Newsletter Issue:
Spring 2017

In Search of Beauty: An Interview with Dr. Deborah Willis

Michelle Perkins, Cohort ’13

In recent years the number of black scholars and artists in the spotlight has continued to surge. There is also a rise in the amount of black women operating within the field as artists, educators, scholars, curators and authors, contributing to conferences and exhibitions from New York to Florence, as well as South Africa. One particular commonality linking a majority of these women: Dr. Deborah Willis.

Deborah Willis with IDSVA student Michelle Perkins at the Johannesburg Art Gallery, 2016, Photo by an unidentified kind soul
Deborah Willis with IDSVA student Michelle Perkins at the Johannesburg Art Gallery, 2016, Photo by an unidentified kind soul

When asked how she became a mentor to so many artists and scholars, especially black women, Willis replied, “I believe in mentoring as I was mentored when I was a student. I find it important today to listen closely to needs of students and professionals entering the field as museum professionals because of the lack of opportunities for young people in finding their voices.” Offering support and encouragement to the voice of others is commonplace for Willis, who “often receives calls to sit with filmmakers, artists and writers, black, white, Asian, Native, and Latina, to review their projects. I attempt to find space and time often meeting with people who have great projects and little financial backing. I encourage them to keep working and find a way to support their projects.” For Willis, creating platforms for artistic practice and discourse strengthens the discipline. She expresses this in the following statement,

In my view, we as educators and cultural producers are responsible for the future of our fields in the arts profession, which we have to bring about new theoretical ground in intellectually imaginative ways through our writings and actions that contribute to building a stronger and inclusive art history.

Deborah Willis is an accomplished photographer, art-historian, curator, author, and mentor currently serving as the Chairperson and Professor in the Department of Photography & Imaging at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. For thirty years, Deb has “worked in museums, cultural, and academic institutions.” In 2000, Dr. Willis was awarded a MacArthur ‘genius’ fellowship along with an elite group of recipients including multimedia artist and fellow IDSVA Honorary Degree recipient, Alfredo Jaar. In respect to her journey, she states, “I have spent my life focusing on programming and educating a larger public about African American History.” During her tenure at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture she continued to enrich the visual arts and public programs. She recalls her participation in organizing exhibitions and public programs to engage the public with the collections housed within the Schomburg, specifically photography.

“Moving on to the Smithsonian, I worked closely with arts educator and activist Claudine Brown, who unfortunately died last year while working as an under Secretary of Education at the Smithsonian.  In 1992, I was hired by Claudine to identify collections for the then National African American Museum Project.”

Deb also shared how her initial curatorial projects and work at NYU lead to her consider how her “central questions broadened” as she “began to think critically about how histories are told.” Willis ultimately began to “produce books and published articles addressing images on black visual culture.”  This lead to Black Photographers A Bio-Bibliography 1840-1940, a “result of following up an undergraduate paper on black photographers.”

As an artist and scholar Dr. Willis, or Deb as she’s affectionately called, engages in the processes of examining visual culture and documents the multifaceted nature of beauty. When asked about what appeals to her as a photographer in a perpetual search for beauty, Deb expressed, “As a professor, photographer, curator, art historian and mentor, my message has always been the same - in search of beauty - only my way of communicating it has changed through organizing conferences, exhibitions and publishing articles and books.” She states,  “Throughout my writing and research, I have focused on identity and self-image.  In my view, studying visual culture has helped shaped and controlled some of the most difficult aspects of American history.” In respect to photographic images as a means of presenting African American culture, Willis expressed a fundamental belief that “the photograph has historically served as a powerful mirror in the African American community, reflecting the achievements, triumphs and positive imagery all too often erased from the culture at large.” This fuels dedication to “continue to use these ideas in creating programming and conferences on the subject of the black portrait.”

The subject of the black portrait also looms large in the Black Portraiture[s] conference where Willis serves as one of its chief architects. The international conference, initially commencing in Paris, later moved to Florence. In November of 2016, over 300 panelists, artists, and other participants convened in Johannesburg, South Africa for Black Portraiture[s] III: Reinventions, Strains of Histories and Cultures. The most recent artistic exchange centered on themes relating to Africa and the African Diaspora. Regarding the development of the conference, Willis states,

The conference was one of a series of extended conversations begun in 2004 at the DuBois Institute at Harvard University focusing on imaging the black body in art, history, writing and film. I worked with Professors Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Cheryl Finley (Cornell), Manthia Diawara and Awam Ampka (NYU) and Thelma Golden, Executive Director of the Studio Museum in Harlem in planning and setting up most of the conferences.

Contributions from advisers of this caliber make the presentation and exhibition of black culture truly unique and spectacular. Black Portraiture[s] is a forum for artists, activists, and scholars that has the feel of a ‘homecoming’ where past, present, and new participants reconvene to focus on art and forming networks while feeding the soul.

Deborah Willis with colleagues, friends, and family in Florence at New York University’s LaPietra Dialogues during the welcoming reception for BLACK PORTRAITURE[S] II: Imaging the Black Body and Re-Staging Histories (2015). Photo by Michelle Perkins
Deborah Willis with colleagues, friends, and family in Florence at New York University’s LaPietra Dialogues during the welcoming reception for BLACK PORTRAITURE[S] II: Imaging the Black Body and Re-Staging Histories (2015). Photo by Michelle Perkins

Willis is currently planning a summer gathering to discuss new a project titled Women and Migrations which involves a “working group that examines issues and processes of cultural identity, and women and global political movements.” This work will also investigate “women photographers/filmmakers/artists in relation to the question of migration and global travel as it has been examined by in various forms by scholars, social scientists, journalists, artists and activists.” Once again, Willis’ quest for beauty involves the creation of a platform for new artistic and scholarly collaboration that will mirror, document, and enrich visual culture.

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