We Chat to Honey Williams About Being a Black Woman in the World of Art

Words: Sophie Gargett
Photos: Honey Williams
Monday 09 October 2023
reading time: min, words

Working as an artist, graphic designer, DJ and musical performer, it seems Honey Williams’ creativity holds no bounds, but the glamour of being a full-time artist comes with its ups and downs. Especially when your work centres on race, size and gender. We dropped in to see Honey at City Arts where she has a studio, to discuss art, creativity and being a Black woman in the art world.

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It’s tough being a professional creative sometimes. Yes, you get to use your imagination, self-expression and produce things that spur people’s thoughts, but there’s also a lot that goes on behind the scenes, from juggling projects and admin to dealing with the varied reception that comes with publishing personal work. For a big Black woman in the industry, this pressure is infused with further issues of misogynoir and fat-phobia, yet Honey Williams has been creating art on and off for almost two decades, mixing music, painting and performance to further representations of Black women. 

Her journey into the art world began in the early 2000s, when she studied graphic design and illustration at University of Arts London whilst also making music. Here she got involved in the UK Hip Hop scene, performing with artists such as Rodney P., and Kalashnikov, and getting remixed by names such as Roni Size and MJ Cole, while also creating art that discussed her identity as a Black woman. But when it came to the topic of natural Black hair, which music of her work focused on, she felt her tutors didn’t understand the deeper political meaning behind Black hair.

“There was an image I made with lots of words associated with Black women and their hair - stuff like ugly, controversial. But it’s just the way your hair grows out of your head as a Black woman,” she explains. “This is before the natural hair movement kicked off, and the teachers just didn’t know what I was talking about. They said, ‘Why are you so obsessed with hair?’ It just went way over their heads.”

Feeling disillusioned with both art and university, she stopped making work for eight years. After moving back to Nottingham, it was her mother who inspired her to get back into creating art. “My mum is a poet and she has this piece that says, ‘Use your gifts.’ It's really ominous, like, how ungrateful are you to just let it fall by the wayside. I thought, yeah, mum's right. I should use my gifts.”

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To combat her artistic block, Honey got into journaling, creating diaries full of drawings as a place to document her thoughts, but she still felt hesitant to go public with her art. “I remember a friend of mine was looking at them and said, ‘Oh, Honey, it's a shame that no one's gonna see that though.’”

With some encouragement from people in the industry leading to a new burst of confidence, she began applying to competitions and open calls for artists. The perseverance paid off when she won the New Art Exchange’s 2019 Public Prize, out of 700 entries, along with a worldwide call to create several murals in Kingston, Jamaica, to commemorate the Windrush generation. “I’d just done a cover for LeftLion that depicted the Windrush Scandal, and people were saying, ‘Oh, you should do this!’, so I sent them my application and they chose me - which is nuts.” She then travelled to Jamaica to create the murals, which are still on display in Norman Manley Airport.

In 2021, after recovering from being seriously ill with Covid, Honey’s work once again took a new turn. “I could have died, so I really wanted to leave a mark and to make huge work,” she explains. “I thought maybe I could paint myself - I can't think of many big Black women artists out there - singers, painters, or designers. There needs to be more depictions of big black women, because depiction is important. And lack of representation is dehumanising.”

I can't think of many big black women artists out there - singers, painters, or designers. Depiction is important, and lack of representation is dehumanising

This reflection was the catalyst for a new series titled Shrines & the 52 Machetes, which was recently exhibited at City Arts and explores issues of misogynoir and fat-phobia. The giant self portraits are filled with splashes of colour giving an air of freedom, self-love and celebration, while at the same time featuring text which highlight some of the issues she has faced throughout her life. “When you get these constant rejections or heckles or attacks, as a big black woman you have to do repair each week, to top yourself up and pick yourself back up again. That is where the 52 Machetes comes in. Shrines is there because we also deserve to be praised.”

“I've always gotten backlash, because of just being an intersectional human. In any room in any place,” she explains. “I once travelled down to London for a job interview. I had my portfolio and was looking rather chic that day. I was ready. But when I arrived they asked me, ‘Have you come for the cleaning job?’ They didn't clock anything other than my big Blackness.”

She compares being a big Black woman to being a brutalist building, “Continuously being vandalised and underfunded, and just not treated the way that you should be. It's like people resent you taking up the room that you do take up, yet people expect you to be strong and do everything.”

Earlier this year Shrines evolved into a one woman show at New Art Exchange, which included live performance, projections, music and more, but it is just one of the many projects that Honey has been involved with. She has also hosted a variety of creative workshops, and in 2021 was commissioned to paint a large-scale street mural of Eric Irons, Nottingham resident and the UK’s first Black magistrate, on Carrington Street Bridge.

“Eric Irons was a very formidable character. We would not have gotten along,” Honey laughs. “But a very interesting man. He was an RAF pilot when he was a young guy, and then a judge, which was quite a feat.”

Working on an outdoor mural was new to Honey, and involved scaling up her artwork and using stencils. “You have to trust all the apparatus around you that you've used to enlarge it,” she says. “I'd love to work like that again, and I would love to commemorate a Black woman in Nottingham, because I haven't seen that done before.”

Alongside creating art, Honey has worked as a singing tutor at Nottingham Trent University, developing artists such as Melonyx and Trekkah Benjamin, and also heads up an all female choir, Gang of Angels, who perform ‘vintage songs laced with fresh new beats’. Working solo so often, the choir brings a sense of community to her creative outlet. “I think it's good for every artist to work in a collaborative way at some point. That's why the choir is good, because you're having to be in harmony with other people. There's no way around it,” she says.

Like many creatives, Honey seems to thrive on staying busy and has several other projects up her sleeve. She’s started DJing under the name THEHONEYEFFECT, performing recently at Nottingham Street Food Festival, and is hoping to begin experimenting with loop pedals.

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“I'm very grateful for being given a second chance. And I'm still in that sort of hyper mindset,” she says, “I've got to make things, because you don't know how long you've got.” Shrines and the 52 Machetes is a project that she’ll keen to keep evolving, however. “It’s a malleable entity, in that it could be anything - a piece of art on the wall, a discussion, a workshop, all based around bigness, Blackness and womanhood, so I’ll definitely be doing more of that in the future.”


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