D’Angelo Lovell Williams’ powerful photographs push new narratives into art history
Often ridden with stereotypes and misrepresentations, the Eurocentric narrative pervades art history. Born and raised in Jackson, Mississippi, photographer D'Angelo Lovell Williams contests this tradition by creating bold works that allow him to exist in a world where he previously could not see himself. “The history of art has always been, dangerously, white, straight, and male,” says the 25-year-old. “My images are not only about my black and gay experience from my perspective, they are about desire and the framing of black gay men.”
Often positioning himself at the centre of his work, the artist demonstrates a certain vulnerability through posture and radical gestures but he is far from objectified. Williams controls his narrative by placing himself in a position of power, sometimes looking directly into the camera, as an act of defiance against a fetishising gaze placed on PoCs. “We’ve been depicted as hyper-masculine, fetishised, and hyper-sexualised by many artists; straight and queer, but rarely by people who are black and share similar experiences. There is a lack of our own perspective and representations in art canons and in many forms of media.” He adds, “It’s important to see the perspectives of marginalised people regardless if the work is about our realities or not. That visibility is so important.”
Last week, Williams launched his MFA show at the Community Folk Art Centre in Syracuse, New York, so we caught up with the artist to find out more.
“I want to leave people shook” – D’Angelo Lovell Williams
What drives you to create the photos that you do and what are the main themes that you are expressing through your lens?
D’Angelo Lovell Williams: Systemic ideologies embedded throughout our history; race, class, sexuality, gender, love, and so much more, as it pertains to the black, male body, and what is and isn’t expected of us. The themes in my self-portraits bring attention to larger questions about sexual taboos and hierarchies, systemic racism, and classism... I talk about endless issues and stigmas, and how we are rarely seen because of taboo, or because it’s not the norm, or desirable. I want to see more from our perspectives and I want that to be more, if not just as successful, than white artists who are making mediocre work about their white privilege.
Why do you choose to turn the camera on yourself?
D’Angelo Lovell Williams: I photograph myself because I am not thin, white, or straight. I’m in control of my narratives, my body and whatever I want my audience to see. When I got to grad school I didn’t know what I wanted my images to look like or what I wanted to do. I started to go deeper inside myself, looking at the experiences I was having in Syracuse with other gay, black, men. I looked at the spaces that I was having to navigate, to create narratives; real, surreal, re-imagined. I became more vulnerable. A reassertion of power through my gaze, gestures, and performance. I also started to photograph myself nude. I didn’t want to do this at first because I was over nudes from undergrad and a lot of photographers, queer and straight, photographed nudes that did nothing but make me want to oppose the lack of body types they would photograph. After I started making images that were hard to talk about in critiques – like ones with a gun in my mouth and me bent over with a red stain on my underwear – I still wasn’t having the conversations I wanted to have. I stopped making and showing those types of images because they were too challenging. My images aren’t necessarily about telling the truth. I had to teach myself to embrace the confrontation in my work and I do.
Why do you feel it's important to use art, photography specifically, to address stigma?
D’Angelo Lovell Williams: I was tired of not seeing myself in a space that I wanted to exist in, that actually intertwined with my lived experience, and how I existed within that. For me, photography is a way to create, resist, exist, and make statements as quick as I want to. Not all black and gay men are muscular, thin, slim or look like models, and it’s believed that if you aren’t any of that, you aren’t desirable. That is even more so in the gay community, and I hate to use labels because we are more than what we are given to ascribe to. I grew up in the south and I know there are plenty of queer black boys and girls who can’t come out, don’t feel represented, are scared of dying, or whatever it is. If by chance my narratives and perspective cross their paths, outside of what has been deemed normal and expected of them, and all of us, that’s something to be proud of.
Who are some photographers or artists that you admire that have influenced the way you create work?
D’Angelo Lovell Williams: I tend to stop looking at artists to inspire my work visually. Mentally, it’s a different story. I work intuitively a lot when I get behind and in front of the lens. I make sketches sometimes but it’s mostly a gamble in the actual process. I do admire the work of artists for what the work is, and what it does to push conversations and bring attention to mundane and minority lives. The “Kitchen Table” work of Carrie Mae Weems, Lyle Ashton Harris’s self-portraits, Deana Lawson’s portraits of unapologetically black bodies and love, and many more. I like to see how other artists use various media to make work about similar issues. Video work by Martine Sims, and Mohau Modisakeng has mesmerised me. Paintings by, the brilliant, Jonathan Lyndon Chase and Kerry James Marshall hold me every time I see them. Also, the work of Mark Bradford hit me in the most powerful way. It’s visceral and the work discusses topics being had every single day about HIV, black bodies, and the invasion of space.
“There are plenty of queer black boys and girls who can’t come out, don’t feel represented, are scared of dying, or whatever it is. If by chance my narratives and perspective cross their paths... that’s something to be proud of” – D’Angelo Lovell Williams
What do you ultimately hope people feel, learn, or see, when they look at your work?
D’Angelo Lovell Williams: I want to leave people shook. Even more so than that, I want people to feel whatever they feel – it will say just as much about themselves as I’m saying in my work. My gestures and my gaze commands attention and takes power from those who have always been able to look at and see themselves in every way imaginable. My work asks questions about roles and labels for black men and women all across the spectrum. My black body is making images about my black body in positions I don’t see myself in until I put myself in them. Beyond the beauty of my images, there are much deeper nuances to digest and that is what I want to get to with audiences. Art can’t change the world but it can make it a little bit easier to live in.
Can you tell us about the works in your upcoming show... Do they form a wider narrative or hold a story of their own?
D‘Angelo Lovell Williams: The images aren’t necessarily one narrative. All of my images operate on multiple levels; they stand on their own and together. The images are all from a larger body of work titled Untitled, which references a song and video by musician, D’Angelo, who I’m named after. My thesis work is a culmination of three years in the Master of Fine Arts in Art Photography program at Syracuse University and range from 2015-2018. They are mostly of me, but I have been including other black, gay men in the work more over the last year. The way the images read depends on the viewer’s narrative and questions or lack of. Once the work is out in the world, it is out of my hands and in the hands of the audience. I don’t have to explain anything or prove anything in my work, but the point is to continue a dialogue on certain issues, call out history, and insert my perspective into it.
“Know Your Holes” I made in my first semester of Grad school in 2015. I was using fabrics and different clothes, patterns, and textiles to play with colour. I’m wearing a cape like a skirt and a black button-up shirt and a little bit of my underwear is shown where I touch myself. My thigh hairs are visible and only my thighs and hands can be seen. I was thinking about roles that I’ve wanted to see played by black people that were, bluntly, about sexual liberation, free of taboo. One point of the image is to talk about assigned gender and what is expected of men to do and not do with their bodies. I am no stranger to fingering myself and I was basically making the statement for anyone to know your body in and out. Aesthetically the image is dark and kind of gothic. The lighting lights my skin causing a contrast between it and the darkness of the cloth covering me. There also the repetition of hands grabbing the body and reaching throughout my work.
“I can’t remember the last time I saw a black man looking at you while his face was in another black man’s ass. Not outside of porn” – D’Angelo Lovell Williams
In “Face Down, Ass Up”, there are so many ways this image can read; rape, menstruation. My intention wasn’t to make something traumatic into something beautiful, it was to introduce a narrative about something that naturally happened to me. Bleeding from the anus happens for many reasons. The title of the image references the phrase and sexual position used in many songs by black musicians and in pop culture. I was also thinking about images I’ve seen of black men up against walls in their underwear, being searched and assaulted by police officers. The white on the ground between the camera and me is a pedestal, which acts as this platform that my body interacts with outside of its original use. It invades my space and makes it hard for me to move in.
“Cheek to Cheek”: there is so much content that I move back and forth to; sex, love, race issues, beauty, desire, fashion. All of these have a history that I can look to as well. I can’t remember the last time I saw a black man looking at you while his face was in another black man’s ass. Not outside of porn. Not in a fine art context. It happens very often. When I make overtly sexual images, it’s definitely to confront and question the uncomfortableness that may come with it. It’s a space that I belong in, and also a space that I am othered for being in.
“Rosebed”: I’m not an awkward person, but this image reads as awkward, yet beautiful to some people. The awkwardness kind of reads like being in a space or situation that someone doesn’t quite know how to operate in, which takes time. The awkwardness wasn’t the intent, but I welcome the idea. I always talk about how there is no book on ‘How to be black and gay’. All of our experiences are just going for it, instinctive, and what we see on the internet or see in porn. But communication outside of sexual or intimates conversations are more difficult to navigate. The beauty lies within the vastness of the space, the body language between us, the darkness around us, the light on our skin. It’s a whole mood. Our gaze and expressions in the image suggest being caught or in the middle of doing something, or maybe it’s us minding our business, but when I came across this bed of roses I knew I had to make an image in it. I was also thinking about blood a lot because we were actually being cut and bleeding while photographing in it. I started to think about HIV and how much of a stigma surrounds it. I started thinking about scarification of the body and its cultural significances. My mind goes to so many places.
Follow Williams here