Jacqui Palumbo, CNN
As D’Angelo Lovell Williams posed for a kiss with a former partner, Glenn, in front of the camera, their faces each obscured by the black silk cloth of a backwards durag, the photographer had a famous painting in mind.
The Mississippi-born, New York-based artist, who is non-binary, had always loved the surrealist art born from the tumult of World War I. As they staged their photograph, they thought of the simple heart shape formed by the figures in René Magritte’s seminal painting “The Lovers.” In the 1928 composition, an allegory for disconnect and longing, the Belgian artist painted a close-up of a couple sharing an intimate kiss, their heads entirely wrapped in white fabric.
In Williams’ image of the same name, the elements retain their unexpected romanticism: two faces in profile join together but are kept apart by a layer of cloth, set against a nearly featureless background. But in this image, the drama is heightened; Williams and Glenn hold each other’s faces in a searing gesture of desire, a bed frame visible behind them.
And then there’s the figures themselves: a Black queer couple front and center, wearing headwraps symbolic of Black beauty and culture.
“I was adamant about making this (about) blatant love for Black queer men, but also trying to lay the ground(work) for how things are for a lot of Black men in general, whether or not they are queer,” Williams told CNN Style in a phone interview. “Men are shamed for expressing feelings and intimacy with anyone,” they added, “but especially other men.”
When Williams made the photograph in 2017, they were studying for their master’s in art photography at Syracuse University and developing a visual language for their deeply evocative self-portraits. The image exhibited in their first gallery show at Higher Pictures in New York City before they graduated; it’s now also included in their first book, “Contact High,” which was published in early July. Therein, Williams’ “The Lovers” is intentionally small — and intimate — on a page, just one of the many images of Williams’ archive that has since shaped their poetic world.
Over the past half-decade, Williams’ work has become an expansive exploration of the self and the bonding of relationships. Often featuring family members and friends, their photographs walk the line between reality and artifice in meticulously-staged portraits tinged with a sense of the uncanny and spiritual.
“Our gender is a performance; our sexuality is a performance; our lives are performances, whether or not people see them,” Williams explained. “So performativity is definitely a part of (my) work as well.”
Touch, they said, is also a binding element to all of their work, as hands grasp and pull and caress, sometimes seemingly disembodied but always with a profound familiarity. In one photograph, Glenn shaves Williams’ jawline, one hand holding the artist’s head as the other draws the razor close. In another, Williams and fellow artist Charles Long, both nude, clasp each other’s hands tightly, leaning away from one another to form an inverted triangle — also redolent of the tension of “The Lovers,” it shows the closeness and distance of an intimate relationship all at once.
Throughout “Contact High,” Williams’ work examines the many forms in which we experience love, and not just the romantic kind. “While yes, I am advocating for sexual freedom I’m also advocating for the idea that there isn’t intimacy that isn’t stigmatized, between lovers, friends and family,” they said. “There are images of my Black parents loving their Black, queer child in the work.”
And though one might see hints of art traditions in Williams’ compositions — the gestures of hands from the Renaissance, the contorted bodies of surrealist photography, the everyday narratives of kinship of Black figurative artists — the photographer shies away from most direct references. They are focused on their own narratives, not altering the narratives of others.
“I haven’t wanted to continue to subvert the images of artists throughout history to make my own work,” they said, particularly given that Black and brown artists “haven’t been in control” of their narratives for much of art history.
“I’m the only one who’s going to make my work,” they added, “and I’m the only one who’s going to be able to speak truth to my work.”
“Contact High,” published by MACK, is available now.
Top image: “The Lovers, 2017.”
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Correction: An earlier version of this article misidentified the artist Charles Long in one of Williams’ photographs.