‘I have a desire to break boundaries’: In Conversation with Queer Black Artist D’Angelo Lovell Williams

HISKIND recently had the pleasure of speaking to queer Black New York based artist and photographer, D’Angelo Lovell Williams, about his life, his urgent and necessary work, vulnerability, and his radical and disruptive depictions of queer black identity.

When you step behind the camera what are you attempting to do?

I’m trying to do so much shit. The most, actually. My work is about desire. I dissect themes of identity, using my body as subject and material to visualize and discuss topics of race, sexuality, class, gender and much more, as it pertains to Black bodies. I make art based on my existence and perspective as a Black, gay male. I wanted to talk about a lot and I was like why not just do it all. Some of my professors told me to pick one and stick to it because I was trying to do too much in one body of work, consisting of self portraits. I know there are Black gay men who don’t see themselves represented or see too much of themselves represented poorly in art canons as well as mainstream media. I aim to go beneath the surface of Black bodies, in general, as well as reach the surface of other Black artists and thinkers whose work I’d like to be in conversation with. I make images that used to be hard to wrap my head around my friends or anyone in my family seeing, because of how I thought they’d react. If I cared about living for them they wouldn’t know the reality of my life and would have a limited view of what the experience of a queer Black identity like mine is like. I’m controlling my history through art and want to tear some shit down along the way.

Structural Dishonesty (2016) || D’Angelo Lovell Williams

Your work involves some amazing self-portraiture. Stepping in front of your own camera demands a great deal of vulnerability in making yourself and not just your art, subject. Why did you feel this was necessary?

Thank you! The way I feel in my everyday life took over the subject matter in my work. I felt it necessary to decipher my experience and thoughts because most representations of them are limited and are not depicted by those who experience it. At first I wasn’t so sure of what I was doing or wanted to do. I would just photograph myself in a bunch of clothes I thrifted and think more like a stylist and fashion photographer, which i’m not. That got very repetitive and I just started looking the same in a majority of my images for about a year. I was using the same lighting, making the same face, photographing inside, just doing the same thing for every photo. The images weren’t exactly saying what I wanted. That’s when I was like my work needs more from me. I need to diversify all of that. I needed to, literally, go inside myself, beyond my surface. It was a way to get an image that I didn’t know whether or not would work for me. I thought about going pornographic, but porn isn’t mainstream for a reason, unless you’re white, straight and rich, like Jeff Koons. I have a desire to break boundaries of representations of sex and intimacy amongst Black male bodies as we know them. I didn’t think I could do that without putting mine on the frontline.

I’ve found that most queer art, and in particular queer black art, springs from a lack of mainstream representation. How much of this project, and indeed your work is about making images that you wanted to see?

The work was always about that but I didn’t always know how to represent certain ideas visually. I think like a stylist, a fashion photographer, a cinematographer, an actor, a producer. I’m neither of those for anyone else outside of my own work. The experiences we don’t see in art or mainstream media have to be represented by those in a position to tell their own stories and the stories of others that are like them. It’s not easy to do that because access is so limited. I’m sure you know how many imaginative Black minds and perspectives we could see if it didn’t require a degree, a majority of the time, for people to see or hear you, or if the U.S. prison system wasn’t fucked up, or if we didn’t have to fight for our lives and those of other Black bodies every day. It’s a privilege to make art a beautiful thing that I can imagine what could and should be in the spectrum of fine art photography by someone who isn’t straight or white. I can look at myself, my experience with other gay men, and how much my body is a part of my experience. The two years I’ve been working on this project has made me realize a lot. Some of my work is based off my research and experience with other gay men. It’s been difficult to find other gay Black men in Syracuse, NY to be in photographs with me or sit for me to make the kind of art I want to make. Personal, vulnerable, revealing, kinda fucked up. That’s asking a lot from a person who isn’t my life or work partner. For example, My image “Face Down, Ass Up” is about an experience I had where I bled from my anus. That was my experience. Although it has been a lot of other people’s experience, they might not be an artist or want to tell that story. I’m an artist who visualized that narrative the way that I did.

“The Lovers” (2017) || D’Angelo Lovell Williams

This is absolutely one of my favourite images. Can you talk us through the wonderfully subversive ‘The Lovers’?

Although I’d rather it not be, my image is the subversion of that of a white European artist. It warms my heart that this image speaks to people in the ways that its Magritte reference won’t. I wanted to make this image for over a year, after sitting with Rene Magritte’s paintings and photographs. It was difficult to find someone who would be comfortable making it with me, because of the subject matter and what it depicted. I’m so glad I did though. I met a professor on Jack’d, a gay dating app, who was visiting Upstate, NY last Summer. His research was on gender and sexuality studies and he taught at a women’s college in Roanoke, Virginia. He was very interested in my work, but we had an intimate relationship for three days and then he went back to Virginia. The relationship was to the point where he was willing to make images with me. However, we didn’t make any images until March of this year. I went to visit him in Roanoke, Virginia and “The Lovers” came out of my experience with him. The image is simple, yet surreal, on the surface, but deeper in meaning. The white tank tops we have on contrast with our skin. These are usually associated with masculinity amd sometimes called muscle shirts. You can’t see our muscles because we don’t have any. Although neither of us is “DL” or downlow, as the black durags, worn as veils, might suggest, the image is a bold expression of Black male love that we sometimes don’t feel we see enough or accurately. There is still quite a stigma surrounding the depiction of it and it is represented very shallowly in mainstream media. The bed foreshadows that our Black bodies are about to make love and do it with the lights on. I wanted to show only a part of our bodies which aren’t the usual hypermasculine, chiseled bodies normally seen in representations of Black, gay intimacy. Many depictions are not very representative of all body types. My goal isn’t to represent all of them, but I do aim to bring attention to the lack of that by using my own.

What are some of your great cultural inspirations?

I’m inspired by so much. The black body and mind for sure. A wide range of photographers, artists, authors, musicians, and filmmakers have inspired my motivation. Gordon Parks, Renee Cox, Carrie Mae Weems, Lyle Ashton Harris, Ava DuVernay, Mickalene Thomas, Kris graves, James Baldwin, Deborah Willis, Latoya Ruby Frasier, Beyoncé, Marsha P. Johnson, Barry Jenkins, Terrel Alvin McCraney, Lynette Yiadom-Boakeye, Stanley Wolukau Wanambwa, Dawoud Bey, Seydou Kieta, Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, Marlon Riggs, Frank Ocean, Lizzo, Rotimi Fani-Kayode, 2 Chains, Toni Morrison, SZA, just to name a few. I’m definitely influenced by poems and lyricism as much as I am by the silence of an image. With music you make the image and with images you make the music. You can listen to and feel them both. What matters to me is what they say and how they say it. I’m not a big theory person, but works by authors like Zora Neale Hurston and Frantz Fanon have had an influence on my work as well. I can be influenced by anything that gives me purpose and makes me feel more human.

“Face Down, Ass Up” (2016) || D’Angelo Lovell Williams

In the age of Instagram, Tumblr and such prolific and accessible means of virtual/digital curation (which often have a much greater footfall than traditional exhibits), what function do you feel the gallery and the gallery space performs for your work?

Social media sites like Tumblr and Instagram are a haven for looking at images. They even operate similarly to gallery spaces, in a way, especially since galleries with social medias have the same following as their physical spaces. Although the gallery space introduces your work to a wider audience, even other artists, museums, collectors, and curators, it is less accessible for sure, which is why Instagram and Tumblr are so successful. We know that not all galleries operate the same. Some are none profit and can only do so much for you and your art. Other gallery spaces are where the money is, but many Black and queer artists have limited access to those galleries, which occasionally end up showing mediocre, one dimensional art, or go for artists with prestigious backgrounds instead of thought-provoking work.

“Know Your Holes” (2015) || D’Angelo Lovell Williams

What excites you about the landscape of contemporary queer art, and what bores you?

What excites me is how hard queer art can hit you just by existing. Even outside of photography there are queer artist translating their ideas into something tangible. I’m excited by work that negates people’s views of what they think they know about Black and queer identities and what they think we’re capable of. Even though it doesn’t matter what other people think about us, a lot of the times our representation is by them, not us. Work that depicts mundanity of Black and queer Black lives by Black artists excites me. It bores me when I see art made by white artists and it means nothing to me. There is a ton of white art, straight and queer, that does nothing for my Black mind and body. It excites me when I see other Black artists making work, especially when they are queer, until they turn out to be labeled “the Black, queer artist who is doing this or that.” Handing out that label diminishes the fact that there are so many other Black queer artists doing the same things, making work in their own ways, but may not necessarily have the access to resources that gets their work seen or put in conversations with other well known artists. Of course all art isn’t “good” art. It’s not our job as artists to nurture that unless it’s in an academic setting, which can be completely draining for some Black people who only get feedback from non-Black voices in those settings. I get bored when I see any artist make work that isn’t derived from a place of relevance, meaning, below surface level, and is shallow, or they don’t talk about the work. Work by any non-black, straight or queer artist that reeks of privilege and is ultimately about how safely they exist in the world bores me. Seeing art, especially photographs or videos, consisting of hyper-masculine Black bodies doesn’t bore me visually, especially if the artist is Black, because I am attracted to these images as well. However, I don’t look like that and when I constantly see thin or muscular queer Black men as a representation of the Black queer body and identity, I don’t agree with it. I say, that’s nice to look at, but there has got to be more than just an attractive body there. I question what it is that i’m not getting from art all the time.

What does the idea of black queer legacy mean to you? Why is this history important, and why should it be handed down?

To me that means being in control of our own narratives and histories. We are not all the same. We don’t look the same. We don’t all have the same experience. Some of us are more privileged than others. Some of us suffer more than others. I wanna solidify my experience as human and represent others like me along the way. No one else is going to lift us up but us. Future generations need to know that someone like them are here to do so and let them know they can do the same. You don’t have to be a scholar on everything queer or Black. That history will always be there for those who want it and need it in the most necessary times.

D’Angelo Lovell Williams’ first solo exhibition in New York is currently showing at the Higher Pictures gallery from July 6th to September 2nd, 2017.