“I believe that essentially all art is propaganda,” Pat Ward Williams told a small but enthusiastic audience Tuesday night at UC Irvine. “It is an artist getting you to think about those things that are right and true.”
Williams, whose installations deal with personal and political issues in African-American life, was delivering the latest in the Chancellor’s Distinguished Lectures series, established last year to bring more diverse points of view to the campus.
Williams, who is on the faculty at the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, said she always knew she was going to be an artist. As a teen-ager in a black section of Philadelphia, she studied Kodak’s “Guide to Existing Light Photography” and set out to capture bright images of her community on film.
These views were to be different than the photographs she’d already seen of black people, in which “we always looked so pitiful, like victims,” she said. “I knew I was a happy person. There were aspects of the black community that weren’t being shown.”
So she started making her own photographs, but discovered that people tended to misunderstand them. Her shot of a black man with unruly hair and an open jacket struck fellow students at Moore College of Art in Philadelphia as “threatening.” They told her she was courageous to have taken his picture.
But this man sold her fruit on a street corner, she said. He was her friend. The reason he looked so powerful in the photograph was that she had knelt to take the picture, in order to eliminate a busy background. Obviously, what people saw in her work was not necessarily what she intended them to see. That troubled her.
Meanwhile, her instructors at Moore College were wondering why all her subjects were black people. Whites taking photographs of blacks was “documentary” work, she was told. But when blacks took photographs of blacks, it was considered “culturally aggressive.”
She told her instructors that she lived in a black community where the only whites were people on TV. “They understood,” she deadpanned. “It was a matter of logistics.”
Years after getting her master’s degree in fine arts from Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, Williams spent a month in Nigeria. She had grown up in the 1950s with National Geographic images of Africans. Then came the ‘60s and the idealistic American back-to-Africa movement. She wanted to get past all that and let her pictures reflect real life in Africa. She photographed people in social situations, people standing in front of their homes, people going about their daily lives.
But something was wrong. One of her photographs shows a boy standing next to a stall of fetish-like heads and hanging animal skins. This picturesque scene gave no clue that that the next stall sold Michael Jackson records and the stall after that sold Jordache jeans.
Even when she photographed a person she knew well, the image captured only the superficial look of that moment.
“All you can do is look at surface appearance--expression, clothes, artifacts that might or might not be there,” she said. How could she show vital information that was outside the frame of the photograph, or invisible on the surface?
In the mid-'80s, Williams started to come up with answers, beginning with a collage of multiple photographs of the same scene shot from slightly different perspectives. This approach evolved into more elaborate mixed-media pieces and full-blown installations incorporating written or spoken texts.
Many of these pieces are about Williams’ family background, childhood or personal adult life (as lover, job-seeker, unwilling small-town resident). All are meant to involve the viewer in an extended, intimate experience quite different from a quick glance at a single photograph.
“I Remember It Well” is a 20-foot-by-11-foot mural print of a family photograph of people sitting around a table, blown up so large that the images become coarse patterns of dots. From a distance, the scene makes sense but, Williams said, “when you get close, the figures break up the way memory does when you really examine what happened (in the past).”
Other work invites the viewer to reconsider political themes. Williams made “Accused/Blowtorch/Padlock” with a heroic-looking photograph of a bound black man chained to a tree, which she found in a 1937 issue of Life magazine. The magazine caption said the man--accused of killing a white person--was attacked with a blowtorch and lynched.
After looking at the picture for a long time, she realized the picture actually showed the man before he was murdered. So it was reasonable to suppose that whoever took the picture must have been part of the group that attacked him. This thought distressed Williams even more.
She enlarged some of the details: his bound wrists, his scarred back, the padlock under his chin. Around the photographs, she wrote fragments of text (“WHO took this picture?”). Both strategies were meant to rivet the viewer’s attention on the depravity of the scene as well as the meaning of the photograph as a bitter social document.
Williams’ largest project to date is “MOVE?” an installation based on a notorious 1985 incident in Philadelphia: Eleven people died when police bombed a house where members of an eccentric black group called Move were living.
The piece--which has been shown in different versions at the Los Angeles Center for Photographic Studies and other venues--consists partly of vast amounts of documentation culled from police, autopsy, eyewitness and investigative commission reports. Other components include a schematic diagram of the scene, drawings indicating the fragmentary body parts found in the debris, and 24 hours of news bulletins issued by a local TV station.
Excised from the TV tapes are nearly all references to the personal lives of Move members--their hairstyles, cooking habits, hygiene, marital status, manner of raising children and so forth--that were constant fodder for speculation in the media. She believes these references helped to legitimize police intervention, as if an eccentric lifestyle could ever be a justification for killing.
“But don’t believe me,” she urged her listeners. “This is just a tease. Find out for yourself! Figure out why this happened or why you’re being told (it happened this way).” The viewer’s interaction with the work--and subsequent actions--matter a great deal to Williams. “It’s really important in political art,” she said, “that you don’t go to a South Africa show and then go buy your girlfriend a diamond.”