Contemplating shades of racism Artist react to court case in School #133 exhibition

March 07, 1991|By Linell Smith | Linell Smith,Evening Sun Staff

LOS ANGELES artist Pat Ward Williams has transformed an ebullient portrait of the light-skinned Chorines, a black dance troupe that popularized the Charleston, into a disquieting piece that looks as if it were ripped from a newspaper.

Jagged-edged, covered with sarcastic and cryptic comments, "Off Color" feels like a scrap of anonymous crank mail. Bitterly, it asks viewers to contemplate a society in which black women could succeed only if they looked white.

Williams says her work -- on display at School #33 Art Center in South Baltimore -- was inspired by a recent legal case in which one black woman accused another of discriminating against her because of her color. A judge in Atlanta eventually ruled against Tracy Morrow's charge that former supervisor, Ruby Lewis, resented Morrow's lighter skin so much that she fired her.

"It was a bizarre story for 1990," the artist says. "I wanted to talk about that idea of racism within our own race. You think you've left this behind, but it's apparent if you read that article -- and in my everyday experiences -- that this is not as far away as people like to think.

"That envy [between blacks] is inevitable because light-skinned is still more acceptable to white people. White racism created the rift between the blacks. And this is the way that racism works: It's very much divide and conquer."

"Off Color" is part of "News as Muse," a challenging exhibition of newspaper-inspired art running at School #33 through March 22. Curator Mark Barry invited Williams and nine other visual artists -- Sue Coe, Kay Rosen, Leon Golub, Luis Flores, Joyce Scott, David Loeffler Smith, Richard Saholt, Mike Glier and Red Grooms -- to submit works exploring how news affects creative thought. The show includes reactions to stories about sports, subway shootings, world hunger and the Vietnam War. One painting reinterprets a New York Times story about former President Reagan's aides. Another piece considers the power of headlines.

Williams, 40, says she had difficulty picking a topic for this show; she describes Los Angeles as a city perhaps over-ripe with provocative news.

"There was an incident where a 14-year-old black girl was beat up because she had a white boyfriend. Then there was the gang violence which is prevalent here. Then there was the trial of Marlon Brando's son. . . . But these topics became too didactic for me. I felt like I was preaching.

"My artwork is most effective when I can talk to people about my personal experience instead of standing off and acting like an authority on this, or that or the other. I know I'm an authority on those things that happen to me."

As if to confirm her artistic power, Williams has pasted photographs of herself as a teen-ager on the surface of "Off Color."

"I grew up as a light-skinned person, and it was always sort of the goal of my family to assimilate into the larger culture," she says. "Not that we abandoned a lot of our black traditions, but we did suppress them in order to achieve -- which was the way to do it at the time. During the '50s and early '60s, the light skin was very much prized. . . . Then, in the 1960s, I was not black enough."

Williams grew up in Yeadon, a suburb of Philadelphia, and graduated from Cheyney State University and the Moore College of Art, receiving her masters degree in photography from the Maryland Institute, College of Art. She lived in Baltimore for several years, teaching at the College of Notre Dame and the Baltimore School for the Arts before leaving for the California Institute of Arts in 1989.

"A lot of my work has been labeled political -- which is a shame because many people think that means it doesn't have anything to do with them," she says. "My quest is to shatter the notion of what political art is . . . or to broaden people's ideas as to the politics that are included in art. All art is imbued with the ideologies of its makers. It can't help but be that way."

"News as Muse" runs through March 22 at School #33 Art Center, 1427 Light St. Call 396-4641 for more information.

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