William Villalongo Bridges Histories of Black Identity
POSTED ON: September 8, 2023
William Villalongo A'99, associate professor in the School of Art, has a new solo exhibition at the Susan Inglett Gallery in New York on view from September 7 to October 14, 2023. The artist’s seventh solo exhibition with the gallery, Black Menagerie was inspired by research done during the artist's 2022 residency at the American Academy in Rome.
Black Menagerie expands upon Villalongo's work toward a comprehensive representation of Black identity. As a researcher and collector of material culture, the artist composes kaleidoscopic collages that simultaneously disassemble and reconstruct perceptions of the Black past. Featuring a strategic use of imagery and material, each panel is populated with collections of ancient slipware from North Africa and pottery from the American South, geological forms, seashells, butterflies, and Etruscan vases caught up in the current that connects shared histories of the Black Mediterranean and Black Atlantic. Villalongo returns to his characteristic motifs such as the drinking gourd, a coded symbol for the Big Dipper used as a navigational device on the Underground Railroad, while adding imagery associated with Mediterranean and North African mythologies to his metaphoric vocabulary. Black Menagerie makes a case for an expanded understanding of Black identity that reaches back in time and across continents to establish an ancient and deeply rooted history.
A 2021 recipient of the Jules Guerin/Harold M.English Rome Prize, the artist completed a residency at the American Academy in Rome, during which he found inspiration in the parallel histories and objects unearthed in his research. Against the backdrop of Villalongo’s signature velvet, artifacts and motifs ranging from Ancient Mediterranean to Contemporary culture tell a nuanced story of the Black presence. Straying from traditional figurative representation, the implied anatomy floats weightless in a condition of compressed time, resurfacing histories of migration and forced labor. Both corporeal and otherworldly, Villalongo retraces migratory passages to explore Deep Time and pieces together a reimagined representation of the Black figure. Together, the universal portrait powerfully contextualizes the experience of diaspora and imbues a sense of reclamation, healing, and metamorphosis.