Using soil as a salve for historical and contemporary violence

Watch This Commission

Kiyan Williams’s Notes on Digging premiered on July 12, 2020. Watch the video below.

About this commission

For several years, artist Kiyan Williams has transformed their need to dig in and make art out of the earth into a ritual of care that has grounded them during the recent uprisings against anti-Black and anti-Black trans violence, all set against the backdrop of the government’s much-criticized response to the COVID-19 crisis. Kiyan Williams’s video Notes on Digging explores how connecting with the earth helps the artist recover from racialized and gendered violence.

In a format similar to a video diary, Williams shares the process of researching and installing a new artwork called Reaching Towards Warmer Suns (2020), a set of sculptures resembling long arms with upstretched hands that are made of earth from, and rise up out of the banks of, the James River in Virginia. As a form of care, Williams finds refuge in touching, digging, and creating with soil; for the artist, who lives in Brooklyn and was recently based in Richmond while on a yearlong fellowship at Virginia Commonwealth University, soil is a salve.

The James River is known as the “founding river” in the US. It stretches from the Appalachian Mountains to the Chesapeake Bay and was the location of both the first English colonial settlement in 1607 and the arrival and forced transition of the first kidnapped and trafficked West Africans in the system of chattel slavery in Virginia. “Soil,” as Williams notes of the earth that makes up the riverbanks, “is silent witness to the historical and ongoing dispossession of Black people in America.” Williams’s artwork asks how the legacy of chattel slavery and racial apartheid continues to haunt the present, and how soil might be a site of recovery and transformation.

In summer 2019 as part of Open Call’s group exhibition at The Shed, Williams presented Meditation on the Making of America, a site-specific portrait of America and the exploitation of Black people and land, also made of soil.


A portrait of Kiyan Williams standing against a background of trees with their hands casually in their pockets and head tilted to the side
Courtesy the artist.
Kiyan Williams
Kiyan Williams
Kiyan Williams is a multidisciplinary artist from Newark, New Jersey, who works fluidly across sculpture, performance, and video. In recent works Williams uses soil as material and metaphor to unearth Afro-diasporic and queer subjectivity. Williams earned a BA with honors from Stanford University and an MFA in visual art from Columbia University. Their work has been exhibited at SculptureCenter, the Jewish Museum, Brooklyn Museum, and The Shed and is in private and public collections including at the Hirshhorn Museum. Williams’s honors and awards include the Astraea Foundation Global Arts Fund and Stanford Arts Award. Williams was previously an artist fellow at Leslie-Lohman Museum and is an alum of the EMERGENYC fellowship at the Hemispheric Institute for Performance and Politics at NYU. Williams is the recipient of the 2019 / 2020 Fountainhead Fellowship at Virginia Commonwealth University, where they are on faculty in the Sculpture and Extended Media Department. This fall they will present their first public sculpture, Reaching Towards Warmer Suns, in the Monuments Now exhibition at Socrates Sculpture Park in New York.

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