Pat Ward Williams, Isolated Incidents
…Notwithstanding the formidable work of the early- to mid-twentieth-century photographers such as Richard Samuel Roberts, James Van Der Zee and Roy DeCarava, throughout the history of the medium, lens-based representation in its various forms has frequently been used to objectify and demonize African American people, particularly by and within the mainstream media. Perhaps more accurately, we might speak of the photographic medium being used to validate a wide range of spurious or problematic images of African American people. Mainstream media photographs of African American people have often been accepted, on face value, as authoritive, unbiased and even liberal. Yet the accumulative effect of the weight of this photographic representation has been to validate popular and ingrained racial prejudices. Ward Williams is very much aware of this tendency, and her work exists in significant part at least to critique, deconstruct and reconstruct the ways in which we look at and respond to photographs.
To this end, Ward Williams has been responsible for some particularly important pieces of work that examine the position, treatment and societal perceptions of African American people. Widely celebrated, in this regard, is her 1992 piece What You Lookn At, a large scale work, combining photography and text, variously exhibited within and outside of art galleries. Though we might take issue with her use of the word ‘menacing’ Thelma Golden nevertheless offers us a succinct and useful summary of the work: ‘Marked by poise and attitude, they [the group of five African-Caribbean males featured in the piece] create the menacing tableau usually mediated by the media. Williams adds text [the work¹s title], which functions specifically as voice, giving her subjects the ability to subvert the proverbial gaze and pierce their societal silencing.’
But we should perhaps be careful not to typecast Ward Williams as an artist whose practice deals solely with racial matters, important though these things unquestionably are. The same artist who brought to our attention the seminal work Accused/Blowtorch/Padlock has latterly been responsible for some compelling examinations of the landscape and the climate of the South, particularly as it compares and contrasts to both the Northern environment of Philadelphia, in which she was born and raised and the urban sprawl of Los Angeles in which she spent a significant number of years. Currently living in Tallahassee, Florida, Ward Williams describes the natural environment there as ‘unrelentingly Floridian: not just trees and grass but unyielding heat and humidity, mammoth creepy crawly things This group of landscape photographs reflects my undefinable relationship to this natural Floridian environment. Through text, image, and a love of darkroom processes I try to express my experiences here.’…
The full version of the above text, written by Eddie Chambers was published in the brochure to accompany Pat Ward Williams: Isolated Incidents, the inaugural exhibition in the gallery of the Visual Arts Building, Emory University, 21 March - 15 April 2005