Storefront for Art and Architecture’s What Black Is This, You Say? challenges “monolithic representation”

Deeper Shades of Black

Storefront for Art and Architecture’s What Black Is This, You Say? challenges “monolithic representation”

A grid of squares from Amanda Williams’ Instagram account, 2020. (Courtesy Storefront for Art and Architecture)

A year-long public art initiative is coming to New York’s Storefront for Art and Architecture in the form of What Black Is This, You Say?

Set to transform Storefront’s Steven Holl–designed Kenmare Street facade in Manhattan, this multifaceted exploration of color, race, and identity was first launched by Chicago-based visual artist Amanda Williams following the #BlackoutTuesday social media protest campaign. The campaign, a global act of solidarity in support of the Black Lives Matter movement following the May 25, 2020, murder of George Floyd at the hands of police officers in Minneapolis, found north of 28 million Instagram users posting black squares on the social media platform on June 2.

The campaign, while well-intentioned, prompted Williams to launch a response meant to challenge the use of the black square as a “monolithic representation.” Over a five-month span following #BlackoutTuesday, Williams posted over 120 shades and textures of black on her Instagram account each with a corresponding caption. As noted in a press announcement from Storefront, together these posts will “provide a rich palette of overlapping and divergent narratives and histories that inform Black identity.”

“I’ll be honest. I wasn’t feeling the blackout. I hate stuff like that, but I caved. Wanted to be in solidarity. But color is everything to me. You can’t just say ‘black’ … which one?” said Williams. The intersection of the color map and race, specifically racially charged urban spaces, was previously explored by Williams in her Color(ed) Theory project, which was presented at the inaugural Chicago Architecture Biennial in 2015.

Launching this Saturday, May 1, What Black Is This, You Say? will physically manifest itself at Storefront as an ongoing public artwork in which 12 of the shades of black explored by Williams last year on Instagram will be painted onto the 12 moving panels of the gallery facade—a different shade of black for each panel. As noted by Storefront, the work is not an ephemeral one and “constitutes a permanent transformation of Storefront’s facade, which all subsequent exhibitions will navigate and build upon in various ways.”

portrait of amanda williams
Amanda Williams (Tony Smith/Courtesy Storefront for Art and Architecture)

Each month through May 2022, a new panel will be painted with Storefront also presenting complementary digital programming—visual, written, and live—on the dedicated website. Throughout the duration of the year-long project, a “new shade will be explored through images and memories from the artist; commissioned texts from artists, writers, and cultural figures; and public submissions,” detailed Storefront. “Together, these discussions interrogate and contextualize commonly held narratives around Black culture, joy, spirituality, suffering, agency, labor, and more.”

Upcoming launch events include a live painting session with Williams (2:00 through 6:00 p.m. on May 1); collective painting sessions with virtual participation by Williams (2:00 through 6:00 p.m. on May 8 and 15); and a website launch event with virtual programming featuring Williams and experimental filmmaker and multimedia artist Cauleen Smith (6:00 through 8:00 p.m. on June 1).

In addition to her upcoming project at Storefront, Williams, a frequently exhibited artist who trained as an architect at Cornell University, has presented two additional works this spring, both of them organized by the Museum of Modern Art: We’re Not Down There, We’re Over Here, a work presented as part of the historic group exhibition Reconstructions: Architecture and Blackness in America and Embodied Sensations, a participatory artwork now on view at MoMA’s Donald B. and Catherine C. Marron Atrium until June 20. Reconstructions closes on May 31.