First published: Spring 2020
In Atlanta, an exhibition surveys the art and ideas of the late Charles Williams, an African American self-taught artist with a prescient view of US society
The Kentucky-born self-taught artist Charles Williams (1942–1998) has never received the same kind of attention that other African American autodidacts from the American South, such as Thornton Dial, Lonnie Holley, or the quiltmakers of Gee’s Bend, Alabama, have enjoyed. Now, though, an exhibition at the Atlanta Contemporary in Atlanta, Georgia, is offering a first-ever, comprehensive look at his creations in various media, and the social-political outlook that informed them. Curated by Phillip March Jones, the founder of Institute 193, an arts centre in Lexington, Kentucky, “The Life and Death of Charles Williams” features more than 100 art objects, along with archival photographs. It will remain on view until April 19, 2020.
Pencil Rocket, early 1980s, mixed media, 24 x 59 x 19 in. / 60 x 150 x 48 cm, High Museum of Art, purchase and gift of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation, from the William S Arnett Collection, photo courtesy: Atlanta Contemporary, Atlanta, Georgia
Jones recalls that an autobiographical statement by Williams appeared in Souls Grown Deep: African American Vernacular Art of the South (Tinwood Books), an encyclopedic, two-volume work produced by the Atlanta-based researcher and art collector William S Arnett and other collaborators that was published in 2000 and 2001. It is still regarded as the definitive reference resource in its field.
Beginning in the 1980s, Arnett travelled around the American South, meeting self-taught artists of African or mixed racial and ethnic ancestry, most of whom had grown up in financially underprivileged circumstances. Routinely subjected to institutionalised racism, they had received little formal education.
Jones says, “Actually, it was Bill Arnett’s brother, Robert, who acquired some of Williams’ works for Bill and documented aspects of the artist’s life, because Williams’ home was located beyond Bill’s usual driving routes around Birmingham, Alabama.” A few years ago, Jones served as the first director of the Atlanta-based Souls Grown Deep Foundation, a repository of and research archive related to the works William S Arnett had amassed. (He also assembled a personal collection of artworks produced by black self-taught artists of the American South.) “The works that Charles Williams sold to Robert Arnett were, as far as I know, the only sales of his art that he ever made in his lifetime”, Jones observes.
This is an article extract; read the full article in Raw Vision #105