Artist William Villalongo discusses influences and under-representation of the black community in art

William Villalonga displays his art in the Arena Gallery in the Art Building on September 11. The Brooklyn-based artist is inspired by Pablo Picasso and Aaron Douglas. (Jon Sammis/The Daily Campus)

William Villalonga displays his art in the Arena Gallery in the Art Building on September 11. The Brooklyn-based artist is inspired by Pablo Picasso and Aaron Douglas. (Jon Sammis/The Daily Campus)

In his collection “Outside My Name or Through Other Eyes,” currently on display as part of the Contemporary Art Galleries at the UConn Art Building, artist William Villalongo draws on his aesthetic and social interests, as well as the styles and language of other artists who’ve influenced him, such as Pablo Picasso and Aaron Douglas. Villalongo provides a creative contextualization and reinterpretation of their illustrative styles, political force, formalist experimentation, love of African art and their use of black iconography. He makes a lot of specific references to some of Picasso’s most notorious pieces and the similarities and influences from Picasso’s work to both Douglas’ and Villalongo’s are clear.

“Between Pablo Picasso and Aaron Douglas is the story of American modernism and the essential, underrepresented African-American contribution to that history,” said Villalongo. “For both artists, African masks and sculpture was key to unlocking the metaphysics of space. In Douglas’ hands, this bore out a new Afrocentric aesthetic, proving consequential to how emancipated black folks would begin to imagine themselves.”

Villalongo focuses on the politics of historical erasure, or the misrepresentation or under-representation, by directing his word towards a reassessment of Western, American and African art histories. He approaches the term “blackness” as a verb in order to reframe familiar images, events and themes in our cultural landscape. In his work, Villalongo explains such dualities as male versus female, visibility versus invisibility and humanity versus nature by incorporating appropriations from ancient myth, folklore and contemporary politics. His aim is to create a conversation between images that bring visibility to current issues of representation.

His presentation involved an introduction regarding African masks as the unifier in his work.

“I like to start with the idea of double consciousness,” said Villalongo. According to the artist, the mask symbolizes transformation, the connection between the realm of the spirit world and the living, a way to heal psychologically and the idea of multiconsciousness.

Villalongo included a quote from W.E.B. DuBois that he drew inspiration from: “It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others... One ever feels his two-ness...two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”

Villalongo then moved away from his influences, and comparing the artwork of Harlem Renaissance painter Douglas to Picasso, and began to explore his own pieces. He cited their connection, the visual relationships and symmetries between other artists and literature of the time as his main inspiration.

“I rely on that as a way to make work,” Villalongo said.

He continued moving through his work, chronologically, beginning with his earlier, brighter paintings that often contained visuals from these other artists that influenced him and ending with his more recent, darker pieces that were made primarily from velour cutouts. Villalongo puts a heavy focus on multiple aspects in one piece. One unique feature of his work is the way he utilizes the border or frame as part of the artwork. In multiple pieces, there are abstract figures present in the border and the border actually expands to become the focal point of the painting.

“I came to a logical conclusion. After Ferguson, it was harder to make these paintings,” said Villalongo of his most recent work. “My brain was in a different place… I was in a dark place, I’m not going to lie, when I started and these pieces are true to that. As a black man that navigates that social space and microaggressions. I wanted to illustrate the flexibility and movement that black men have to have in society, how we move through space and the environment we are in, and how we can shift and change form. So there is a kind of positive aspect.”

During this change in mindset, Villalongo worked to incorporate the black male figure in different ways in his pieces, including emblems of resistance and protest.

“I wanted to focus on black cultural erasure within conversations of modern contemporary art, particularly painting. Painting is a history of the world, a history of people,” said Villalongo. “You go to The Met. and you don’t find a lot of black or brown presence. 900 years of history are gone. We don’t talk about the black presence in early American modernism, particularly in history classes and I think there’s a problem with that. Some of these things are broken.”

Villalongo references how Douglas, during the Harlem Renaissance, wanted to spread the idea that there is a black culture outside of slavery.

“What I’ve learned about curating an exhibition is that the conversation around history erasure is an evolving thing that takes a continuing and wide effort, by not just black people, but everybody...There’s still a long way to go in that conversation and I want to be a part of it,” Villalongo concluded.

The exhibit also features a short film produced by Villalongo in 2012 to accompany the artwork, as well as a selection of books and periodicals to provide art historical context.

Villalongo lives and works in Brooklyn, N.Y. His work has been featured in a number of prestigious museums and magazines. He has another gallery opening at Wesleyan Sept. 19. Villalongo’s exhibit is being presented in tandem with his 2018 Artist Residency with Counterproof Press, the UConn School of Fine Art’s printmaking collaborative. The exhibit will be open for viewing through Oct. 13. See more at contemporaryartgalleries.uconn.edu.


Julia Mancini is the associate life editor for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at Julia.mancini@uconn.edu.