Art South Africa in conversation with Deborah Willis Ph.D – Chair of the Department of Photography & Imaging, Tisch School of the Arts, New York University – on her involvement in the ‘Art in Embassies’ events in South Africa.
Interviewing Deborah Willis in Langa, Cape Town.
Art South Africa: You have been invited to moderate the discussion titled ‘Transformations: A Conversation on Identity, Race and History in Contemporary Art’. Can you explain how these ideas are relevant to both American and South African audiences?
Deborah Willis: Well the idea of transformation is a concept that we all live with everyday. This invitation excited me because we can actually consider ways of how we transform our lives with the art making process, art and culture, and with our conversations. I hope to weave in stories that are of every-day life and sometimes extraordinary, so we can be transformed by the stories told by the artists.
How are these ideas are relevant to both American and South African audiences?
I think people are engaged or disengaged with art, it’s not necessarily regional. The experience happens openly, there is a way of looking at photography – from Fine Art photography to photojournalism – that we are looking for stories to tell. That aspect is important to consider with photography and making.
You’ve been describes as a “curator of African American culture”. What are the connections between African-American and South African culture; is there a cross-over?
There are many similarities, to do with resilience. I think resilience is important within both American culture and African culture; based on segregation experiences, experiences from human and civil rights activities to political disadvantages. The work of artists, and the experiences of writing and making art about ones existence and ones experiences, they kind of overlap; for example womens stories – there are a lot of domestic workers, workers within the beauty industry etc. Women are finding ways to support their families, all over the world, similar in both cultures.
Nicholas Hlobo, Sanford Biggers, Deborah Willis, Mary Sibande and Robert Pruitt taking part at the talk at the AVA: ‘Transformations: A Conversation on Identity, Race and History in Contemporary Art’.
Can you expand on how you view the ideas of ‘Identity, Race and History,’ especially as they are explored in contemporary art?
Well with identity stories, I think everyone is asking ‘who am I’, and it has a lot to do with popular culture and the media. I believe that identity art is a way of saying “I’m here, I can’t be ignored”. This is what artists are saying, and I think that what has happened in the past is artists feel they have been neglected or overlooked in the larger arena, so artists who are dealing with identity art have an opportunity to tell their own stories. By telling their own stories they could possibly get curators, collectors and directors to listen and be a part of their discoveries.
Does your own art deal with these ideas?
In my work, I’ve been centrally interested and focused on beauty. I have this quest for looking for beauty; beauty is soothing, beauty is affirming, and beauty is not necessarily a physical experience, I feel it is an emotional experience. I’m photographing urban gardens, I’m photographing women in beauty shops, I’m photographing people going to church, walking down the street – my experience with beauty is that it’s an emotive kind of moment.
What is it about the medium of photography that draws you to it?
I grew up around photographers and images. As a young kid I was fascinated with images, like the young kids here today, with a book called the ‘The Sweet Flypaper of Life’. It was a book of photographs by Roy DeCarava, he was an African-American phiotographer, and Langston Hughes – the novelist, poet and writer – and I was interested in the way that they were able to tell a stpry about an ordinary family, that intrigued me. I was about 8 years old, trying to reimagine the stories. And I believe that through my history of studying photography as a student, and then teaching photography, and then curating photography, I’m always looking for people that have their own ways of telling stories. I think that photography can become biography for me, and it happens in that sense, when people create their own biographies by taking images of their communities.
How did you get to be involved in this initative in South Africa?
It was an invitation by the ‘Art in Embassies’ programme and Ambassador Patrick Gaspard; they knew about my work and my curation of African-American photographers, and I have written about African photographers as well. Because of the collaboration of the history of my interests and visually telling multiple stories, they were interested in having me here, to ask questions about the collection.