Art Young Artists 2020

Artist Mandy Harris Williams Wants You to Do More Than Just Look

A self-portrait by Mandy Harris Williams (2020).
A self-portrait by Mandy Harris Williams (2020).

Back in middle school, Mandy Harris Williams’s AIM screen name was “thegreatamanda.” At as young as 12 years old, she was asking questions like, “What does my body have to do with the things that I’m saying and feeling?” and “How are people hearing and seeing me, or taking me as lovable or not?” Highlighting how she navigated being perceived online, she notes, “The internet played a role in how I understood love or my deservingness of love as connected to or disconnected from the apparition of my body.” Now known under the social media handle @idealblackfemale, Williams is leading a movement and hashtag, #BrownUpYourFeed, which pushes images of brown and especially dark-skinned, kinky- haired people like her to the forefront. Yet her online presence is more than just a profile: “My Instagram is a performance of a theme. For me, it’s a political-performative gesture space.”

Video work stills from collaboration with Alima Lee and Devin Troy Strother.

As a performer, critic and conceptual artist, Williams’s ultimate medium is her voice, which can be seen and heard in her essays, text- based work, video art and music. She began her career as a classroom teacher, which provided a sense of urgency around education. Her work goes deep and makes us question at what capacity the images we see are serving Black and brown communities. “We are in a moment of packaged image liberation. There are so many images right now meant to sell liberation and sexiness, or the mystic of liberation. But do they? What I focus on is the power of beholding and making images. That’s where we find the locus of control,” she describes.

Truth-telling can be a difficult job. With regard to the upcoming year, Williams informs me that “I’m at capacity with telling the truth.” But we can still expect exciting new ways to connect with her work. “I’m preparing for a large solo show in 2022. I’m creating music and writing a musical that communicates difficult truths set to sensual groves. And I’m looking forward to writing, finishing and selling my book for #BrownUpYourFeed.”