– H. “Herukhuti” Sharif Williams
In May of 2020, Justin Maxon, graduate student in PSU’s Social Practice MFA, commissioned H. “Herukhuti” Sharif Williams, an interdisciplinary artist, activist, and scholar, with $100 retroactively for one minute of his time dedicated to building Black excellence. The original idea was ideated by Harrell Fletcher and augmented by Marina Lopez, incoming first year PSU Art+Social Practice student. In this interview, Maxon talks with Williams, about the importance of moments of Blackness for the Black artist. What does it feel like to be a Black artist? For Herukhuti, it is “to live and create in a world enveloped by a matrix of systems designed to extract every ounce of what animates you and your art to power other people’s agendas.”
This interview is a part of an ongoing dialogue between Williams and Maxon and serves as an entry point into a project they have been developing. Since 2017, they have been working on a collaborative book project titled Chester: Staring Down the White Gaze. At the epicenter of this critical collaboration are two sets of images: the work Maxon completed as a photographer and journalist, covering the city of Chester, Pennsylvania from 2008-2016, and photographs from Maxon’s childhood archives. Using the latter, they built a visual glossary of white racial tropes to unpack Maxon’s relationship to whiteness. They use this framework to reconsider Maxon’s work in Chester, along with other contemporary and historical local media coverage of the city, to elucidate the ways the white gaze reflects its own values when reflected off of the bodies of Black people.
Justin Maxon: Recently, you told me about participating in a professional development opportunity for artists of African descent. You were so happy about “living in that moment of Blackness.” What did you mean by living in moments of Blackness?
H. “Herukhuti” Sharif Williams: Yeah, the Digital Evolution Artist Retention (DEAR) initiative at Caribbean Cultural Center African Diaspora Institute. It’s a great project that started earlier this year. My team is participating in the second cohort, which is active now. As a college professor, I spend so much professional time in spaces dominated by whiteness. I cherish when I can be in a space with just us, Black folks. When that happens, I call that living in a moment of Blackness. No code switching necessary. No call for double consciousness. We can speak to each other beyond the words and convey a knowing, shared understanding, and sense of recognition. It’s nourishing to my soul.
Justin: What other moments of Blackness have you experienced? What impacts have they had on you as a person and artist?
Herukhuti: House parties. Barber shops. Church services. Soul Summit in Fort Greene Park. Places where Black people are eating watermelon and fried chicken without wondering if there are any wyppipo around to see. Comedy clubs. Sex parties where hip hop beats and heartbeats mix with the polyrhythms of desire. Big ass belly laughs around tables used to rest Black hands. Spades tables. Domino tables. Bid whist tables. Tables filled with the best macaroni and cheese, tata salad, greens, plantains, jerk, curry, sweet potato pie, etc. Block parties. Open fire hydrants. Listening to gospel, blues, jazz, R&B, soul, funk, hip hop, neo-soul. The Drummer’s Circle in Prospect Park.
They have affected and informed my aesthetic as an artist and as an audience for art. It means that I am attracted to art that has soul, connects me to the ground just as much, if not more so than the air. It means I have a wicked sense of humor that can cut just as much as it can connect some shit. It means that for me, fine art is art that represents how beautiful Black people look, our skin tones, hair textures, how we walk, talk, hold our heads. We are fine. It means that somebody betta cuss and talk shit if you want me to connect with the work.
Justin: Listening to you, I can understand why you value those spaces so much.
Herukhuti: Although for the past decade or so it’s been predominantly white institutions (PWI) that have employed me, those spaces with moments of Blackness feed me.
Justin: You have spoken to me recently about your desire to flip the ratio of your time spent working and collaborating in white versus Black spaces. Do you think that ratio has anything to do with white America not compensating you fairly for your time, labor and intellect? What would make it possible for you to work in Black spaces? What would flipping the ratio mean for your heart, body, and spirit? White America was built on the unpaid labor of BIPOC folks, including our current moment of cultural reckoning. In its fragility, white America, like blind mice, is searching for a guiding hand. This $100 for one minute of your time, in my mind, is symbolic of the need to compensate you for your unpaid labor. What is your time worth? What are you owed?
Herukhuti: My time, labor and intellect are all priceless. You could never be able to adequately compensate me for my time, labor, or intellect. And no institution has ever adequately compensated me for my time, labor, or intellect. But I sure wish they would try.
I calculated what $100 per minute would be for a year: $52.6 million. The United States of America is one of the largest prisoner of war camps in the history of humanity. Don’t understand how I could say that? Check out Raoul Peck’s recent documentary series Exterminate All the Brutes. But anyway, almost $53 million dollars a year. Ask yourself how much you think would be sufficient compensation for educating, nurturing, and helping to transform the family members of the prison guards in a prison that imprisoned you.
Justin: Great question. Mathematics can never do real justice.
H. “Herukhuti” Sharif Williams PhD, is the founder and chief erotics officer of the Center for Culture, Sexuality, and Spirituality. He is a playwright, stage director, documentary filmmaker, and performance artist. Dr. Herukhuti is the award-winning author of the experimental text Conjuring Black Funk: Notes on Culture, Sexuality, and Spirituality, Volume 1 and co-editor of the Lambda Literary Award nonfiction finalist anthology and Bisexual Book Awards nonfiction and anthology winner, Recognize: The Voices of Bisexual Men . Dr. Herukhuti is a core faculty member in the BFA in socially engaged art, co-founder and core faculty member in the sexuality studies undergraduate concentration at Goddard College and adjunct associate professor of applied theatre research in the School of Professional studies at the City University of New York.
Justin Maxon is an award winning visual storyteller, arts educator, journalist and aspiring social practice artist who often examines social, political and environmental issues. His work takes an interdisciplinary approach that acknowledges the socio-historical context from which issues are born and incorporates multiple voices that texture stories. He seeks to understand how positionality plays out in his work as a storyteller. He is a second year student in PSU’s Art and Social Practice MFA program. He has received numerous awards for his photography and video projects. He has given more than 50 lectures and has taught photography workshops in over 8 different countries across the world. He was a teaching artist in an US State Department- sponsored cultural exchange program between the United States and South Africa. He has worked on feature stories for publications such as TIME, Rolling Stone, the New Yorker, Mother Jones, and NPR.
The Social Forms of Art (SoFA) Journal is a publication dedicated to supporting, documenting and contextualising social forms of art and its related fields and disciplines. Each issue of the Journal takes an eclectic look at the ways in which artists are engaging with communities, institutions and the public. The Journal supports and discusses projects that offer critique, commentary and context for a field that is active and expanding.
Created within the Portland State University Art & Social Practice Masters In Fine Arts. Program, SoFA Journal is now fully online.
Conversations on Everything is an expanding collection of interviews produced as part of SoFA Journal. Through the potent format of casual interviews as artistic research, insight is harvested from artists, curators, people of other fields and everyday humans. These conversations study social forms of art as a field that lives between and within both art and life.
Sponsored by the Portland State University Art and Social Practice MFA Program