by Hili PerlsonJan 28, 2023
Movement in the case of forced ‘migration’ and work is not celebratory in nature, but a testimony to the exertion and labour of the Black body, as is evidenced. In an orchestration of the natural, synthetic, performative, and plastic, this essay looks at the presentation of A Garden by Kandis Williams that was on view at Art Basel Miami Beach 2021, presented by Night Gallery. Speaking to the artist’s larger oeuvre of work that instigates and investigates notions around Black labour, the artworks presented are a mix between collage, sculpture, and video work. Material is presented in conversation with the form and subject matter, as there is an exploration of hybridity between nature and culture, alongside the historical classifications of Black bodies through pseudo-scientific, ultimately violent and racist methods that gained prominent exposure and acceptance until the 20th century in the Global North, very much penetrating colonial structures. The claim of nature is a dangerous one, as Williams’ work seems to say, as when we speak for it, we seek to erase and silence living, labouring voices.
The notion of the sculpture, a classification of the man-made, is in opposition to the presentation of works as natural assemblages of plant life and foliage. In moments of hybridity, these plant arrangements can be seen as incorporating images of Black bodies that are in motion, labouring, dancing, between work and performance. In the sculptural work Marx Baker Rumba (2020), one can identify the disassembled, disjointed parts of black bodies - an eye, smiling lips, a hand holding a pickaxe - printed and reprinted. The materiality of the work plays with the dichotomous classification of nature vs. culture, where instead of flora and “natural” material, plastic and paper with print act as stand-ins, replacements, or even challenges to the very notion of separation. Instead, we are presented with the idea of assimilation of culture with nature, and a further hybridisation of the natural in response to cultural, institutional and physical violence.
The presentation of the sculptures as indoor floral arrangements in the precarious containment of the vase is a curious one, speaking to the idea of a sanitised or clean-cut alignment, where the notion of a ‘garden’, as taken from the exhibition title and eponymous video work, signals against the very same erasure of the wildy, unwieldy natural. A garden is opposed to the ‘lawn’ that is always mowed down and maintained, whereas the garden is plentiful and multifarious in nature. However, the images presented as part of the work are powerful reminders of this historical nature of sanitisation of identity and race, in yet another system of classification. The cotton paper that is the material for the prints is yet another reminder of systemic slavery, in reference to the cotton estates where Black people would serve indentured labour. As the exhibition text reads, the works reference and expand on forced migration and slavery, and an entire system of capitalism based on the labouring black body.
Candombe Africano via Jitterbug to Virginia Georgia Mississippi Bouquet (2020), another sculptural work by Williams in the show, displays a black woman in nude. Away from the art historical touchpoint of the reclining nude, the woman is shown to be amused or playful in her muted mannerism, with her legs crossed and making eye contact with the viewer, in an innate assertion of her own sexuality and freedom. However, one also wonders the history of these photographs, and the rooted nature of racism. Were these bodies documented to be consumed and objectified, or celebrated? Transposition, Sketch, Monstera and Tumblr issued Tango (2020) is one the photo collages, where Williams juxtaposes historical photographs of dancing black men and women with images of plant leaves, opening up the composition to the assembling of her sculptural work. The scenes presented are vicarious yet instilled with a sense of life and joy, but somehow ominous.
In this exhibition, Williams’ new video work is also presented, eponymously titled A Garden that investigates the nature of the image in an archaeological enquiry. Williams composes an almost slideshow-like assemblage of images in the form of the video with a voiceover by Israeli artist, writer, and psychoanalyst, Bracha L Ettinger. There is a foregrounding of popular and commercial imagery surrounding the Black community, that speaks specifically to ideas of movement, considering the labouring body, the dancing body, and the sexual body. Through the use of colour studies, Williams highlights the prevailing depictions of the black body, male or female, within the genre of advertisements, commercial photography and historical documentary photography. Colours are used to accentuate the positioning of these bodies and the received visual indexes as consumers. The use of photography as material as well as historical data is combined with the theorisations of Ettinger, who speaks about subjectivity as the “transgressive encounter between I and non-I”.
In Williams' work, the titles of works are presented as material for consideration as well, where they are constructed references to Black movements of liberation, towards the right to vote, education, against segregation, about historic and contemporary slavery in the form of the prison system. The hybridisation of action is presented in the form of political movement, durational work, and dancing and labouring bodies, speaking to the history of Black diaspora in the West on account of forced movement.