Pascale Ife Williams MS’18, PhD x’22 struggles to call herself an artist. Her peers don’t hesitate to tell her otherwise.
“[A friend said to me], ‘What are you doing with your life? What art are you making?’ And I said, ‘Well, I’m not currently making art,’ ” Williams says. “He said, ‘Ife, we’re artists. Life doesn’t make sense without art.’ ”
Even clearer in her mind are the words of her late mother: “Without art, I don’t know if I would be alive.”
Williams took this to heart — but rather than easels or sketchbooks, her canvas is her community. In lieu of paints and pencils, she works in the medium of the people she seeks to serve and the spaces she creates for them in a world that refuses them space otherwise.
“My experience of art in my life has been that it’s completely integrated into the way that I move in the world,” Williams says. “There are so many problems that, when not looked [at] through a lens of art, [seem] impossible.”
Williams has dedicated her career to finding possibility in some of those problems — housing, educational equity, urban displacement — by invoking art as a means of healing and identity exploration in Black, brown, and queer communities.
“Art is one of the most accessible [methods] because we literally have our voice, or we have our bodies,” Williams says. “[We have] ways to tell our own stories.”
Williams is a doctoral candidate in the civil society and community research program in the UW’s School of Human Ecology. Her research focuses on the practices of Chicago-based Black, queer artists, as well as those of cultural workers, healing-arts practitioners, and parental figures, as they pertain to artistic and justice-driven work.
“All of my formal education has really just been a complement to where my learning has really been formulated, which is in my community practice,” she says.
Thanks to this framework, Williams’s academic endeavors directly feed the communities with whom she works. Williams creates what she calls “brave spaces” by engaging people who have been victimized or silenced by oppressive systems in artistic healing practices. One component of her dissertation, titled the “Kitchen Table Ciphers,” is an example of this art form.
“I’ve asked folks, ‘What does Black liberation smell, taste, feel, sound like?’ And in those responses, I’m being inspired to create a space where the menu will be created with the foods that people identify as tasting like Black liberation, creating a soundtrack in response to the sounds or the songs that people identify,” Williams says. “Then, there will be the opportunity for ciphering, dialogue, conversation, which is one of the most beautiful and fluid ways that people use the voice as an art form.”
So maybe Williams is an artist, she concedes, but her success is not measured in works sold or galleries shown, but in the strides her work makes toward justice.
“For me, a measure of success would be that we’re doing this hard work,” Williams says. “We’re doing this self-critical reflection; we’re understanding the interdependence of working toward liberation.”
This story originally appeared in the June 2021 issue of Badger Vibes. Learn more about this monthly email newsletter from WAA, and sign up for the mailing list.