Amanda Williams

One Colorful Conversation: Rethinking Context and Flamin' Red Hot Cheetos with Amanda Williams

Emily Ebersol and Adam Kor

Amanda Williams preparing her installation for the 2015 Chicago Architecture Biennial.
Photo: Steve Hall. Courtesy of the Chicago Architecture Biennial.

Amanda Williams made waves at the 2015 Chicago Biennial for her Color(ed) Theory Series, in which she deftly merged her work as an architect and artist to engage spaces facing racialized adversity. Through her exploration of color, Williams questions how painting as an action can help assign value to certain urban landscapes and how colors can become a signifier for social issues like gentrification, privilege, or race. In her Color(ed) Theory Series, Williams painted houses in Chicago’s South Side neighborhood of Englewood that were slated for demolition. She developed a palette of vibrant colors related to products that are heavily marketed to the Black community—Flamin’ Red Hot Cheetos, Ultrasheen Hair Grease, and Pink Oil Moisturizer, to name a few.

The Color(ed) Theory Series emerged from a very personal desire to question the role art and architecture might play in undervalued neighborhoods on Chicago’s South Side, which Williams was familiar with from her childhood. However it grew to be recognized as an advocacy project, and publications like New City Design have praised the social awareness of Williams’ work. The Color(ed) Theory Series is only one piece of a much larger project running through Williams’ career that interrogates color, space, community, context, and how to operate between these components. Over breakfast, Williams discusses how she translates the insight gained from the Color(ed) Theory Series into her practice as an artist-architect and studio professor at the Illinois Institute of Technology in order to bring awareness to underrepresented spaces and teach the right questions to ask.

Adam Kor: You mentioned that you didn’t get much press or attention until last year’s Chicago Architecture Biennial. How have you adapted to the spotlight?

Amanda Williams: I wasn’t looking for attention, so I didn’t expect it. I’ve been asking these questions for over twenty years. So at the first Biennial panel discussions, I was thinking “why did they have me on there?” It made me realize that I am an expert in ways that I didn’t really give myself credit for—I do have relevant stuff to say and a unique perspective to bring to the table. I’m beginning to embrace the potential of the attention as opposed to being suspicious of it. Now it’s a matter of trying to figure out how, with all of these different audiences that are interested in what I’m doing, can I leverage this platform?

Emily Ebersol: The Englewood house you painted the color of Harold’s Chicken Shack, along with the others, are real—people in the community interact with them. How does that interaction translate when you recontextualize the house in an exhibition?

Harold's Chicken Shack, 2014. Part of Color(ed) Theory Series. Courtesy of aw|studio.

That’s the struggle I’m having right now. Translating these topics into exhibitions and institutional settings has been really difficult. Even though the houses in Englewood disappeared, people still see the memory of them. Every so often I hear a comment like, “Oh, that’s where the orange house was,” and it’s like are you kidding me? That house was built in the eighteen hundreds and it was only orange for two weeks of its life, and people still see orange where it used to be. How powerful is that?

I personally find it unsatisfying to see site-specific projects in the space of the museum. They lose some of their meaning. I’m much more interested in activating the gallery space for my own purposes instead of trying to bring content to an audience that will probably not be directly impacted by the neighborhood works themselves. I’m working through these questions as I prepare for my first solo museum exhibition next summer at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago.

AK: The documentation of your work plays with the fact that architecture has traditionally been a profession built on permanence and stability. You seem to take the opposite approach. The houses you paint have been demolished or will soon be, pointing to the instability-blighted communities nationwide endure. How do you translate that reality into an architectural context?

I try to produce work that makes people understand that things don’t need to last forever. How would you approach a work of architecture that will only be here for a week? What if we prepared for that moment of destruction? I think it is easier for people to embrace the concept of temporality rather than injustice. Not that the element of justice isn’t important, but it sometimes feels like we use these things as a salve to continue complaining about the same stuff. What else can we do with that discussion? Where else can it go?

Detail of Pink Oil Moisturizer, 2014. part of Color(ed) Theory Series. Courtesy of aw|studio.

Detail of Pink Oil Moisturizer, 2014. part of Color(ed) Theory Series. Courtesy of aw|studio.

AK: Do you consider your work “activist”?

Social activism is clearly something that is important to me, but that doesn’t mean it has to be the totality of my artistic or architectural practice. It is a really delicate line to walk. Interrogating a vulnerable community should not necessarily be a public conversation. You don’t want to provide the material for somebody else to then trivialize the community’s experiences or attack the already vulnerable elements. Still, I feel the need to hold people (myself included) accountable. I find that to be much harder to do. I’m still able to get away with my art because these groups continue to be severely neglected. I use the fact that I gain instant access because I’m a black woman, and then leverage my training as an artist and architect to push the projects and the conversations into another stratosphere.

EE: Do you feel that artists and architects have a certain obligation to use their voice as advocates?

Actually I don't, which shocks my students every time I say it. They’re like “What?!” We privilege advocacy from a place of guilt sometimes. If you’re not going to turn your life or practice over to fighting all of the ‘-isms’, then I don’t think you should dabble in social activism. Without some fundamental literacy on race, class, power, etc., one runs into big trouble trying to use architecture to solve problems in these kinds of spaces. In a way, everybody has some sort of fight they need to jump into. Pick yours, but I think, in that cheesy Oprah way, that if everyone leverages their best self, whether it’s activist or not, we’ll be much better off.

AK: As a professor, do you carry these ideas and experiences into your architecture studios?

I approach these subjects with my students in a more expanded way, asking, how do you allow something to maintain its integrity, but give it a new identity? This is what we're dealing with right now at IIT: the lore of Mies van der Rohe looms over everything. Mies would be disgusted if in 2016 we were still teaching the same exact curricular layout from fifty years ago. Why is that any different from Englewood? The neighborhood is changing. How do you honor what it was while also allowing it to adopt a new identity? How do we develop studio curricula that help students ask those questions? I think there are a lot missed opportunities. I’m hopeful that it can improve, especially as more people embrace the fact that letting things end doesn’t discount what’s come before.

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