Dan Williams plays two roles: Dan Williams the artist and Dan Williams the social critic.
His photographs and photographic collages, which can be seen starting next Sunday at the Art and Design Gallery, offer critiques on how society portrays African Americans. They also offer an insight into a perceptive and sensitive artist who wants to document the way African-American society looks and feels.
"I'm always trying to balance the ideas,'' said Williams, who serves as the Langston Hughes visiting professor this semester at Kansas University. "I'm dealing with both an African-American audience and a mainstream audience. It's an issue because sometimes my art is not dealt with because it has social content. It's easy to dismiss it by saying `Oh, it's just political' and go on and not deal with it as art.''
A PROFESSOR of art at Ohio University, Williams is teaching photography and film history this semester at KU. His photographs reside in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Studio Museum in Harlem in New York City. A reception and gallery talk for his photography show will be held at 4 p.m. Oct. 5; the show ends Oct. 16.
In the show, Williams plans to hang more than 50 photographs from four series, all of which concern the lives and images of African Americans. One series jumbles images of African Americans from both life and the media in collages.
"I build them with appropriated images,'' Williams said in a Tuesday interview in his Art and Design Building studio. "Some of them are reappropriated, because I cut up and reassemble my own work. I take particular objects and images that were made to degrade African Americans and deconstruct and demystify them.''
HIS CONCERNS about negative images of African Americans extend to the world of film as well. From the early days of the desexed clowns like Steppin' Fetchit and the equally desexed "Mammies'' played by Hattie McDaniel, African Americans were stereotyped as buffoons, an image that continues into the early films of Eddie Murphy. Williams argues that all ethnic groups get stereotyped, but Hollywood did not permit African Americans to break out of those stereotypes until very recently.
"Hollywood always uses stereotypes, and there's nothing wrong with that,'' he said. "But if those stereotypes don't change, then you're in trouble. With white people, ethnic groups were stereotyped, but later you saw them in other contexts. African Americans were never shown in other contexts.''
WILLIAMS explores some real-life contexts in two more photo series one that explores Emancipation Day celebrations and one that documents African-American bikers.
Emancipation Days, which are marked by festivals, commemorate the dates slaves were freed in various regions. Because slavery came to an end at different times in different states, the date of Emancipation Day differed from community to community. Usually, it was celebrated in June, which is why many are called "Juneteenth'' festivals. Williams said he set out to document these celebrations because they're on the ebb: They're being supplanted by the mobility of society itself.
"They represented a homecoming for people,'' he said. "When African Americans migrated to the industrial areas during World War I and World War II, they didn't come from the same area, so they didn't have a common way of celebrating it.''
WHEN HE WAS shooting these celebrations, he kept seeing, off in the corner, people who belonged to motorcycle clubs. They are doctors, lawyers, blue-collar workers and full-time bikers who get together for big events. Williams' curiosity was piqued, especially because he held a certain irrational phobia about bikers. One, a woman, grabbed him off a Brooklyn street when he was 2 or 3 and gave him a brief, startling ride.
"I was terrified,'' he said. "Since then I've been terrified of bikers and loud noises, so I decided to come to grips with that 45 years later.''
Now he shows up at biker club meetings and shoots whatever happens. He said he finds a large number of willing subjects.
"I TELL THEM what I'm doing, and once they know that they get enthusiastic about it,'' he said. "They make me really welcome.''
The fourth series stems indirectly from Emancipation Day celebrations. In these images, the most recent in the show, he photographs advertising images of African Americans, particularly beer and cigarette billboards, and disfigures them.
"I have to keep in mind the views of the African-American religious community about these products,'' he said. "I've seen men at Emancipation Day celebrations physically remove people who were handing out free cigarettes or people with beer carts and put them outside the bounds of the area.''
Williams found himself drawn to art when he was a child: His sister attended a specialized New York City high school for fashion designers, and she would draw him and his siblings. His parents also gave him license to use the family camera.
"WHEN I WAS very young I took a lot of pictures,'' he said. "I was pretty much the family documentarian. I would take a lot of family pictures, usually at formal events, but I would take other things as well. I would get feedback from my family, like `Why did you take a picture of that? There are no people in it.' ''
Despite his early photographic inclinations, Williams concentrated on drawing and painting through high school and most of his classes at Brooklyn College. While there, he took a required photography class, and he took to the medium so much he chose to pursue a master's degree at the University of Oregon. Just as his photographic images combine his aesthetic and social concerns, photography combined his artistic and scientific abilities.
"I was a very good physics student,'' he said. "In fact Brooklyn College faculty were disappointed because I chose a major in art. But in photography, I could combine my interest in science with my interest in art.''