Seattle artist draws connection between race and climate change

South Seattle artist Carol Rashawwna Williams. (Courtesy photo)

This article first appeared in the South Seattle Emerald and is reprinted with permission.

South Seattle-based interdisciplinary visual artist Carol Rashawwna Williams explores the often-overlooked intersection of racial injustice and climate change. Her somber, monolithic prints slowly sway from the ceiling of Seattle University’s Hedreen Gallery, evoking a grave feeling of interconnected grief and pain. Williams’ current exhibit, “For the Record”, showing through Oct. 11, examines the stark similarities and disparities of two seemingly different issues: global warming and the lasting impacts of slavery.

Williams also serves as the Co-Executive Director of Community Arts Create (CAC), a nonprofit. CAC works to combat gentrification and the displacement of communities of color in the Hillman City area by building and strengthening relationships through community art programs and neighborhood engagement. The South Seattle Emerald spoke with Williams about her upcoming annual fundraiser for Community Arts Create, which will take place on Oct. 25 at the Hillman City Collaboratory.

Gus Marshall: How long have you considered yourself an artist?

Carol Rashawwna Williams: Since I was a kid, I have been an artist of one sort or another. I was a musician before I was visual artist. I’ve had private violin lessons my entire life, and at five I smelled crayons for the first time. After that, I was hooked on drawing.

GM: What mediums do you like to incorporate into your practice?

CRW: I know every medium: painting, pastels, watercolor, oil, ink, pencil, installation, public art and performance. I particularly love monoprints, because of the organic nature of the medium. I also do a lot of models, symbolism, and story-telling in my work. And that comes from my Masters in organizational development. That was where I became aware of how systems interlink.

GM: What messages, interpretations or emotions do you hope to convey through your art?

CRW: I love the idea of art as storytelling, and every story has a plot, or a feeling to it. I want people to feel something, think something, experience something when they see my artwork. It’s funny, because people have all kinds of reactions to art. I had one woman show up to my art show, who showed up specifically to tell me that she hated my work. And I was like, “Really, well, whatever.” And we’re friends now.

Art is a story, it’s a feeling, it’s a way that you present color and texture, all the things it takes to create a visual element, a form, a shape, contrast –– all that [stuff]. I like to incorporate research into the traditional elements of visual mediums, but I also like to play with contemporary stuff. I love doing digital art, and turning my stuff into prints. I am from the generation when the computer was created, and I grew up watching computers morph and evolve, and my art has also morphed and evolved to reflect technique and medium, access, exposure and opportunity. But it has also morphed in other ways. Early on, my art focused more on internal spirituality, and now it’s more external, in terms of environmental climate justice, making sure that voices that are not heard often, get heard. I think that’s how I have grown, and those are the things I incorporate into my own art.

GM: How is the connection between racism and climate illuminated through your current exhibit?

CRW: The focus is on resource extraction. Most people forget that African Americans were the resource that was extracted from our home lands, and without this acknowledgment, healing can’t happen. This same paradigm, or way of thinking, has led us to decimate an entire species of beings.
… My first written language was German, and my first spoken language was English. So at home, I spoke English, but at school, I spoke German. So the concept of translation has always been a part of my work. It comes through when I am looking at race. Growing up in Germany for 11 years, there were a lot of things that I missed out on, in terms of education around African Americans. So when I came to the United States, I got a crash course in what it meant to be Black. After growing up on [a United States Army] base in a foreign country, with lots of different ethnicities all around, I felt my upbringing was non-traditional in its own way. When I look at resource extraction, there is something that has happened in terms of race in this country that we have not addressed. And you can’t heal from something that you don’t know is happening or that is not being addressed. And so I see it and confront it everyday, especially because I am coming from a global perspective, because I grew up in a different country.
There are things that are deeply inherent in the way that I view things in America, because I am an American. I have African American history: I don’t know where I am from, I don’t know where my family is from. And that is all because of resource extraction. That was the original reason why Africans were brought here, to displace us, and gentrify us. And it is still happening, it is just called something else and looks a little bit differently. So, when we are talking about climate change, it’s the same paradigm, it’s the same thinking –– this idea that we can just go to any place and rape the earth, and steal all the minerals, and upset the balance of bees and animals. To me, it is intricately connected. There has to be a paradigm shift about the way we think about resources, and the way we think about people as resources, and the way that we think about animals as resources.

GM: Can you tell me about your position with CAC, and how it is working at the Hillman City Collaboratory?

CRW: I love the Collab, because it reminds me of the way I grew up on an Army base: collective sharing, learning and working. When resources are shared, it creates a sharing economy, provides a route to learning how to collaborate and work together in real time. … That’s a huge perk of working in a collective work environment, so many awesome and diverse people. As the Co-Director at CAC I am working with Ben Hunter to facilitate the making of a creative economy in Hillman City, a place where artists feel valued, and rewarded for just being themselves. As culture workers, artists are extremely important to any economy as we create experiences and provides opportunities for a story to be told. This is what makes makes all humans human, the ability to connect and create together.

GM: What are you working on next?

CRW: Currently at CAC we will be having our annual fundraiser Oct. 25 at the Hillman City Collaboratory, and if you want to or already support shared spaces, collective learning, small minority owned businesses, creative economies, off setting displacement/gentrification, community land trusts than this is an opportunity for you to join the movement in Hillman City!

This Q&A is a combination of an email interview and a phone interview.

Featured image courtesy of Carol Rashawwna Williams.

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