Interview with Noelle Lorraine Williams

Photo courtesy of Newark Artist Photo Documentary Project by Colleen Gutwein O’Neal

Noelle Lorraine Williams lives and works in Newark, NJ. She is a public humanities specialist whose work spans several different media including photography, glass bead embroidery and video. She is also a researcher, curator and writer. Her work examines the ways African Americans utilize culture to imagine liberation in the United States and has been reviewed in the Star-Ledger, New York Times, ArtNews, and other publications. Williams’ work has been exhibited at venues such as the Newark Museum, Rush Arts Gallery, Philadelphia African American Museum, Jersey City Museum and Skylight Gallery. The following is our interview with her about history, art and life in Newark.

Where are you from originally?  What brought you to Newark?

Hello! I am a product of the Great Migration. My great grandfather fought in World War I and when he returned from France disembarked in Hoboken at the pier there – this may have influenced my family’s migration to Jersey City.  I am the third generation of  African Americans who moved from their farms and urban culture in South Carolina and fled the racism of the south to resettle in downtown Jersey City.  

My other great grandparents came from Boston and settled in the Grove Street and Lafayette area in downtown Jersey City. I was told my grandmother intended on being a showgirl in New York, instead she had a family of eight but continued to participate sporadically in local productions according to my aunt. Interestingly my ancestors that migrated here are buried in Newark and Jersey City. I was born less than a mile from the Hudson River and land that literally was soaked in the blood of the Indigenous people who lived there and now I live less than a mile from the Passaic River.

When I was 11 we moved to 16th Avenue and 20th Street on the borderline of Newark and Irvington. We lived there for two years  and then moved to East Orange.  I attended boarding school in Wellesley, Massachusetts and then attended The New School in Manhattan. I moved back to Newark, downtown permanently in 2001. Though I had been a cultural activist since high school, I had always used other folks’ poetry, essays and artwork to do consciousness raising work.  When I moved back here I decided to cultivate my own individual voice.

How would you describe your work/artistic vision?

Ah! My vision is to encourage dialogue and conversations. It is also to make sure folks understand the beauty and work of African American liberation!  As a visual artist, a researcher, curator and now as a writer I have the privilege of sharing stories and images by and about African American women that uplift, inspire and sometimes disturb various audiences. Though I was not directly influenced by the Black Arts Movement, I was indirectly saturated in it – whether it was my cousin who had participated in plays, or seeing a “for colored girls…” play poster on my aunt’s wall or even the free breakfast programs they had for youth I was raised to believe that history, culture and community work were inseparable.

What does this mean in practice? It means that I may share a performance of bead masks, curate an exhibition, write an essay or do some other public action that unites culture, history and the public.

How has living in Newark inspired you creatively?

I am a walker and Newark is a city for walkers. In order for me to feel alive I have to hear conversations, laugh, gossip, see the various faces, hairstyles, gestures and the way people move. I draw energy from crowds and trees. I also love historical buildings and just looking at spaces and thinking about the history of the places.  

One of my first photographic series is an activist who fell asleep during the Newark uprising and wakes up 40 years later and walks the streets trying to figure out what happened. In this image dried poppies burst out of an abandoned building on Treat Street in downtown that has now been developed and features a mural initiative Four Corners Mural Project. 

It’s funny because almost thirteen years later I would do a mural on the same block. It is three images of Black women who had their photos taken in downtown Newark. This mural to me is an intervention that demonstrates not only the long history of African Americans in Newark prior to the Great Migration. Often Black Newarkers are depicted as coming here during the Great Migration but we have been here since the American Revolution and before.  An enslaved man Cudjoe actually “won” his freedom during the American Revolution and was “given” a house near where the old Star Ledger building is today.

“To Be Seen”- Four Corners Art Project, Treat Street

Can you tell us about your latest project, “100 Years: Black and Immigrant Women’s Voices and the Vote in New Jersey?”

Yes! My actual latest project is a multimedia exhibition “Black Power! 19th Century: Newark’s First African American Rebellionwhich will open at Newark Public Library in February.  I will tell you more about that later.  However, this video “virtual exhibition” grows out of my most recent exhibition “Radical Women: Fighting for Power and the Vote in New Jersey.”

I am so honored to present this timely, artistic, and historical journey of Black, Native American, immigrant, and white women’s voices in the fight for respect, justice, and the vote. This inspirational and moving video presents the art, music, performance art, and radical statements of New Jersey women and non-binary artists.

It was a commission I received. Many thanks to funding for this project from NJ Women Vote: The 19th Amendment at 100, a partnership led by the New Jersey Historical Commission and the Alice Paul Institute, with assistance from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts.

What drew you to this topic?

I was invited to interview for the position of curator of an exhibition on women of color, and the suffrage movement at The Newark Public Library. Later, they offered me the position and agreed to do it.  

However, it was originally a daunting task, much of the history is about white privileged women, many of them were racists and some were closeted. I have spent most of my volunteer and career work as a Black feminist culture worker uplifting women of color and LGBTI folks and working with radical whites. I was stressed wondering, how I was going to make this project align with my values and maintain the integrity of genuine historical scholarship?

Any idea of what your next projects might be?

As we discussed, one project will be “Black Power! 19th Century: Newark’s First African American Rebellion” in 2021. In early 2022, I will be debuting a project called “Blood Money: Slavery, The River and the Economy.” This one will depart from a traditional exhibition format.  Currently I am thinking of doing an immersive project and some collaborations so stay tuned!

Where are some of your favorite places in Newark to hang out and why?

I love the Divino Tasting Room on Maiden Lane because I take wine tasting classes there and it is a warm and inviting atmosphere. I also like Brasilia’s on Monroe Street for their awesome mango caipirinha and Sihana’s on Ferry Street for their awesome Georgian bread, yum!

Of course I love the streets and history! This includes Riverfront Park, the alleys in downtown, Branch Brook Park and especially the New Jersey Room at Newark Public Library as well as galleries like Index Art Center and Gallery Aferro.

You can follow Noelle and her work here:

Instagram: black_abolitionists_ newark
Website: www.noellelorrainewilliams.com

Featured image “Isolation Refreshed” (2007) by Noelle Lorraine Williams