Testing the limits of liberty

For one of his next projects, Sandy Williams IV (MFA ’19) is taking flight. The plan for his piece 40 Acres and a Mule—in reference to the Union’s unfulfilled promise of land ownership to freed slaves after the Civil War—is to take the infamous phrase and write it across a 40-acre grid in the sky.

Of course, it’s not so easy. However limitless as our skies may seem, the law governs who and what can fly through it. To get his words above peoples’ heads, the artist anticipates he’ll have to obtain permits or licenses, find and hire a skywriting company, sort out when and where he can stage the piece, and square away all that hassle with his budget.

But for Williams, the hassle is part of the art. His work emphasizes and disrupts the tension between the dream of American freedom and the reality of our social restrictions.

“In order to accomplish the artwork,” he says, “I find out which bureaucracies govern [public] spaces. The proposal is to do a skywriting, but the work is really about figuring out how to do that, and then the product at the end is how all of these spaces are constructed and governed, and what sort of limitations they all have,”

Williams’ work can sometimes agitate the public. In his performance at the 2019 InLight exhibition in Richmond, The Arm of Liberty, the artist and a small team scrubbed down a replica Statue of Liberty in Chimborazo Park. The monument, erected by the Boy Scouts in the 1950s, hadn’t been cleaned in decades and had acquired a distinctive patina. Many park goers scolded him as he worked, and even threatened to report him to authorities—despite the permits he was granted to restore Lady Liberty.

Williams’ team cleans the replicate Statue of Liberty in Chimborazo Park, during InLight 2019. Courtesy of the artist.

Since InLight, Williams has been working closely with 1708 Gallery curator Park Myers. In addition to 40 Acres and a Mule, they’re also planning to stage another intervention along Monument Avenue. The controversial row of Confederate monuments are under more pressure than ever to be removed, but Williams was attracted to an alternative idea: installing placards that bring these statues into historical context.

“The monuments were put up during segregation,” he says. “They’re a part of our social landscape, and yet they were put up in a time when a large population in our society didn’t have a vote and didn’t have a right to decide what gets made and what doesn’t.”

Williams knows that such a project will be difficult to clear with the city government, and he’ll likely endure backlash. But his work empowers him and others to take hold of a history that disregards them—whether it be by race, age or gender.

A render of Williams’ proposed sign project along Monument Avenue. Courtesy of the artist.

In Chimborazo Park, Williams filmed his performance to edit into a future documentary. For his upcoming pieces, he plans to compile essays, news clippings and copies of permits into publications that share the full story of each artwork. He’s also compiled an extensive list of communities and organizations that he wants to work with, to share his efforts to democratize parks and historic monuments with the people who want to see that same kind of change.

“We have no power over our public space,” says Williams. “We had all these town hall meetings [about the Monument Avenue statues] and none of our voices were heard. I’m interested in giving power to those voices, and there being an opportunity for those voices to have an impact on the social landscape.”

See more of Williams’ work in the online Reynolds Gallery group exhibition “All Together.”

Lead image: “The Arm of Liberty” at InLight 2019 in Chimborazo Park. Courtesy of the artist.