Chicago Works? Curating Value and Representation in Chicago, Amanda Williams at the MCA

Fall 2017, Critical Terms in Modern Architecture,
Prof. Shiben Banerji

First Place Winner, Avery Review Essay Contest.
Excerpted, full text published here.


              Corbusier describes cities as a “grip of man upon nature.”5 In his words we read the legacy of modernism as white male colonial practices rendered onto the bodies of black women—both nature and the black female body need to be forcefully controlled. This legacy is perpetuated and preserved in the multiple forms taken by white male privilege today. bell hook’s exegesis on feminism, Ain’t I a Woman?, expands on the grip of white man upon nature and the black female body. It stems, hooks argues, from an anti-woman mythology that allows an identity based on negative stereotypes to be thrust upon black women. Furthermore, she argues, white male power comes from the ability to use and capitalize on technological force.6 This brings us back to Roy’s invocation of “racial terror” and the “technologies of modern urban planning.” What is made evident is that the privilege accumulated across centuries has become institutionalized and writ large onto our modern domestic lives.

                    [Amanda]Williams renders this heritage visible in the angst of the lonely, chromatic houses of her Color(ed) Theory series, which forms a major part of the Chicago Works exhibition. Knowing the urban planning failures, lack of economic equity, and lack of social capital that gave rise to the houses’ impending demolition, we can read Color(ed) Theory as a bold response to the exploitation of the black home, which is, in turn, a metaphor for the exploitation of the black female. That the first works in Color(ed) Theory are painted to match and then titled after black beauty products is notable. Williams describes the process for finding the colors of Englewood identity as a casual brainstorm with her friends, in which she threw out colors and they responded “yes” or “no.”7 The colors register immediately in the neighborhood, where a discarded package of Newports might sit next to a crumbling Newport-green home, slated for demolition. With this shared palette, the neighborly collaboration of every house painting was a local and ephemeral act of reclamation. Captured in the museum as a series of photographs and short films, however, they become neatly packaged and summarized events. The audience is given enough to acknowledge the content but not enough to understand the context.

                    Gold is alluringly portrayed in several ways throughout the exhibition—positioned in the center like an open treasure chest or glimmering from behind a corner, just out of reach. The accompanying text acknowledges the value of this color, describing “material values and abstract notions of success” as well as ideas of “gaudiness and excess.” However, after having attended several of Williams’ lectures, it seems like the gold used in her work can mean so much more. A piece like It’s a Gold Mine/Is the Gold Mine? feels so much richer for the urban context from which its material was drawn (the bricks of demolished Chicago houses). But a site-specific piece built for the museum setting, like the gold-drenched room called A Dream or Substance, a Beamer, a Necklace or Freedom? looks contrived—so much so that it seems a little less brilliant under the pale-blue lighting of the awkward room surrounding it. Presented in the level field of the gallery, the two gold-covered pieces read as equally valuable, with the salvaged brick reduced to the same level of meaning as the new drywall.



Le Corbusier, The City of Tomorrow and Its Planning (New York: Dover, 1987), xxi.

bell hooks, Ain’t I a Woman? (New York: Routledge, 2015), 86.

“Amanda Williams in Conversation with Deanna Haggag,” talk, MCA Chicago, October 17, 2017.