With the second of his quartet of continuing exhibitions, Eli Williamson examines the topic of “Work” and its relation to Black men. I had the pleasure of reviewing his first installment a year ago. Williamson has matured as a photographer, and yet retained the same zealous need to tell a story in opposition to common misconceptions about Black men, in this case the myth that they are unmotivated or lazy, and don’t like to work. I came away from the show with a new respect for all the jobs, from menial to white-collar, that Williamson shows in this series and a desire to walk through the world attentive to Black men at their labors.
Williamson quotes Martin Luther King Jr. in one of the didactics: “If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music, or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, ‘Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.’” There is an abundance of disparate images of workers of all kinds—a good number of jobs take not only skill but nerve. A man high up in a cherry picker changing the bulbs in a streetlight, a man cleaning rubbish in the center of a heavily trafficked street, and another changing a tire in the road. A thought that occurred to me looking at this work is that so many of the jobs Black men do involve uniforms. From police officers, firefighters and CTA drivers to security guards and doormen, the uniform seems to be a part of the job, although Williamson does have a few images of Black executives in suits with briefcases, which I find in some way gratifying.
And let’s not forget the many Black street musicians, the groups of young men who sit for hours drumming on plastic buckets to make a few dollars in donations, the guy outside Symphony Center who plays his sax to a tinny recording on a tiny boombox. For those who love music, playing it is a wonderful thing that just may help pay the rent. Williamson has several images of these musicians, as well as a great image of a spiffy-looking uniformed doorman seeking a taxi on the corner. The photographs are well-composed and state their purpose succinctly and proudly. Williamson’s statement, which is written in letter form, “Dear Black Man,” is poignant, and ends with, “We see you, and we love you; know that you are enough.” It is signed “A community that needs you.”
The worthiness of a strong body of work is to show its viewers something they’ve never seen or perhaps never thought about before. Williamson completes that mission with artistic finesse and deep thought. I look forward to seeing his “Third Virtue” in a year or so.
“Eli Williamson: The Four Virtues–Work” is on view at Evanston Art Center, 1717 Central Street, Evanston, through March 10.