Spotlight on William Villalongo's Vanitas
What message does William Villalongo want to deliver in “Vanitas”?
The most luminous part of the painting is the exquisite silver tray. Strewn across the tray are browning, bitten fruits and a photograph of a white man. Unlike the rotten fruits, which are painted in acrylic, the image of the man looks like a photograph pasted onto the painting. Hands of an African American hold the tray, while his body disappears in the dark velvet background, leaving a mass of floating feathers to compose his physique in the void. At the top of the painting, the person’s eyes appear — a pair of shining eyes. His facial expression remains ambiguous due to the absence of the body. The combination of tangible and amorphous provokes contemplation of the power imbalance between Black and white people.
The humble gesture of the figure offering a loaded tray recalls the outdated practice of Black servant boys serving their master a tray of fresh fruit in the late 17th and 18th centuries. With the added piece of information that the white man in the photo is Dylann Roof, a white supremacist who killed nine African Americans in a church in Charleston, SC on June 17, 2015, we come to understand that the artist intends to call attention to the racial tension in the United States through the abolished practice from the age of slavery. Being aware of the theme of the painting, we can infer that the artists’ intention is to include all African Americans who are under oppression by depicting a seemingly absent anatomical body. The lack of individual features unites all African Americans. It draws our attention to the current well-being of the group.
The motivation of creating this work is the artist’s background. Villalongo is half African American. He feels responsible for promoting racial equality in American society, where racial discrimination is under-addressed. In addition to his interest in reflecting history and politics through painting, he created “Vanitas” as a steadfast response to Roof’s malicious crime.
Today, five years after the diabolical crime and three years after “Vanitas” was painted, discrimination based on race still exists in every corner of the world. Villalongo utilizes an outdated social norm in the 17th century to reflect on the event in 2015 in his painting. His work teaches the grave lesson that history repeats itself: yesterday can be today. In the fight against racial discrimination, we, the viewers, should continue Villalongo’s spirit of fighting against racism and not letting yesterday become tomorrow.