Faces Of Art: Hadiya Williams Embodies African Diaspora In Her Bold, Original Art

Featured artist Hadiya Williams embodies the richness of the African diasporic consciousness in her timeless creations. Born and raised in Washington D.C., Williams has spent her life at the epicenter of cultural flux. Her ability to transform these experiences into bold, original art pieces that trace and carry the lineage of spirited Black culture is mesmerizing. I had the pleasure of sharing a great conversation with Hadiya about her work and influences. Discover more about this discerning artist in my interview below, and for more of her work visit www.hadiyawilliams.com.

Michiel Perry: What early influences emboldened your pursuit of becoming an artist?
Hadiya Williams: I would say my mother was an early influence. She isn’t an artist but she surrounded our home with Black art, textiles and books that she collected from the NABSW (National Assoc. of Black Social Workers) conferences, and trips to the Caribbean Islands. She wore these gorgeous African fabrics and had Black art on the walls. The pieces that I now know had a major influence were this group of prints that included about five Elizabeth Catlett prints. The classic black and white linocuts are my favorite style of artwork. The high contrast of the black and white as a neutral is the core of my work.

My late step-father was an artist so I was surrounded by art in many ways. He would create these black and white line drawings that were heavily influenced by African art. I’ve been fortunate to hold on to a few.

I’ve also been collecting objects since I can remember. Treasure hunting or vintage shopping is my favorite past-time and has influenced my work. There is something so poetic and spiritual about these once-owned items. They have their own stories.

And of course, like many children of the 80s, I loved coloring books.

Michiel: How has growing up in Washington D.C. influenced your art and creativity?
Hadiya: The 1970s is my favorite decade when it comes to music, style, fashion. I was born in 1978 so I came in at the tail end of the decade but it has heavily influenced my perspective on art and culture. The decade that followed the civil rights movement and ushered in the Black Power movement, was the decade where you could tangibly see the progression for Black people around the country but specifically in DC. DC has been a special place for Black people in the US since the early 20th century. I was born one year before Marion Barry first became mayor. The 70s marked the end of The Great Migration which is significant for the era that I grew up in.

By the time I was 5, we were fully immersed into what was Chocolate City. In hindsight, growing up here was like being in a bubble. You have almost the full range of socioeconomic classes and Black art and culture were baked into everyday living. I think that was essential to my personal style and how I view art in all forms. Like many major cities with dense Black populations, we created our own special culture that is still a major part of who I am.

Michiel: Does being a resident of our nation’s capital make you feel like you are at the epicenter for change? How does this play a role in your work?
Hadiya: I think being in DC, having lived here pretty much my entire life distorts my view of the role this city plays, in the grand scheme of things. I’m inside the house (laughs). It really starts in these marginalized spaces where people are creating culture and movements that are disseminated around the world. Especially now that we are truly immersed in the information age.

That being said, the access to Federal institutions like the Smithsonian museums and the federal government agencies, a few of which were summer job locations while in high school and college, has been instrumental in the evolution of my creative work. We have access to so many resources here.

Michiel: You are obviously very inspired by heritage and ancestry? Can you share more about how you incorporate these powerful themes into your work?
Hadiya: When I started my family genealogy research in 2014, something inside of me cracked open. Finding out details about the ancestors that lived and survived in this world was unlike anything I’d ever experienced. It was indeed something cosmic and out of this world. I found myself filling in the gaps and creating stories about these people to who I was tethered. The women, especially. I wondered about their lives, their traumas, their joys.

The more I create, the more I recognize the impact that my genealogy research has had on my transition from graphic design to visual art and working with my hands in a more tactile way. My approach to my design work always felt like art, more intuitive in nature. I describe my process as intuitive, improvisational, and spiritual and I’ve definitely created with ancestral altars in close proximity for guidance and inspiration. Sometimes it feels like this work is coming from a place outside of myself and I know that other artists can attest to that experience.

Like many people of the African Diaspora who are descendants of formerly enslaved people, I am constantly drawing these connections to “home.” Where is home for my family and what have we retained in the evolution of time, place, and culture? The more I find out about my lineage, the more my work will evolve. I recently received the results of my African Ancestry test and my matrilineal line goes directly to the Bamileke people of Cameroon. I can see connections in my work to that craftwork that I’ve seen from the Bamileke people. I look forward to this research and learning process.

Michiel: Who has inspired and empowered you most throughout your life and career? Who do you hope to inspire through your work?
Hadiya: My mother has been my rock for sure. Not an unexpected answer but an absolute truth. She’s done so much for marginalized Black folks in her work and in her personal life. She has been there every step of my journey from software engineer to graphic designer to visual artist. Providing any support that she could. Even in her moments of resistance she shows up anyway.

I hope to inspire anyone who wants to do something different than what they are currently doing in their career. I am still learning about myself, even at 43. 10 years ago, I would have laughed at the idea that I would be working full-time as a visual artist with a focus in ceramics as a medium. I am on my third life at this point and all of it feels purposeful, like I’m being guided. The intention has always been to create from the heart and I hope to inspire others to do the same.

Photo via Dfinney Photography.
Photo via Dfinney Photography.

Michiel: What do you want your art to communicate to others?
Hadiya: I want my art to communicate a sense of being transported to another time or dimension. I speak of portals a great deal when talking about my work.

Thoughtful, bold, textured, memorable, whimsical, personal, diasporic.

Michiel: Can you describe feedback from one of your art pieces that made you see your art differently?
Hadiya: I created my first lamp over the summer (2021). It started with sketches that I made for a project that never happened. I was sitting there with all of these ideas and nowhere for them to go. I shared a sample of the lamp on [Instagram] that included a 2D sketch of the shade and ceramic body. It was like a prototype of what I wanted to have fabricated. Someone I know who follows my page wrote a comment asking me how she could help me make this real lamp happen? I mentioned that my kiln was too small and that I wasn’t in the position to buy a larger one just yet. This woman offered to help pay for my new kiln. This was initially all in jest but it ended up in the DMs and the rest is history. I shipped her lamp to her after waiting a few months for the kiln and another couple months of working out the kinks and learning how to wire a lamp. When she finally received it, she said it was the most beautiful thing that she owns.

I was already creating one-of-a-kind pieces for the home and as wearable art but that whole experience made me want to create more work that was higher in value and effort. My ultimate goal is to focus my time and creative energy on more complex sculptural and functional art objects.

Michiel: Are there any specific regions that most often inspire you?
Hadiya: I have focused on West African countries as the core influence but as I continue to learn and research, I realize how much I am inspired by the thread that connects the whole diaspora. The culture, spirituality, music, art of Black America, the Caribbean, South America, etc. I am learning more about Cameroon where my matrilineal connects. It is technically Central Africa but borders Nigeria in West Africa.

Michiel: What is your favorite connection or experience you have had after finishing a piece of art?
Hadiya: I have had many memorable experiences and connections through my work as a graphic designer and as a visual artist. One that stands out is the work I did for Makers in the Mansion at Woodlawn Pope-Leighey House in Mt. Vernon, VA. I was invited to be part of an exhibition where 5 Black artists created installations in one of the rooms of the former plantation of George and Martha Washington’s daughter, Eleanor Parke Custis. I learned so much on that project. I felt SO connected to the people that were enslaved there. She enslaved over 100 people on that 2,000 acre lot. It’s since been divided up and now the house only sits on 150 acres along with the Pope-Leighey house built by Frank Lloyd Wright. Most of the original land is part of Ft. Belvoir.

I worked with a friend, Risikat Okedeyi, who helped me develop the concept. What we wanted to do with our space was honor those formerly enslaved people. The Black women and men that served in the house. Those who were only documented by their first names. I was given the dining room so we created a space that was meant to serve them not the other way around. There was a Yoruba Egungun portal upon entry that let you know that you were crossing over into a sacred space. That dining room became a living altar room. The table was set with ceramic pieces that I created, table linens, hand-painted bowls, etc. The placecards and menus were a timeline with dates and information of what was happening on that Plantation juxtaposed with what was happening in the country regarding slavery. This room sparked so much emotion from visitors who experienced it. It brought tears and joy and some anger. It was one of the most memorable and transformative collaborations that I’ve done to date.

Michiel: What advice do you have for young Black artists and creators or those new to this industry looking to pursue their artistic passions full time?
Hadiya: Intuition is a valuable business tool. Move at your own pace and tap into who YOU are as a person, creator, artist, etc. The biggest lesson I’ve learned over these past 5 years is that I can create my own rules for how I want to do things. The basics are the basics but you can do things differently. We spend a lot of time watching others and assuming we know how they are developing their businesses or their lives. The instinct is to do what they are doing but creates the space to give up if things don’t work out. Continue to challenge yourself but don’t be afraid to shift gears if what you are doing doesn’t align with who you are at your core.

Michiel Perry is the founder of Black Southern Belle, a lifestyle brand focused on African-American women with a Southern connection. See more of her work for aspire design and home here!

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