“FIVE” is a special feature at BlackArtistNews where five questions are posed to an individual artist, curator, gallerist, collector or art lover. Why five questions? Well, there are five fingers on each hand and artists create with their hands hence one, two, three, four, FIVE.
Earlier this month, art photographer Deborah Willis gathered a who’s who of black visual artists and intellectuals for Beauty and Fashion: The Black Portrait Symposium at New York University where she serves as chair and professor of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, Department of Photography and Imaging. As a curator and photo historian she has unearthed photographic treasures that reveal valuable insight to the day-to-day aspects of African American life -- many of which can be seen in the numerous books and monographs under her name. BlackArtistNews witnessed the multi-hyphenated Willis in multi-task mode when after giving a lecture at the DuSable Museum of African American History in Chicago she simultaneously autographed books, smiled for photos, fielded questions from admirers, confabbed with colleagues and answered "FIVE":
Artistically, what are you working on right now?
As an artist, I’m working on family photographs. I’m photographing family members as well as pregnant women. I’m interested in stories that pregnant women are told about life. I’m trying to tell stories about life and how it extends through words and images in that way.
Taking into consideration your work as a curator, photo historian and scholar how do you find the time to make art?
Um, I just make the time. I really make the time because it’s so important to continue. Our stories need to be told and so that’s really important for me to continue in that way. Yeah.
What was the one image you created that after you saw it you thought to yourself “I’m an artist?”
Let’s see. (Pauses.) Probably a picture I made of my grandfather in [a] hospital bed. [It's] a really beautiful image of him kind of posing and [trying to look] dignified even though he was dying. I was an art student then.
What year was the photo taken?
Singer Diana Ross was a recent guest on the Oprah Winfrey Show. She’s personified beauty and glamour since the 1960’s. Is there a reason why there’s no image of her in your book “Posing Beauty”?
No, no. There’s no reason. She’s in “Let Your Motto Be Resistance.” So yeah, look in that [book]. She’s posed [with the Supremes.]
Does art matter?
Yes. Art is what makes all of us survive and keep us hopeful. That’s why I teach art and that’s why I believe [it] matters. Yes, um hum. (Shakes her head up and down.)
Books by Deborah Willis:
The Supremes image referenced in interview:
|THE SUPREMES SINGING IN THE STUDIO, 1965|
Gelatin silver print, 11 x 14 inches, © Bruce Davidson/Magnum Photos, New York.
2009 video of Deborah Willis and her son photographer Hank Willis Thomas: