Daniel S. Williams and the Art of Bearing Witness | Magazine

daniel williams’ Untitled (June 19 Liberation Day Celebration) (1982) is a striking portrait of a young black woman against the backdrop of a Juneteenth concert in Houston. Standing poised, she adorns her gentle glow with golden braids and festive red, yellow and green beads. The surrounding landscape reveals a party filled with excitement. We see generations lying on the grass.

Juneteenth, or Emancipation Day, is an annual commemoration of the emancipation of black slaves in the United States. For more than 150 years, black communities across the country have commemorated the statute with vibrant celebrations and gatherings in the face of slavery’s indelible legacy. In this photo, we see what the holiday is really about — a celebration, and a call to witness the beauty of a nation defying any attempt to weaken their spirit.

The image is just one thread in a vast tapestry that Williams is weaving. Long before Juneteenth entered the collective consciousness and became a national holiday, Williams recognized its importance. For three decades, he traveled across the United States to photograph Juneteenth and Emancipation Day celebrations. He immersed himself in parades, sermons and public picnics, photographing candid moments of celebration, sometimes even with his children. From bustling urban centers to rural towns, Williams captures how communities come together to honor the struggles and victories of their ancestors. Through his lens, we are transported to a ceremony of remembrance and joy.

Like Juneteenth, this valuable historical and cultural archive has remained hidden from plain sight. There are only three photographs of Williams in the museum’s collection, and most of his work is lost. Untitled (June 19 Liberation Day Celebration) It is the only photograph of Williams in the Museum of Modern Art’s collection. Our photography department has little information on this image, and the artist’s address is out of date.An internet search of his name turned up nothing at first glance, but further digging turned up a video interview with Williams, as well as an article in Philippians about his extensive teaching career. Through this article, I was able to connect with his daughter, Megan Paulson, who bridged the gap. Forty years after the photograph was acquired in 1983, we now have a better understanding of the photograph and Williams’ work. His vision now provides us with an untouched dossier of black presence.

On the occasion of the June Festival 2023, I spoke with Williams and his two children, Megan and Peter, who shared their thoughts on the photo and a rare shot from Williams’ extraordinary body of work.
—DaeQuan Alexander Collier, Content Producer, MoMA Creative Team

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