December 16, 2020

Kandis Williams
A Field

Institute for Contemporary Art at Virginia Commonwealth University

View of Kandis Williams: A Field, Institute for Contemporary Art at Virginia Commonwealth University, 2020. Photo: David Hale.

In the ICA's latest exhibition, Kandis Williams: A Field, the artist uses plant life to explore the ways in which people, much like the crops they cultivate, can be subject to exploitation and control. This site-responsive commission takes place within a greenhouse, surrounding the viewer with plant sculptures. Photo collages are fixed to wireframes, creating the flowers of plant life. For Williams, collage is able to choreograph and index both thought and movement. The medium allows Williams to merge contemporary and historical referents, exposing the entangled relationships between humans and non-humans subjected to destructive world-building.

These collages, which appear on the plant leaves and as backdrops throughout the gallery, depict laboring bodies in action. They include archival photographs of chain gangs on Mississippi farms, many taken from the estate of Alan Lomax and the Library of Congress; images from vintage pornographic magazines—Jet, Players, Sepia, Mr. Long, and Black Legs; and depictions of dancers performing the Uruguayan tango. The tango is widely understood as having originated in Argentina, but the dance and the music were introduced to the Río de la Plata region by Africans, having arrived in the Americas via the transatlantic slave trade. In these overlapping images, sometimes assembled in figurative constructions, a schema is revealed in the relations between labor and performance, performance and sexualization, sexualization and labor.

Plants constitute a life-force subjected to classification and forced migration, remarkable for their persistence and adaptability. The plant is sentient yet silent, subjected to changing environmental demands as it is displaced and commodified. Plants suggest both the ravages of colonialism and a future for life beyond humanity.

Among Williams’s plants is the artist’s new video, Annexation Tango (2020), produced in Virginia and Los Angeles by means of on-site and green-screen photography, as well as found footage. The fields that appear as backgrounds were formerly those of the Lorton Reformatory and the Virginia State Prison Farm, two facilities where incarcerated people were made to work as a condition of their sentences.

A Field focuses on control associated, specifically, with the labor of Black people. For Williams, to evade cultivation is to commit to growth on our own terms; to nurture and be rooted in our desire for change and adaptation. We invite you to explore the compelling world of this Los Angeles-based artist, educator, writer, and publisher. A Field is curated by ICA Associate Curator Amber Esseiva and is the third iteration of Provocations.

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