. So maybe in that just the context of a cultural place sort of satisfied place or higher-minded stuff so to speak.
Amanda Williams: Yeah.
Audience: Advocacy for not losing track of—
Amanda Williams: Yeah. I see what you mean.
Audience: That world every day.
Amanda Williams: Yes, yes, yes. So I think part of that is what you’re talking about with the constantly staying grounded. So there’s no moment in my day where I get to not have to deal with the everyday. It’s like yeah, yeah, yeah—you have that article but yeah, pick up some milk. Right? So it’s already there. Also, I want to give full credit to my parents who—I grew up in one part of town but I went to the lab school. Right? So that trajectory every day of trying to—this cognitive dissonance of these completely different worlds and then making both worlds equal.
So it wasn’t so whoever’s child who was the child of somebody—like we didn’t even know so and so’s dad was this. That just wasn’t part of it or like their house was bigger than ours but so what. Like play at their house. Our neighbor was the mailman. That’s no different than a doctor. Right? So there was a kind of equality to all of those spaces that I think is just part of who I am. So for me to help, I shouldn’t say bring cover, but to help continually make that equity, I like to make fun of all of it. So right?
So and that’s a unique position I get to occupy. So I can point fingers at really, you’re going to put the flavor of Red Hots on your fingers? You’re going to paint with that then? Let’s go paint. Like constantly making jokes about all of it so that that’s a way to disarm. I think black comedians in particular are able to do—not that I’m a comedian but that I’ve learned that that you can kind of like level that playing field or elevate moments that we don’t value. And so, I think that’s why value too is such an obsession to me because so much of what I existed in never got told to me as value.
When I first did start getting some attention as a painter and then I’d kind of be in spaces where people would be trying to situate the work they were like, “Oh, it’s such a passive derivative of the expressionists in the ‘50s. Oh my god. It’s so boring.” And then I didn’t know who any of those people were because I wasn’t paying attention in art class. I was going to be an architect, so what did I care. So then I was like, “Well, really? It’s the side of that building on Union and 61st. It’s not Jasper Johns.” I didn’t know who that was last week, right?
So, the anger a little bit of that, that moment where it’s like no. That wall is really dope but it’s also really sad because the building is not right. How do I pull all of that energy into making beautiful things because that’s beautiful to me? That’s how I learned beauty. Not the art history book. So I think that’s that spirit and where that comes from. And then yeah, it’s not conscious but it’s constantly trying to make—to smooth all of that. Not smooth it over. That’s not the right word. But yeah, kind of level that field or elevate, however you’d like to describe it. That’s a great question. Ok.
Audience: I can speak loud enough. I’m really excited to first to acknowledge two black awesome women on stage. One being a mother. And I hear you really like speak intentionally about navigating these spaces and motivating these figures and like having it in the space like this but also like that back-and-forthness of the community and bringing in community and taking out resources to communities. Like I’m interested in that conversation. And I also think it’s quite beautiful how you all are just having this—just having this conversation and your show is amazing. So thank you. So I had a dual. It’s not really a question. It’s more of—it is a question!
Amanda Williams: I just want to say she’s sitting in almost the exact spot I was sitting there when I’m like well, I got some things to tell everybody. So I’m like so happy she’s like just bring it. Just say whatever.
Audience: And I have my kids.
Amanda Williams: That’s what I’m talking about. I see them over there looking like Isa and Iya.
Audience: But you were talking about your kids so it was very like just kind of home.
Amanda Williams: Yeah. Like edifying. Yeah.
Audience: Yeah. So yeah. So that and also like understanding that type of like groundedness, right, kind of to his point. But if you were to coin a color like Yves Klein Blue or Anish black, the other color he has.
Amanda Williams: Yes.
Audience: What would it be, color theorist?
Amanda Williams: So now you’re like asking me to tell you which one of my children is my favorite, right? Like I have a whole palette upstairs and you’re like which one, but which one, but which one is your favorite.
Amanda Williams: Right. No. I can’t do that.
Deana Haggag: Asking her her favorite color was like torture. She just looked tortured.
Amanda Williams: And now I have to pick my favorite like if I’m going to go down in history for one of these colors.
Deana Haggag: Yeah. Like Sophie’s Choice. Which one would you pick?
Amanda Williams: Aw man. As my father would say, “You’re my favorite daughter.” I only have one brother, so two of us.
Deana Haggag: Do you want to know what my father used to say?
Amanda Williams: What did he say?
Deana Haggag: My father used to say, when we’d say, “Who’s your favorite?” He’d go, “I dislike all of you equally.” [Laughter] That’s a way to stay humble and grounded. No seriously. That’s a great question. I love putting Amanda in difficult situations—pick a color. Pick one. Yeah.
Amanda Williams: Well, it might be this—wait till you guys see this mauvey browny grey. But no, if I had to—see, that’s bad. I can’t say because then everybody will be like ok, that was her favorite one so that’s the best one. I do have to say the three that Grace and I ended up picking out of the eight—I don’t know if I’m gravitating towards them because I see them more now but every day I’m like fighting between those three so the Ultra Sheen, the Flavor Red Hots and the Crown Royal bag. I don’t know. I go back and forth. I was obsessed with the Pink Oil for a long time, right? So I’m a libra. You’re putting me on the spot. I’m so indecisive.
Deana Haggag: I feel like Grace has the answer.
Amanda Williams: I’m going to let Grace pick. Oh, and I forget gold. How could we forget gold? But I’ve got to leave gold alone. I’m almost to—I’m to the point now where I might get thrown out of places if I suggest gold one more time. But no. Maybe so maybe that’s my next task. I mean so I am interested. So my next hopefully when I stop time and put in an insert a year to do new work. But redlining and negro Green Books are the next two colors. So but you’ve just put a bug in my head that maybe I need to be trying to, what’s my Yves Klein blue or my Benjamin Moore line. Everyone should write to Benjamin Moore and be like, “We would like the Amanda Williams color of the year.”
Deana Haggag: I definitely think Crown Royal bag is definitely a Benjamin Moore color.
Amanda Williams: That’s a Benjamin Moore color. Let’s do it.
Deana Haggag: Well, you heard it here first that Amanda is working on two new colors and possibly her Yves Klein color. Thank you all for joining us. Please put your hands together for Amanda Williams. Her show is up until December 31st so please bring your families to see the show.
Amanda Williams: And your children!
Deana Haggag: It’s up until December 31st. And your children. Children love the show. I’ve seen so many children love the show.
Amanda Williams: And they’ve all been so well behaved. We were like convinced when we were putting the show up. We’re like that house just looks like something to dive into it, doesn’t it? And no one has. Thank you. And that room they’ve been so good.
Deana Haggag: Nobody should try, either. Thank you so much. Good night.
Amanda Williams: Thank you guys for coming!
Deana Haggag: Thank you.
- Chicago Works:Amanda Williams–
- Short A bright red-orange house is boarded up, standing next to an empty urban lot during sunset.
- Talk: Amanda Williams with Deana Haggag–TalksFree (with admission)
- Short Six rows of gold-leafed bricks are stacked atop a wooden pallet.