Whitehot Magazine

Imbued with Symbolism, Rachel Eulena Williams’s Playful Assemblages at CANADA are Full of Delight

Installation view. Image courtesy of the artist and Canada. Photography by Joe DeNardo.


For some artists, inhabiting a creative state of child-like inhibition is merely a far-off goal, an unattainable mission. For others, that feeling of aliveness flows freely, like a fountain bursting from a spout. In “Dream Speak,” Canada’s second solo exhibition by the Miami-born Brooklyn-based artist Rachel Eulena Williams, the artist’s joy-filled creativity spills from the buoyant colors and satiating combination of disparate materials comprising her collaged assemblage “paintings.” Occupying a categorical realm of their own somewhere between soft sculpture, collage, and painting, the eleven works in “Dream Speak” leap from Canada’s white walls, inviting viewers to engage with the multitude of textures breathing beneath the paint. 

At the foundation of each work lies a canvas or wood panel that has been transfigured through the sumptous addition of layered materials: pieces of canvas culled from rejected works, thick applications of whimsically applied (sometimes splattered) paint, plush and sensuous soft sculptures, monoprints, and Williams’s signature inclusion of rope, which rollick through the works, giving them a nautical quality. Examined closely, their individual components feel raw, perhaps unfinished; in Reflected Moon Peace, 2024, staple gun marks are visible over a fraying textile whose threads perk off the canvas’s corners. But viewed from afar, Williams’s convincing pairing of materials strikes a harmony that guides the eye through their spirited compositions calmly, and with control.  

Bask in the playfulness of her tubular, polyester-filled shapes—Williams’s inaugural use of these rounded forms—and leave satisfied. But a closer read of the works (and their titles) reveals a visual language whose significance is as layered as their components. 

Rachel Eulena Williams, Muddy Peace (2024). Image courtesy of the artist and Canada. Photography by Joe DeNardo.

With gallery representation shared between Canada, Xavier Hufkens, and the Modern Institute, the rising artist has developed a signature style that falls in the direct lineage of the expressive, texturally inclined, and color obsessed artists whom she cites as influences: Howardena Pindell, Betye Saar, Alma Thomas, Suzanne Jackson, Al Loving, and Sam Gilliam. If not overtly confronting racism in their work, this powerful grouping of pioneering colorists expanded the definition of what painting could encompass. Emboldened to create despite prevailing notions during their time that equated artistic visibility and individual recognition with whiteness, their act of simply creating—not to mention using found materials (in the case of Saar and Jackson) or draping swaths of canvas from the ceiling (Loving)—was one of defiance. 

Williams channels her predecessors by indirectly addressing these sociopolitical themes, more from a mystical and spiritual standpoint than a racial one. (Rope is an important material for the artist, one “embedded in history,” she says. Releasing it from its darker connotations tied to labor, transport, even abuse, she finds “freedom” in new expressions of the material.) But it is her use of Adinkra, a pictographic language that originates from the Akan people of Ghana, that carries the most weight in this show. 

Through her work, Williams’s catalogs Adinkra’s historical and personal significance, exploring how the symbols are deeply rooted in both literal and metaphorical understandings of space and time. (This idea was central to her 2021 exhibition at Canada “Tracing Memory,” a term she adopted from the title of a second-hand book she once found cataloging African symbolism. For Williams, the notion of tracing memory suggests that the wisdom encapsulated in Adinkra is open to broad interpretations, both passed down through generations and excavated from deep within the self.) Like all sustained artistic practices, Williams’s is a journey of selfhood—a way of situating herself in relation to symbols she finds electrically charged with meaning. 

Rachel Eulena Williams, Deflecting Direction (2024). Image courtesy of the artist and Canada. Photography by Joe DeNardo.

While her exhibition “Tracing Memory” was deeply informed by the insights and proverbs integral to the 200 plus symbols that comprise Adinkra, “Dream Speak” marks Williams’s first time fashioning these symbols into what she calls “pillows.” In Deflecting Direction (2024), an angular ampersand-like soft sculpture is an Adinkra symbol denoting direction, a shape Williams was drawn to for its resemblance to a figure with limbs askew “moving really freely,” she said. Appearing like a sun dial, the circular canvas features an array of abstract evocations that seem to span the gamut of life’s experiences: on the left, white horizontal lines over navy blue evoke waves at sea; at the work’s focal point, wide, quick strokes of thinly applied sky-blue paint suggest clouds and contemplation; on the right, a daisy splattered in black paint captures the darkness that routinely encroaches our inner light. Off the corner right, an unfurling rope dangles like a token of remembrance for something lost or forgotten.

Rachel Eulena Williams, Soul on Ice (2024). Image courtesy of the artist and Canada. Photography by Joe DeNardo.

In Soul on Ice (2024), the Adinkra symbol present is a soft sculpture ladder painted white and pink, its white section spilling off the left side of the canvas and blending into the wall. However innocuous-seeming, the ladder is a potent symbol of mortality called Owuo Atwedee, which translates as “the ladder of death.” The work’s title alludes to Eldridge Cleaver’s 1968 memoir—written by the Black Panther leader while imprisoned—that was prominent in Williams’s mind during its assembly. While not all symbolism in “Dream Speak” may include sociopolitical references, the artist has a way of neutralizing undercurrents, masking twists of darkness or complexity behind the revelry she creates in her fresh compositions.

Installation view. Image courtesy of the artist and Canada. Photography by Joe DeNardo.

The three works in Canada’s smaller side gallery have a noticeably different affect; their components are less dimensional from a textural perspective, and are contained within the rectangular confines of the original canvas. Featuring canvases that have been cut and resewn like flesh, this small series is said to represent “nightmares” of Williams’s capacious imagination. Darker in color, the triad evoke atoms floating in space, brainstorm maps of information, or constellations of stars. Each displays a trio of neighboring circles (the three at center, larger than the rest), symbolizing the triple moon—a pagan emblem illustrating the moon goddess in her three lunar phases: waxing, full, and waning. The strongest of the three works is Coded Healing Rods, which manages to maintain the delight of exploration typically found in Williams’s assemblages, without becoming lost in cosmological allusions.  

A peer in my graduate writing program once said he knows creative inspiration is brewing when a spark or even a whisper of an idea lingers in the expanse of his mind. When it persists, translating it onto the page no longer becomes a choice but a necessity. Encountering Williams’s work for the first time, I experienced this creative process from conception to fruition: her paintings capture the vitality of once intangible and formless ideas made into cohesive wholes. Yet, their ultimate message remains ambiguous, much like the enigmatic symbols embedded within them. By engaging with Williams’s works, perhaps you’ll find your own narrative beneath each twist of rope, each raw material transformed into something it never thought it would become. Like Adrinkra symbols, “Dream Speak” isn’t about finding resolutions but pausing in discovery.

Dream Speak” is on view at Canada’s ​​60 Lispenard Street location through June 1, 2024. WM 

Annie Lyall Slaughter

Annie Lyall Slaughter is an arts writer and ceramic artist from Virginia based in New York. She holds an M.A. in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU and has been published in Cultured, Artsy Editorial, The Drift, Cultbytes, and other publications. In her spare time, she can be found in Queens, making hand-built pots at a ceramics studio. She can be reached on Instagram at @annielyallcreates or through her website, annielyallslaughter.com.

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