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The Benefit
April 13, 2021

Right Back At You: The Art of Didier William

Deborah Kostianovsky

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Art isn’t supposed to look back at you, is it? Visual art is there for you to scrutinize at your leisure, without feeling like you are the one being watched. It’s a free pass to look and openly laugh or criticize without repercussions. You can make any assumptions you want about the painting in front of you. But what if the tables were turned and the art eyes you? And what if the subject matter of the work was indeterminate enough to prevent you from making any assumptions about who is on the canvas or what is happening? You wouldn’t know if the painting consists of a group of men rising up about racial injustice, or nonhumans engaged in a bear hug, or a group of women fighting societal oppression. You would become acutely aware of your tendency to try to assign race or gender (or even species) to the figures in the work. The artwork of Didier William illuminates these fascinating yet troubling possibilities.
Didier William’s Anwo, a 76.2 x 56.5cm five plate lithograph, depicts three amorphous, bulky figures standing together in what could be either an embrace or a fighting stance. They almost give the impression of enormous creatures playfully romping together, like outsized puppies or monstrous children wrestling. The figures are indeterminate- they could be male or female, black or white, or perhaps even nonhuman, which lends the work an aura of mystery. The term ‘anwo’ is a Haitian Creole term which means “upwards,” or “on high.” The colors are vivid reds, yellows, oranges, and blues, reminiscent of old commercial signage, as if these figures were part of a historic advertising campaign. They are standing on cloud-like blues and surrounded by fiery colors, as if there is an encroaching wave of lava coming toward them.
Didier William immigrated from Port-au-Prince, Haiti to Miami as a six-year-old Creole speaking child. His early immigration experiences, along with his identification as gay and black inform his work. There are also cultural references embedded in his art. William’s striking, internationally recognized oeuvre of work speaks to issues of race, gender, sexuality, and socioeconomic oppression as examined through the gaze, a recurring trope in the history of art. William turned from abstraction to figuration following the 2012 murder of Trayvon Martin by a neighbor who was eventually acquitted. [1] Much of his work is about looking, being seen, and the assumptions that accompany that gaze, just as Trayvon’s murderer reflexively made assumptions about an unarmed black man. Many of William’s enormous, visually stunning paintings after 2014 are overflowing with eye motifs. In William’s hands, the recurring eye symbols are an exploration of the colonial gaze toward slaves in the Haitian revolution, the judgmental gaze that led to Trayvon Martin’s loss of life, the xenophobic gaze toward immigrants, and the assumptions made about race, gender, and sexuality.  
But his work isn’t just a documentation of ‘the gaze’ with its many ramifications; it’s also about empowerment and agency. The one who is being looked at as ‘other’ has the power to look back, to ignore the gaze, and to actively reject it. As noted by Graeber, the eye is “both a shield- and a response to- an onlookers’ curious appraisal.” [2] William’s artwork seems to show that there are options: rather than being a passive recipient of the gaze, there is the possibility of dignity, autonomy, and action. The ubiquitous eyes in William’s work essentially say to the looker: “I’m looking right back at you!” Though the swarming eyes are not evident in this work, this painting contains figures that, like his other paintings, seem to show solidarity, strength and power. (The paintings that do have them are exquisitely detailed, vibrant, and thought-provoking- take a look here.) The undefined figures do seem to be “rising up,” whether it’s against French takeover in Haiti, racism in this country, or against hatred and intolerance toward a slew of other identities. Given the deliberate ambiguity of the work, perhaps these powerful figures could also be “rising up” in a playful manner.
The fact that we don’t know what they are rising up against, coupled with the fact that these are indeterminate figures, makes the image more poignant, as it strips the viewer of power to make any assumptions. The figures could be anyone, engaged in any task that involves any sort of uprising. There is some freedom there for the viewer to create their own story and peg multiple identities on these undefined figures. As William stated: “This idea that we don’t exist as singular bodies or singular identities, I think, has always been very much part of my work.” [3] We can’t make assumptions based on identity if we are all a jumble of humanness, an amalgam of identities that lie on a continuum. These are hefty, thought-provoking ideas embedded in striking artwork, aren’t they? Though this particular painting doesn’t overtly look back at you as do his other works, there is still the possibility that those faceless figures could be surreptitiously eyeing you. Is it possible? I am not sure, but there is no question that this work will lead to juicy speculation and stimulating conversation as it sits on your wall.
[1] Laurel Graeber, “In Didier William’s Art, There Is More Than Meets the Eye.” The New York Times, December 3, 2019.
[2] Graeber, Ibid., 2019.
[3] Graeber, Ibid., 2019.
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