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Peter Williams in the studio.

For more than 45 years Williams has chronicled current and historical events, interspersing pictorial narratives with personal anecdotes and fictional characters in order to create vibrant paintings about the diverse experiences of Black Americans. With boldness and humor, he tackles the darkest of subjects including, but not limited to, police brutality, lynching, slavery, mass incarceration, and other realms of racial oppression.  Williams uses cultural criticism to form new creation myths, retelling the history of America from fresh and cosmic perspectives.

Williams’ more recent paintings address a range of subjects including oppressive social structures, white supremacy, police brutality, abuse of power, and political activism. In his on-going series, Black Exodus, Williams tells an Afrofuturist tale of a brown-skinned race that escapes to outer space in search of new planet homes and an end to the cycles of oppression from which they have been subjected. The tale that Williams has envisioned is a journey of consciousness and conscience, a metaphor for the inner and outer travels that all of us must undertake to confront the truth about race and ourselves. 

Peter Williams (1952 - 2021) was born in Suffern, NY and raised in Nyack, NY.  He earned his MFA from Maryland Institute College of Art and his BFA from Minneapolis College of Art and Design. In 2021 he was the recipient of a 2021 Guggenheim Fellowship Award, 2021 American Academy of Arts and Letters Purchase Prize, and the Minneapolis College of Art and Design Alumni Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2020, he received the Artists’ Legacy Foundation Artist Award.  In 2018 he was inducted into the National Academy of Design. Other awards include the Djerassi Resident Artists Program (2018), Joan Mitchell Awards (2004, 2007), Ford Foundation Fellowships (1985, 1987), and McKnight Foundation Fellowship (1983). He was to retire in September, 2021 from his position as Senior Professor, Fine Arts Department, University of Delaware and taught at Wayne State University for 17 years prior.   

Williams’ many exhibitions include Black Universe (2020) at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Detroit, MI; Trinosophes, Detroit, MI; and Luis De Jesus Los Angeles. Men of Steel, Women of Wonder (2019), Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, AK; River of Styx (2018), Luis De Jesus Los Angeles; With So Little To Be Sure Of (2018), CUE Art Foundation, New York; Prospect.4: The Lotus In Spite Of The Swamp (2017-18), Prospect Triennial, New Orleans, LA; Dark Humor: Peter Williams (2017), Allcott Gallery, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, NC; The N-Word: Common and Proper Nouns (2017), Ruffin Gallery, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA; Me, My, Mine: Commanding Subjectivity in Painting (2016), DC Moore Gallery, New York, NY.

Peter Williams’ paintings are held in the permanent collections of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Walker Art Center, Whitney Museum of American Art, Detroit Institute of Arts, Nasher Museum of Art, Delaware Art Museum, Davis Museum of Art/Wellesley College, Ft. Wayne Museum of Art, Howard University in Washington DC; Wayne State University, Detroit; as well as numerous private collections including Jorge M. Perez/El Espacio 23, Miami, FL; Pizzuti Collection, Columbus, OH; McEvoy Family Collection, San Francisco, CA; Mott-Warsh Collection, Flint, MI; Beth Rudin DeWoody Collection/The Bunker, Palm Beach, FL; Bill and Christy Gautreaux, Kansas City, MO; CCH Pounder, New Orleans, LA; Rev. Al Shands, Louisville, KY; Kelly Williams and Andrew Forsyth, Palm Beach, FL; Burger Collection Hong Kong; among others.  

In 2015, Williams began a second series of paintings in response to the succession of reported killings and murders of unarmed African Americans, featuring an African American superhero named "The N-Word".  Some of these paintings in this group make specific reference to Eric Garner, who on July 14, 2015 died from reckless actions committed by police officers in Staten Island. Garner was recorded on an eyewitness video saying eleven times "I can't breathe," prior to his losing consciousness.  In Williams series, caricature is reserved for the perpetrator as white police officers are tranformed into pigs and fang-bearing vampires wielding phallic clubs and batons.  Enter the N-Word, ostensibly a riff on the superhero figue popularized in comic books, television and film.  As a hero, The N-Word is also a symbol - a living image that captures images.  Garbed in the yellow and red of the familiar Kodak "K" logo that was discontinued in 2006, The N-Word is saying "I saw this and I see you."  He captures images as an act of active, rather than passive witnessing. ... He harnesses the power of a negative word, summoned so often as a tool to degrade, and reverses it's meaning and use by redirecting it toward those who wield it.

In Williams paintings, the N-word itself is never written or spoken, it is felt, manifested as redistributed action.  By not speaking the word, and re-purposing it against those who speak it, the bondage of its original and perverse meaning is transcended.  Protest speech solidifies into direct action, as the disenfranchised, repeatedly told to wait their turn to speak, bypasses speech entirely and moves into militant measures.  The N-Word is a timely hero in the age of the Black Lives Matter movement, when the force of the spoken pleas "Stop, don't shoot!" and "I can't breathe," have been transformed into direct, targeted action.  The power of these words matter, and they have fueled a movement. - Ryan Standfest for The N-Word catalog, A Rotland Press Original

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