William Paul Thomas and Antoine Williams: Acting Hard

Fall 2019, Smith Gallery

Exhibition featuring new and recent art by Antoine Williams and William Paul Smith that explores the vulnerability of black men and current cultural discourses on masculinity more generally. The artists met about fifteen years ago while in the Studio Art MFA program at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. It was the beginning of a deep connection based on art and friendship. Each has a unique approach to interrogating contemporary experiences of black masculinity and draws on their own personal histories in the making of their work. 

Both have practices that are grounded in painting, but move through many different media––  assemblage and site specific art for Williams, video and social practice for Thomas. Whereas Thomas roots his art in traditions of realistic portraiture that visualize black identities with agency and humanity, Williams looks to the self consciously strange worlds of Dadaist inspired collage, science fiction and street art fantasy to draw attention to the damaging effects of stereotypes and prejudice that have accrued around representations of the black male body.

Though the work they make is visually quite different from each other, Thomas and Williams share common interests in slang and language play, as well as hip hop culture, popular film, and contemporary social politics. Also central to each artist are questions on the conditions of black masculinity in the United States, and how to both understand and confront “acting hard” as a symptom of racism and as a sign of toxic masculinity. The works they present here call for empathy with their subjects, and for new ways to appreciate the complexities and vulnerabilities of black men. 

For this project we decided to work with the conditions of the university as a primarily white institution in mind, and with the goal of particularly supporting black students on campus by providing space for dialog on black masculinity specifically by and for the black community.  In addition to the exhibition of art works, the artists came to campus to meet with classes across the university and student groups about the issues that their work raises. The gallery also plans to partner with the Black Student Association and the Sustained Dialog program on a film program and to host a community conversation about masculinity.