What does it mean for an artist to be free? And what does that freedom look like for a contemporary Black artist? Amanda Williams has recently been asking herself these very questions. A Chicago-based visual artist who trained as an architect, Williams, 47, is known for her pieces exploring the nuances of color, both racial and aesthetic. Her breakout work was “Color(ed) Theory,” a 2014-16 series in which she painted eight condemned houses on Chicago’s South Side in vivid, culturally coded shades, such as “Ultrasheen,” a dark turquoise that matches the hue of a Black hair-care product, and “Crown Royal Bag,” a purplish pigment that mirrors the packaging of a popular whisky.
In a 2018 TED Talk, Williams discussed how we perceive color — specifically, how our perceptions are determined by context. One example, she said, was redlining — federal housing maps from the 1930s marked neighborhoods inhabited by Black Chicagoans as red, contributing to policies that prevented many residents from securing loans — which weaponized color and resulted in underinvestment. When the actress Joaquina Kalukango, 32, heard the speech, she was awe-struck. Kalukango is no stranger to powerful works of art: Last year, she received a Tony nomination for best leading actress in a play for her work in Jeremy O. Harris’s searing, passionately debated drama “Slave Play,” which is set on a plantation and follows a trio of modern-day interracial couples whose relationships are stymied by conflicting views on race.
One rainy morning in October, Kalukango met Williams at the latter’s studio in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood. Kalukango was days away from starting a Chicago run of “Paradise Square,” a musical about the 1863 Manhattan draft riots, in which Irish immigrants turned on the Black neighbors with whom they’d previously peacefully coexisted. (It’s headed to Broadway early next year.) Meanwhile, Williams is expanding on “What Black Is This, You Say?,” an ongoing, multiplatform series of abstract paintings inspired by cultural touchstones and observations related to the Black experience that she showed at Art Basel in Miami Beach this month.
Amid laughter, Williams and Kalukango talked generational differences, the desire to be “regular” and the blurry line between artistic genius and madness.