RED SPRINGS — Antoine Williams’ art may seem abstract to some.
The 36-year-old, through his mixed media art pieces, brings to life “humanoid beings” influenced by his own life growing up in a working class family in Red Springs
But Williams’ art is more than something that hangs on the wall.
It’s social commentary.
“I began to look at things like race and class,” Williams said. “Things like access to education or housing — things like that. In places like Robeson County, we don’t have a lot of access to things like that.”
Williams grew up on Mt. Tabor Road among residents that he says always worked hard for what they wanted. That work ethic would earn him the opportunity to showcase his art in 35 solo and group exhibitions in galleries and schools across North Carolina and South Carolina and lead him to complete residencies at Golden Belt Galleries in Durham, Indie Grits Film Festival in Columbia, S.C., and Elsewhere’s Southern Constellations, a fellowship program in Greensboro.
When Williams left for college at the University of North Carolina in Charlotte, he saw stark differences between the city he now calls home and his hometown.
“Red Springs is largely black, Indian and Asian,” Williams said. “I left Red Springs to go to college in Charlotte and there were mostly white students. There was a culture clash there.”
Williams recalls his upbringing as a young black man in Red Springs in a few of his art pieces, which focus on the themes of privilege, racial injustice and racial violence, among others. He said he gets his inspiration through reading books, hip-hop music, science fiction, news and the conversations he has with people.
In a piece titled “Dylan Roof,” Williams features a monster that represents the 22-year old white man who entered a prayer service on June 17, 2015, at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., and killed nine black people.
Photos of Roof with symbols of white supremacy and neo-Nazism as well as a manifesto documenting his thoughts on people of color quickly surfaced, and the murders were labeled a hate crime.
Williams’ piece depicts Roof with one hand cuffed behind his back and one held high in the air. He is surrounded by nine brown dots representing the lives he took.
A second piece, titled “The Ain’t Gots No. 2 (For Freddie Gray)” pays homage to the Baltimore man who died in police custody after not being properly restrained in a vehicle following his arrest. The piece includes seat belt straps hanging loosely from a figure largely covered in what appears to be a white sheet.
“The installation depicts the idea of growing up in a low-income household and how you’re perceived,” Williams said. “If anything bad happens to those people, it’s believed that they deserve it. Freddie Gray grew up in an area kind of like Red Springs.”
“Dylan Roof” and “The Ain’t Gots No. 2 (For Freddie Gray)” are both three-dimensional works that are “installed” at the site they will be viewed. In his installations, Williams prefers to use materials similar to those he would have found running around in the back yard of his childhood home.
Williams found the pieces of wood featured in “The Ain’t Gots No. 2 (For Freddie Gray)” by a railroad track near his Charlotte studio.
“I’m one of your biggest fans,” said Nicole Danielle Watts in a comment on one of Williams’ pieces that he posted on Facebook. “This is beautiful. Keep soaring.”
Williams downplays his talent.
“I’ve talked to a lot of artists, and we don’t know how to do anything else well,” Williams said. “I’m OK at art and everything else I’m just not good at. It’s just one of those things I’ve always done. I’ve always been really creative. I was that weird kid that daydreamed a lot.”
He said he used to make bows and arrows in the woods near his home, and he distinctly remembers drawing dinosaurs on the back of his spelling tests at Union Chapel Elementary School.
“My teacher would always know which paper was mine,” he said jokingly.
After finishing school in Red Springs, Williams knew he would have to leave his hometown to further explore art.
“It’s true for a lot of towns and cities,” he said. “There is just a lack of opportunity. There’s not an outlet for art in Red Springs. If you want to be an artist, go some place where you can experience art. There’s UNCP and Fayetteville State. Draw, paint or do whatever you want to do, but never stop making stuff.”
Williams said he has had plenty of help chasing down his dream.
“I’m only here because of the people I grew up around. Everyone from my parents, to my community, to my teachers in Red Springs helped me get here,” Williams said. “There are people who look at where they are in life and think they got there on their own.
“People often ask me what is different from myself and those other people in Red Springs and I get kind of upset,” he said. “There is no difference. I had a lot of support and was extremely lucky.”
Gabrielle Isaac can be reached at 910-816-1989 or on Twitter @news_gabbie.