D’Angelo Lovell Williams’ photograph “The Lovers” is a contemporary allegory of queer black love.

Written Jackie Palumbo, CNN

At Snap, we look at the power of a single photo by telling stories about how both contemporary and historical images were created.

When D’Angelo Lovell Williams posed for a kiss with ex-partner Glenn in front of the camera, their faces were obscured by black silk duraga back to front, the photographer was referring to the famous painting.

The Mississippi-born and New York-based artist, who is not binary, has always loved surreal art born from the turmoil of World War I. When creating their photo, they thought of the simple heart shape formed by the figures in René Magritte’s famous painting Lovers. In a 1928 composition, an allegory of separation and longing, the Belgian artist depicts a close-up of a couple sharing an intimate kiss, their heads completely wrapped in white cloth.

In Williams’s depiction of the same name, the elements retain their unexpected romanticism: two faces in profile come together but are separated by a layer of fabric against an almost featureless background. But in this image, the drama intensifies; Williams and Glenn hold each other’s faces in a burning gesture of desire, a bed frame visible behind them.

And then there are the figures themselves: a black oddball couple front and center, wearing headdresses that symbolize black beauty and culture.

“I was adamant about making this open love for black queer men, but also trying to lay the groundwork for how many black men are in general, whether they are queer or not,” Williams said. CNN Style in a phone interview. “Men are shamed for expressing feelings and intimacy with anyone,” they added, “but especially with other men.”

When Williams took the photo in 2017, they were studying for a master’s degree in fine art photography at Syracuse University and were developing a visual language for their deeply evocative self-portraits. Image exhibited at their first exhibition at the Higher Pictures Gallery in New York before they graduated; it is now also included in their first book, Contact on High, which was published in early July. There, Williams’ Lovers is deliberately small – and intimate – on the page, just one of the many images from Williams’ archive that have since shaped their poetic world.

Over the past half century, Williams’ work has evolved into a vast exploration of the self and relationships in relationships. Their photographs, often of family and friends, walk the line between reality and fiction in carefully posed portraits tinged with a sense of the supernatural and the spiritual.

“Our gender is a spectacle, our sexuality is a spectacle, our life is a spectacle, whether people see it or not,” Williams explained. “So performativity is definitely part of (my) work.”

Touch, they say, is also an indispensable element of all their work, as hands grab, pull, and caress, sometimes seemingly incorporeal, but always with deep familiarity. In one photo, Glenn shaves Williams’ jawline, holding the artist’s head with one hand while bringing the razor closer with the other. In another, Williams and fellow artist Charles Long, both naked, hold each other tightly by the arms, leaning away from each other to form an inverted triangle—also imbued with the tension of The Lovers, it shows each other’s closeness and distance. intimate relationship immediately.

Throughout Contact Height, Williams’ work explores the many forms in which we experience love, and not just romantic ones. “While yes, I advocate sexual freedom, I also champion the idea that there is no intimacy between lovers, friends and family that is not stigmatized,” they said. “There are images in the work of my black parents loving their black queer child.”

And while hints of artistic tradition can be seen in Williams’ compositions—renaissance hand gestures, the contorted bodies of surreal photography, everyday tales of the kinship of black figurative artists—the photographer shirks most direct references. They focus on their own narratives without changing the narratives of others.

“I didn’t want to keep subverting images of artists throughout history to create my own work,” they said, especially given that black artists were “out of control” of their narratives for much of art history.

“I am the only one who will do my job,” they added, “and I am the only one who can tell the truth about my work.”

Contact High”, published by MACK, is already available.

Top image: Lovers, 2017.

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