Detroit native and art scholar Juana Williams was recently announced as the new exhibitions curator of the Urban Institute for Contemporary Art (UICA). Having a background that includes working for the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit and the Detroit Institute of Arts, Williams has a passion for community engagement and elevating the voices and experiences of underrepresented cultures.
Williams is the first black curator of the UICA, and occupying that position is very meaningful to her. She explained that being in this role gives her the unique opportunity to support diverse communities with the exhibitions the gallery hosts.
“Something that’s important in my work in general is to promote diverse voices,” she said. “The art world has not been very friendly to voices of diverse people, especially people of African American heritage. I like all types of art and art made by all types of people, so I don’t have any agenda to only show black artists or anything like that, but that is very important to me.”
Williams also wants to use her platform to break down barriers about who gets to engage with art and give everyone the opportunity to participate.
“I think that it’s important to make people feel like they’re welcome here because in the art world, sometimes it’s a little elitist and people don’t necessarily feel comfortable coming into art institutions––even contemporary ones,” Williams said. “I’m hoping that my face as the curator will help more people feel comfortable being here.”
When asked about the artists she’d like to see represented in the gallery, it was hard for her to choose just one. Williams admires many artists, but she has a soft spot for those whose work reflects the black experience.
“One of my favorite artists in general is Mickalene Thomas,” Williams said. “Her work is all about promoting the idea of black female sexuality and going against historical ideas that say that black women can’t be sexual or aren’t beautiful. Some black artists, I think, feel this pressure to present a certain type of idea because they feel like they have to hold up the black community through their work,” she continued. “But for Mickalene, it’s really important to promote her own individual voice.”
Though Williams is interested in pursuing a variety of different topics and concepts in her tenure at the UICA––Afrofuturism and fiber arts to name a few––she’s drawn to the experiences of refugee and immigrant children.
“I’ve been researching how that displacement affects their lives and not just in the moment, but for the rest of their lives they’re affected––whether they can move back to their original communities or not,” Williams said. “Also, how the lives of refugee children are played out in the media and how artists are responding to that––especially artists who have experienced that. I found a few artists who were refugee children and I’ve been researching how their work responds to that experience.”
More than anything, Williams is excited to develop relationships and connections with people of different backgrounds and identities in the community––that’s one of the things that attracted her to the UICA.
“I follow the UICA on social media, so I’ve seen how much they’re involved in the community,” Williams said. “Like I was saying before, that’s really, really important to me. So, I was just hoping that if I could be a part of it––if I could come here and work here, I could have that same impact on the community.
*Photo courtesy of UICA, Kendall College of art and Design of Ferris State University