Aaron D. Williams, Escaping Aawful Land, at SPACES
Aaron Williams’ “Escaping Aawful Land” is a multimedia exhibition made in collaboration with Toby Griffits, Tony Yanick, Marco Kazandejeiff, Eleanor Jergens, and Wayne Smith III, on view in Toby’s Vault at SPACES through March 1. Williams’ alias is Aawful—a moniker encompassing that which is both awe-inspiring and horrible—Aaron. Williams describes it as a contranym, a word that references both the awe-inspiring (even sublime) and horrible aspects of human existence. It references a truth that humans eventually come to terms with on our existential quest on this planet: we have the powerful capacity to create and destroy, love and hate, experience the poignant beauty around us, even with the tools and spectacles of late capitalism work to colonize our minds.
Williams’ installation is a features a contemporary flat-screen television featuring a mustached white man in dark glassed, who is dressed in seemingly pixelated suit and hat, and is evocative of slickness of 1980s MTV, when VJs (video jockeys) introduced videos, interviewed musicians, and interacted with MTV news anchors. Like typical sports anchors now, they were sometimes seated behind desks and flashy graphics were screened behind them. The white man drones on, as images of a basketball, a fiery animation, and—eventually, a young Black man’s head turning inside out, eyes seeming to jump from skull, then fading back to pixel, emerges on the screen to his left.
On either side of the central television are two older, boxy ones with images of the same young man, worry lines at his furrowed brow, alternating with images of a sports cap with “faith” and a basketball with “anxiety is hard” “slogans” printed on them, both objects of masculine dreams. These iconic symbols appear on the lower-tech monitors, which sometimes depict a vintage television screen with images, or as props for the anxiety-labelled sports swag, which are printed with the reality of existence for the man on screen, such as “faith” and “anxiety is hard.”
The multiple screens and the images of old televisions being screened make for a layering of tropes and realities around Black masculinity and avenues to success. Here, the mythic dream of wealth, power, and stardom through professional sports is layered with anxiety, as LeBron James stardom is rare—it is, in fact, a spectacle that covers a more important truth that Black men are more likely to be imprisoned due to structural racism than they are to become LeBron James 2.0. Statistically, Black men in the U.S. make up 35% of the imprisoned population, yet they make up only 13% of the population. White men, in contrast, make up 30% of the imprisoned, and are about 60% of the U.S. population.  This stat alone would raise anxiety in anyone, but add instances of police violence, the disproportionate number of Black men killed by guns (those of the police, or of members of their families and communities), and the “hidden racism” embedded at every level of American society, and daily life may be a fight for not only sanity, but for survival; existence.
While Williams’ installation is specific to his unique embodied experience on this planet, the ethos of “Escaping Aawful Land” is of the struggling resilience at the core of human existence in 2024. There’s universal truth to the work, particularly for those of us navigating life in the margins. It is one of resilience through centuries of racism, misogyny, and lies wrought by white European imperialism and capitalism, all of these realities unveiling during the global pandemic and the American, European, and Russian political trajectories toward unfreedom that we are witnessing contemporarily.
Despite these calamities, art saves, reveals, destroys, flourishes, and allows us to learn while failing. We create to destroy, and to heal. This is what Williams—with help from his friends, is doing in “Escaping Aawful Land.”
Aaron D. Williams, Escaping Aawful Land
Through March 1, 2024
2900 Detroit Avenue
Cleveland, Ohio 44113
 According to Vera, “The black imprisonment rate at the end of 2018 was nearly twice the rate among Hispanics (797 per 100,000) and more than five times the rate among whites (268 per 100,000). Black men are especially likely to be imprisoned. There were 2,272 inmates per 100,000 black men in 2018, compared with 1,018 inmates per 100,000 Hispanic men and 392 inmates per 100,000 white men. The rate was even higher among black men in certain age groups: Among those ages 35 to 39, for example, about one-in-twenty black men were in state or federal prison in 2018.” https://www.vera.org/ending-mass-incarceration/criminalization-racial-disparities?ms=awar_comm_all_grant_BS22_ctr_M1&utm_source=grant&utm_medium=awar&utm_campaign=all_M1&gclid=CjwKCAiAq4KuBhA6EiwArMAw1Pb4HVq3SBEUCAvGy8Wpchnl6Zlfg8ZiwRCTklxBtZBzPyYC-R89ihoCKdIQAvD_BwE (accessed January 5, 2024).