Deborah Willis, artist and educator, New York

with Wisdom Baty

How does one interview an art legend? Minutes before phoning in for a brief conversation with Dr. Deborah Willis, I tried to gain my composure as the butterflies in my stomach let loose. A groundbreaking photographer, author, mother, researcher, and educator, Dr. Willis spoke with me about her latest book, inspirations, parenthood, and thoughts on re-imagining black beauty.



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WISDOM BATY: Much of you work centers around illuminating the beauty of the black body politic. When thinking about value and aesthetic how much of your practice acts as redefining the aesthetics of ‘taste?

DEBORAH WILLIS: My work is about storytelling, that’s how I began, by telling women’s stories. I often tell stories that are overlooked, under-imagined, and rarely imagined. I deal with beauty. Growing up in the beauty shop, I learned at an early age that beauty is an essential part of black womanhood. I don’t think of my work as doing much redefining—my work reimagines. I’m interested in opening up broader discussions of reimagining aesthetics both historically and contemporary. I’ve always had a broader story to tell.


WB: You’ve talked about navigating the art world as a black mother and artist, in an earlier interview. What is some strategic advice you would give parents navigating the art world?

DW: Read the text How We Do Both: Art and Motherhood, by Michi Jigarjian and Qiana Mestric. It’s a selection of different narratives about the experience we as parents are a part of. Artist and mothers. The parenthood experience is believing that your work is valid enough, and creating the time to do the necessary things it takes to be a parent while having a creative practice. The hard part is to do both of these things well. Balance is key in providing for your family and sustaining a creative practice.

WB: Can you talk about your latest work and how it’s evolving?

DW: My forthcoming book, Beautiful, is an exciting opportunity to show and write about my workplace and where I see my work within the pantheon of black beauty. I capture women in beauty shops, on stage, body builders, sculpture, shopping, etc. I’m interested in showing different parts of beauty and how we live beauty on a broad range. This new work gives me an opportunity to illuminate images where I am identifying moments of beauty, moments where people find their comfort zone. I’m also working on organizing a Black Portraiture[s] conference in South Africa [was held in November 2016].

WB: As a curator, educator, and artist, how has your work influenced later generations of creatives. Do you notice unique commonalities of how women from the African Diaspora navigate space and/or place within the art canon?

DW: I teach black women students at NYU, where I have graduate students working in the field of photography. Past students, such as Allison Janae Hamilton who received her PhD in American Studies, find inspiration within personal experiences. Her archives of the collective experiences of her friends and family has resulted in her writing through the aspect of the black fabulous, ‘an aesthetic look at the way black bodies shine in different ways.’

We can trace generations of artist doing the same kind of explorations, looking for spaces to talk about their work, reflecting on the beauty of diverse aspects of black womanhood. Central to art making is an exchange of the white gaze and black gaze we experience, often a different trajectory than those inside the gallery space. Creating spaces that reflect one’s experiences, the spiritual nature of it, is the true nature of participating in a democratic society. It is marvelous to see the changing language of how artists describe their own art, specifically women.

  • with Wisdom Baty

    Deborah Willis, PhD:

    Wisdom Baty: