CHICAGO — I have just been disarmed. I am pleasantly sunken into the cushions of a well-worn couch in the living room of a two-story brick walkup on the south side of Chicago. I’m interviewing Gerald Williams, a pioneer of the Black Arts Movement. Williams caught me off guard with a word I’ve never heard before. I ask him to spell it.
“F, E, S, T, A, C,” he says. “You don’t know it?”
I admit I don’t.
Williams reassures me. “Nobody knows today,” he says. “But FESTAC, it had something to do with everything.”
All around me on the walls, the shelves, resting on the floor, are hundreds of artworks. Their dates of creation span from the mid-1960s to this morning. Their aesthetic approach ranges from graphic figuration to pure abstraction. Watercolors, collages, impasto oil paintings, flat acrylic works, sculptural reliefs, multi-dimensional kinetic works. It is all William’s life’s work. I am here to be witness to it and to record his oral history, for inclusion in the Smithsonian Archives of American Art.
At 76, Williams has just been signed to a major gallery for the first time. It is no coincidence that his work was also recently featured in the monumental Tate Modern exhibit, Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power. I ask him how he feels about all the sudden attention. He smiles humbly and says, “It’s exciting. I’m excited.”
In 2015, returning after four decades away, Williams bought this house in the neighborhood where he grew up: Woodlawn, just south of the University of Chicago and the Museum of Science and Industry. He prepared homemade hummus in anticipation of my visit. Store bought hummus, he points out, never tastes right. They forget the cumin or the lemon, or use too much garlic. He has also set out coconut water and flax chips.
Williams’s tastes tends toward the natural, the homemade, as well as the international—a reflection of his life story. He has lived in seven countries and five different states within the US. But his artistic roots are here on Chicago’s south side. This was the birthplace of AfriCOBRA, the black artist collective that defined the visual aesthetic of the Black Arts Movement.
For those unfamiliar with AfriCOBRA, here is the back story. In 1967, a group of 20 visual artists finished the “Wall of Respect,” a monumental mural celebrating heroes of black culture located at 43rd Street and Langley Avenue in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood. A few of the muralists then decided it would be good to keep on meeting regularly, once a week or so, on a casual basis, to converse about contemporary black aesthetics. At first there was Jeff Donaldson and Wadsworth Jarrell. Then came Jae Jarrell, Barbara J. Jones, and Gerald Williams. Later came Napoleon Henderson, Nelson Stevens, Sherman Beck, Omar Lama and Carolyn M. Lawrence.
As time went on, the group gave itself a name: AfriCOBRA, the African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists. Their early get-togethers were laid back and philosophical. They were just artists asking questions about how to express the visual language of their world in that moment. But out of their conversations some overarching concepts emerged that they agreed were vital to contemporary black aesthetics: such as the importance of vibrant colors in fashion, and the prevalence of text in street art. To express those concepts, the group started making art. In 1970, they published a manifesto: Ten in Search of a Nation, written by Jeff Donaldson. It outlined three goals they hoped to achieve with their work: “Definition: Images that deal with the past; Identification: images that relate to the present; and Direction: images that look to the future.”
As Williams explains it:
AfriCOBRA was aesthetically about capturing the spirit of the age. There was no rioting in our work. A major facet of that age was the concept of black pride—black is beautiful—and a positive outlook on life. Those aspects really became more important than capturing the demonstrations.
The group exhibited their work in four exhibitions, which traveled the country beginning in 1970. The final AfriCOBRA exhibition took place in 1977. And that was the same year as FESTAC.
FESTAC ‘77 was the nickname for the Second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture, a monthlong showcase of transnational black art held in Lagos, Nigeria. It brought together 16,000 black artists working in every medium from all over the world. Williams describes it as:
Every man and woman … who were descendants of Africans, either living in Africa or in the diaspora … converging to demonstrate, show, or see work produced by their fellow descendants from other parts of the world. All of the various vantage points that we all have of this world, the planet, our environments, and the life we live, the things we see. It was a thing to behold really.
Williams was part of the American contingent that traveled to FESTAC — so was Stevie Wonder, by the way. But on the first day of the festival, Williams found himself in the dark, watching a film. He recalls:
I was sitting in the national theater … I was watching a movie. I think it was called Dream on Monkey Mountain. And it just hit me like a brick: Why am I sitting in this theater, watching this movie? I got up and I left. I just started walking, through a little village. I watched some livestock herders getting ready to auction off their livestock. I just watched them bartering and engaging. And there was sort of like an office building where some Africans were arguing with some officials. They were trying to sell something in front of this office building and they were told they had to leave, and they got in an argument. So I just stood and watched. It was something that was real, besides sitting in a dark theater. It was a beautiful bright sunny day, blue sky. A couple of the guys were artists and they started venting to me, “You’re from America, blah blah blah, they’re treating us so bad. They want us to go away so we can’t be part of the festival.” So I went with them, to their village.
Williams spent four days with the local artists. They took him to one of their home villages and showed him their studio. Williams ate with them and stayed with their family overnight. The next day, he traveled to another village with one of the artists, who took him to a bronze casting studio. The bronze casters presented him with a casting of an important indigenous figure. As I listen to him tell the story, I watch Williams walk into the front room
Gerald Williams with bronze figure presented to him in 1977 by bronze casters in Benin City, Nigeria (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
then return with the bronze casting. I hold it in my hands, suddenly realizing all around me are faint echoes of its features in many of Williams’s more figural works.
When FESTAC concluded, most of the artists Williams knew returned to their prior lives. But not Williams. Williams volunteered for the Peace Corps. He spent the next two years in Kenya working as a teacher for developmentally disabled adults. Remarkably though, he became more productive than ever in his studio. He says:
I acquired a sense of calm that I hadn’t had before. Being surrounded by quietude, night-time listening to what they call bush babies … that’s kind of a primate … listening to these sounds at night. But having that sense of quietude that you only can get from solitude. Not absolute solitude—like you are sitting in a jail cell somewhere—but I’m talking about things just being settled around you. All the negative vibes from the day are gone. The sun is on the other side of the earth. You become conscious of that in certain environments. You’re not influenced by the energy of the sun when its on the other side of the planet … (laughs) … you understand what I’m saying … that inner peace, the calm I was able to attain … that allowed me to get a lot of this work done.
Following his time in the Peace Corps, Williams taught for four years in Washington, DC, public schools. Then he accepted a position as Arts and Crafts Center Director for the United States Air Force, a role he filled for the next 20 years on bases in South Korea, Japan, Italy, the Azores, and South Carolina. Meanwhile, of course, he made art, steadily evolving a more confident, idiosyncratic, aesthetic voice.
Williams describes his current aesthetic position as “mimesis at mid-point.” By “mid-point,” he means the intersection of abstraction and representation. He explains that people think mimesis is the act of copying reality, but that the true goal of mimes is to communicate the spirit of things in ways that are meaningful to everyone.
I ask Williams if what he is doing today reflects the contemporary state of the transnational black aesthetic. He contemplates the question briefly then answers, “No.” He explains he no longer thinks there is any such thing as a black aesthetic. He turns instead to the idea of nation. One of his earliest, and most famous works is a painting called “Nation Time” (1969). It speaks to both the Black Power Movement and the Black Arts Movement, which were, and still are, about the idea of building a nation. He explains, “A nation is a mental construct. Country is land, something you can dig in, concrete. A nation is how you perceive yourself, the relationships that people have among one another. The interactions that people have. That’s what makes a nation.”
With those words in mind, I take another tour of the house, seeing with fresh eyes the work Williams has made, and continues to make. Williams puts on an album by Fela Kuti, titled Expensive Shit. The music is complex and layered. It is the perfect accompaniment to these images. They, too, are polyrhythmic, celebratory, and free. They deal with the past; they relate to the present; and they look to the future.