The Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts (UICA) continues their dedication to artist equity and showing diverse artists with their first new exhibit of 2019, Warm Water: New Works by Charles Edward Williams. The exhibit opened January 11 and runs until April 28. 

This continues the stated future goal from their 40 year anniversary celebrations in 2017, when it showcased stellar art created by artists of color in the Pizutti Collection’s Us is Them, alongside then-curator Heather Duffy’s Here and Now, which included Chicago curator Janice Bond’s Abandoned Margins.

That set of shows was a continuation of the already noticeable roster of artists of color given attention in recent years at UICA. Their next show with Williams, an already widely-exhibited and broadly-praised artist, showcases a word many use when talking about Williams: prolific.

"Warm Water" creator, Charles Edward Williams, depicts himself in floaties and goggles as he learns how to swim as an adult.

Photo Credit: Experience Grand Rapids

The artists’ prolific work ethic shines in the show designed for the UICA, which started as just two sets of work, but is now up to a series of seven, slated to take over the entire first floor and lower level. The exhibition includes everything from painting to video to installation, all focused on racial equality, identity, and vulnerability.

Newly-hired curator Juana Williams (unrelated to Charles Edward Williams) has been with the artist for the last several stages of growth during the over-two-year process of planning the show.

“Everything that he brings to me is so important: it’s a compelling story and it’s amazing work,” she says. “You want to bring those voices to the conversation...that haven’t been told or not focused on enough—and Charles’ work does that really well.”

The show starts with a set of five self-portraits of the artist learning to swim, complete with goggles and floaties—a vulnerable site that’s more commonly seen on a child, not an adult.

“I want to make sure that everyone knows we’re all connected,” says Charles Edward Williams. “And if I’m vulnerable and I share my weaknesses, than hopefully that can inspire you to share yours as well.

"Warm Water" also pays tribute to African American history dating back to the early 1900s.

Photo Credit: Experience Grand Rapids

Along with the vulnerability of portraying himself trying to learn to swim, a feat complicated by fears developed over three near-drownings the artist experienced growing up, the story connects us to the larger story of the Black experience in the United States. A full 64 percent of African American people don’t know how to swim, a result of a history of segregated pools and a continued lack of access to pools in Black neighborhoods.

The five portraits are also a nod to the five young Black teens involved in the start of the Chicago Race Riot of 1919. The riots, by white people against Black people, were happening around the country that summer, but in Chicago were started on the shores of Lake Michigan when five teens were on a raft trying to get to another beach when they unknowingly drifted into the white beach.

One of those was a 14 year old Black child, who was hit with a rock by a white man, resulting in his drowning. Williams studied heavily a book by William M. Tuttle, Jr. about the Chicago race riots and this story of the five teens on the raft at the beginning of creating these works. The artist says he read Tuttle’s book five times to decode all its meaning and fully understand the story.

I want to make sure that everyone knows we’re all connected... And if I’m vulnerable and I share my weaknesses, than hopefully that can inspire you to share yours as well.

The five portraits also nod to the ethnographic categorization in those years, when a scientific theory was using brain size to categorize Africans and Black Americans as less intelligent, using contrasting imaging of white people, shown with bigger skulls, as smarter. The five portraits also reference the mug shots that came out of that ethnographic categorization, with frontal, left, right, and back “shots” in his self-portraits.

Are you starting to get the sense of the layers of storytelling that Charles Edward Williams is working with in his art?

Oh, and, also: the child killed on the beach by a rock resulting in drowning? His last name was Williams too. The connection and layers of Black history and personal narrative are interwoven seamlessly.

The connection and layers of Black history and personal narrative are interwoven seamlessly throughout "Warm Water."

Photo Credit: Experience Grand Rapids

“I’m excavating history, but I’m also excavating my personal beliefs and my value systems as well, to really incorporate it into the pieces,” explains the artist.

These layers chart a re-narration of the story of the “Hot and Cold,” a beach in Chicago that had both hot and cold water thanks to the chemicals that poured into the lake at that point from factories along the shore. That beach also, you'll note, inspired the name of the exhibit, “Warm Water.” But the exhibition also adds layers of story about more events in the Chicago Race Riots of 1919, the hierarchy of class and race in the early 1900’s exacerbated by job and housing shortage after the end of World War I, colorism, the ways racism affects even who knows how to swim, and the experience of just simply being Black in America, historically and into today.

Charles Edward Williams deftly works in layers of art historical reference, as well. A noticeable one is the connecting between the raft used by the five teens to Géricault's “The Raft of the Medusa,” an important work in the Romantic movement of French painting, that art historian Georges-Antoine Borias said represented "on the one hand, desolation and death. On the other, hope and life."

I’m excavating history, but I’m also excavating my personal beliefs and my value systems as well, to really incorporate it into the pieces.

That same contrast is felt in the artist’s work. There’s an assertion prevalent in the work: “I am equal.” But that assertion is necessary because it is layered in both personal and long-standing historical problems of deep-seated racism. Those layers don’t shy away from the weighty problems or the desolation and death that are the result of white people’s refusal to let go of their privilege and hierarchy. But the story doesn’t stop there for Williams. The layers continue, and they include layers of hope and life.

There are paintings of waves, starting with black and going gray from there, a gradation of swells. There is a video piece that includes Mr. Rogers drying off a Black policeman’s feet after sharing a splash in a kiddie pool. There are playing cards and pages of William Tuttle Jr.’s book about the 1919 riots. There’s a wall marked by thrown rocks, over and over, layering the death in Lake Michigan of young Eugene Williams along with personal experiences of racism throughout the artist’s existence as a Black man in America.

All these stories and realities are interwoven deftly, in a way that is not linear or narrative at first glance.

Visit the Urban Institute of Contemporary Art to see its first new exhibit of 2019, "Warm Water: New Works by Charles Edward Williams."

Photo Credit: Experience Grand Rapids

And that’s the magic: what appears beautiful from across the room is designed to draw you in, hold your attention long enough for you to think, to realize that something’s just not right here. Williams says that’s intentional.

“I use beauty—we’re all fascinated with beauty—but as an artist I want to attract you, draw you in, and then after five minutes of staring at the technical surface aspects of it, then I want to question you: where do you fall in line within the power struggle? Where do you fall in the hierarchy? And how can you, if you’re not where you want to be, how can you move forward?” explains the artist.

“I want the person to feel like they’re looking in a mirror and reflecting for themselves, because there are a lot of issues that are going on nationally, but at the end of the day it’s up to the individual to create and set his or her standard and understand that every single day they make conscious decisions to not be involved anymore, to not use or abuse their power."

These conversations need to be had... That’s always what I’m looking for: I want work that starts those conversations, even if they’re tough conversations to have.

There’s a power in Charles Edward Williams’ approach—talking about race is vulnerable for him to reveal and all too often sensitive for the viewer to interact with. Art, at its greatest power, has the ability to comfort us enough to draw us in for that conversation, to raise questions once it’s got us in its hold, to create conversations we may not otherwise be willing to engage in.

And if there’s anything that UICA’s upcoming exhibit of the work of this art world’s rising star is able to do, it gets us to slow down and engage.

“These conversations need to be had,” says Juana Williams, curator. “That’s always what I’m looking for: I want work that starts those conversations, even if they’re tough conversations to have. And Charles does a good job with his work of creating that platform and that space to have those conversations, and hopefully create some change in places like Grand Rapids.”

See the work from January 11 to April 28. The UICA is open to the public from Tuesday to Saturday: Noon-9PM, and Sundays: Noon- 6PM. Don't forget to visit the UICA Movie Theater and The Shop at UICA during your visit, too. 

Admission to the UICA is $5, or free if you purchase a Culture Pass GR!  

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