Inspired by Dr. Betty Shabazz – Noelle Lorraine Williams


During 2015 women’s history month Bryan Epps, Executive Director of the Shabazz Center interviewed Noelle Lorraine Williams. Williams is a conceptual artist living and working in Newark. (Above Photo Credit: Colleen Gutwein for The Newark Arts Photo Documentary Project)

Epps: What/who is most important to you?

Williams: Imagination is most important to me.

I live so our world community feels strong, imaginative and believes that all are contributors to the development of humanity, through utilizing our imagination and individual/collective power. My work deeply lies in the spiritual, not necessarily connected to religion.

I believe in the retelling of history to highlight interventions and acts of power and the sharing and claiming of public space for all people. I believe this is our contemporary popular spirituality

I particularly focus my work and interests on the United States, though my understanding always is as a part of a global community and diaspora.

I believe that culture: folk, fine and popular has the power to facilitate that. I also believe that community organizing can too. That is why so often my work is concentrated on community gatherings and events in public spaces like museums, parks, galleries and other “public” spaces.

The most important thing to me is the truth and the opportunity for all humans to live without fear of being hurt or murdered. My interests are with the most threatened communities African American women and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. I also have interests in redlining, gentrification, abuse, immigration rights and sexual trafficking – how people are destabilized and made outsiders in different spaces.

Epps: How do the people and things that you believe are important manifest themselves in your work?

Williams: It manifests itself in my work as a multimedia artist (my website is and volunteer by working to provide opportunities for people to learn about historical counter narratives to oppression, and also by sharing opportunities to create and be a part of community.

Epps: Can we define your art? Or is it undefinable?

Williams: I am labeled as an artist. However, I am better defined as a spirit worker, meaning I use artwork and writing as opportunities for reflection and discussion about spirituality, identity, innovation and community. My practice includes creating events, discussions, lectures, workshops sculpture, photography and installation. I use African American women’s narratives as a lens to understand and engage the world.

The way I work towards building a sense of ownership and freedom is by: 1) Presenting liberatory and historically referenced narratives in my art work; 2) Having a dynamic, and organic art practice (aligning my spirit with my work) 2) Working with groups and using my vision to place innovation and community building at the center such as my volunteer work with Newark Gay Pride and arts initiatives in Newark.

Epps: How does the idea of place/community influence your passion?

Williams: Place is important, public places and private places – mainly because it is the measurement of how people feel that they can maneuver in this world, where they may walk and build that is a barometer to assess the level of freedom they experience.

Epps: Who is Dr. Betty Shabazz to you? How has she influenced you?

Williams: Dr. Betty Shabazz was a social and cultural worker with a relentless spirit and bold actions. Her work has always influenced me in that she challenges us to think of how we can take radical action and make bold moves even within an institutional context – whether it was by being a member of NOI or as an administrator and at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn. Though it is a challenging road to work within existing institutions that so often possess classist (exploitative of poor people) and sexist/misogynistic values – she continued to translate those difficult opportunities in to acts of change.

Epps: Which other people have influenced your desire to shape history?

Williams: Oh my, so many! My mother who has always allowed me to think and grow independently and without the constraints of doing things just to be safe. Friends like our family friend Sylvia and my uncle Charles who told the most fantastic stories to me as a child and really engendered my need to tell and share stories. Artists, like Ntozake Shange and Alice Walker who continue to use art, spirituality and community interactions to create new imaginative spaces of the world. To community organizers like Ella Baker and Joo-Hyun Kang when she was at the Audre Lorde Project who both impressed the need to cultivate and support each individual so that they have a tailored relationship with organizations.

Epps: Where do you hope your work will take us?

Williams: I hope my work continues to excite people who engage it and foster dialogue whether it is through creating objects, events/experiences and/or fostering community. I hope that it will take us all to a space of affirming our unique imaginations, boldest thoughts and responsive actions about what it means to be a part of local, national and global communities.

Epps: Thank you! 

See more from Noelle Lorraine Williams below:

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