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Honey Williams on her July 2020 Cover, Representation and Her Career

5 July 20 words: Honey Williams and LJ Vaughan

Our cover artist, Honey Williams, talks to our Art co-Editor, LJ Vaughan, about making art, her role as a choir director, and what it’s like to be a big black woman living in Nottingham...

Can you describe your art practice? 
I'm a Nottingham born, Jamaican-British singer, songwriter, visual artist, music educator, designer and image activist. It is an interesting time to be a black woman living in the epicentre of the afterlife of British colonialism. My work has always explored decolonising beauty, identity, gender, race and history. I feel like my work has found a new urgency in the current landscape of resurgent populism, racism and rising inequality in Brexit Britain, a global pandemic, induced lockdown, the #MeToo movement, the Windrush scandal and increased awareness of the Black Lives Matter Movement. My work’s about highlighting the marginalised voices.

My gaze is firmly fixed on shining a light on the untold stories of black women, who have to navigate anti-black racism, misogyny, their sexuality, fatphobia, colourism and classism. I have lived with these intersecting oppressions for my whole life. Having art and music as outlets to explore these issues has been life-affirming, even life-saving, for me. Black women are often marginalised out of the creative industries and often don't have a voice. I think it’s important to express myself and have a unique view. I want, in the future, to develop a body of work about big black women. I’d like my own exhibition and to really dive into what it’s like to be me.

How do you approach creating an artwork?
When I create art, I make lemonade out of lemons because I usually don’t have access to many resources or a studio. I usually start by illustrating in my diary – it’s an authentic way to screenshot my emotions. It all starts as ideas, and then I develop them. I flick through my diaries (I’ve got quite a few from different times in my life) to see what images marry with the concept I’m trying to achieve at the time. Then I dive into it. I manipulate the illustrations digitally, but a lot of it is hand-drawn. I play music, sing and sometimes write songs when I make my art.

Your work seems to be about challenging representations and stereotypes. How has your art been received, and has that shifted throughout your career?
A lot of my work is about decolonising everything and centring black women. The way my work’s been received has changed in the last couple of years. Back in 2016, I entered a Street Art competition at Surface Gallery. I showed ‘Big Black Truth’ which was about fatphobic, misogynoir and cultural appropriation. It was one of, what looked like, a million pieces, but mine was one of the only pieces featuring a non-white person in the piece – definitely the only black woman there. It didn’t get much attention then.

Fast-forward a couple of years later, I was chosen to be exhibited at New Art Exchange’s open show, and I won the public prize out of 700 entries with that same piece, which I really valued as my work was voted for by the public – what an honour! It meant a lot that the public chose me. The attitude towards centering a creative like me has shifted.

When you’re in Nottingham as a big black woman you’re hyper-visible and invisible and at the same time. I think there has been an attitude shift and people want to know more about blackness, womanhood and body positivity. I think that coincides with the shifting gaze of black lives in general, with regards to Black Lives Matter. People are a bit more switched on now, although there is a long way to go.

My gaze is firmly fixed on shining a light on the untold stories of black women, who have to navigate anti-black racism, misogyny, their sexuality, fatphobia, colourism and classism. I have lived with these intersecting oppressions for my whole life

Who are the artists that inspire you?
In terms of art and music my influences and inspirations are vast: A mash-up of Grace Jones, Bjork, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Nina Simone, Punk, nineties Hip-Hop, Radiohead, Trip Hop, Neneh Cherry, Gustav Klimpt, Afrofuturism, Spike Lee, illegal flyposting, graffiti, JDilla, Frida Kahlo, seventies Gospel, Art Deco, Black Twitter, Jamaica, Chaka Khan, Prince and eighties music vids... off the top of my head.

I’m aware you took your art to Jamaica last year. Can you tell me a bit about that experience?
I was invited out to Jamaica last year to be a muralist to honour the Windrush generation. It was part of a project by the British Council and Jamaica’s Ministry of Culture, Gender, Entertainment and Sport and Studio 174 Kingston. I got to create as many murals as I could fit into ten days. I had to get used to the heat, but it was a life-changing experience, getting to paint outdoors and making your work huge.

When I went over, I had no plan of what I’d create to begin with. I thought I’d go to Jamaica and see how my surroundings informed me and made me feel, as I’d never been to Jamaica as an adult alone. I let it inspire me, and I’m glad I did that. I chose to do murals about the children of the Windrush generation, navigating identity – which is me.

As a singer, choir director and workshop leader, it seems as though collaboration is an important part of your creativity. Would you mind talking about how this impacts your art practice?
G.O.A. (Gang of Angels) Choir was born from an interfaith festival. I was asked to perform as a gospel choir as they had heard I was in a choir as a teen. I agreed and quickly rounded up four singers I used to know. The sentiment was there, but practically the festival didn’t really work, as we ended up singing “Jesus loves me” to a mainly Sikh and Muslim audience – as you can imagine that didn’t really work. What I got from that whole performance was: “Oh my God, we really sound good together. What if I auditioned unique individuals, who were solo artists and put them all on stage at the same time?”

In the UK, when something is described as diverse and inclusive or ‘equal opportunities' it's often cosmetic and superficial, but I wanted to create a choir to truly be a culturally, racially, body positive, gender positive, LGBTQIA-friendly and non-ageist space. We end up talking about a myriad of things – it’s like a mini university. It needs its own podcast. So that’s how the choir came about, and they’ve been an absolute blessing. The feeling of being in a choir, harmonizing – you don’t get that feeling from anything else.

One of the choir members was a psychotherapist, and together we created a collaborative workshop called The Art of Afrotherapy: Decolonising Beauty via Black Girl Magic at Nottingham Trent University. We were teaching therapists to be anti-racist – teaching them about white privilege, that it’s real and not fiction. We ended up talking about colourism, misogynoir, anti-black misogyny, hair texturism, how racism affects our ability to find employment, relationships and our ability to find a partner etc. They were really thankful for it and found it really helpful. I like feeling like I’ve helped to dismantle a little splinter of racism and white supremacy. We were collaging at the same time, and it was fun, even though it’s a dire topic. I’ve done lots of workshop pivoting and pirouetting around similar subjects.

Can you tell us a bit about the cover design?
As Nina Simone said, "An artist's duty, as far as I'm concerned, is to reflect the times." The piece I’ve created is inspired by the Black Lives Matter Movement, lockdown, both the persecution and the notions of coolness and desirability of black masculinity and the devaluing, erasure, cultural appropriation and the persecution of black women. It's about the struggle by many to make things better for everyone, not just a privileged few.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?
I think that it is important to big up and support Black women creatives from Nottingham, so here are some others that you can support: @ioneyidioms (Poet/ Filmmaker), @sheafriq (Arts Collective of woman Artists of African Caribbean descent), @sazisophiri (Curator and Cultural Producer), @rachaelraymck (Artist), @cha.daffe (DJ/Artist/ Natural Hair and Beauty Product Owner), @melonyxmusic (Music duo) and @thegoachoir (Alt Choir).

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