Rachel Eulena Williams weaves poetry and abstraction in Brussels

In ‘Joy & Rain’ at Xavier Hufkens, Brussels, New York-based artist Rachel Eulena Williams presents new hybrid works that are bold, subversive and steeped in complex histories 

a black women in her art studio
Portrait of artist Rachel Eulena Williams in her studio in Brooklyn, New York, 2019.
(Image credit: Nicholas Calcott)

The work of Rachel Eulena Williams is not strictly painting or sculpture. It occupies an intuitive and improvisational middle ground: fragmented compositions that are hand-glued, stitched, knotted and lashed together but also painted, with pigment functioning as both essential structure and embellishment. 

Despite this layered approach, the Miami-born, New York-based artist always begins with the same humble material: rolls of untreated canvas and cotton. In ‘Joy & Rain’ at Xavier Hufkens in Brussels, Williams’ vibrant new work presents tensions: between two and three dimensions; frugality and opulence; hope and pain; liquid and solid; ‘high’ and ‘low’ artistic endeavours.

fabric cut outs in different shapes and strings

Rachel Eulena Williams, Strange Woman, American Fruit, 2021

(Image credit: HV-studio)

Though fundamentally abstract, there are suggestions of recognisable, albeit fragmented forms in these contorted assemblages: perhaps the subtle curve of a body or a cluster of flower petals. As anticipated in the show’s title, Williams’ new work makes use of the raindrop motif in droplets of fluid, blue-hued pigments. This is also a nod to Melvonna Ballenger’s 1978 film Rain (Nyesha), which explores a female journey towards self-awareness and empowerment, and also a poetic meditation on the potency of rainy days. The show is a tale of optimism and angst. Bold, luminous colours meet the complex social implications of cotton and rope; rain as a metaphor for melancholy and renewal. 

Williams’ work can be seen in the context of Black American artists’ contribution to modern art, with particular reference to pioneering women such as Betye Saar or Howardena Pinnell. It is a play on structures, both literal and metaphorical. As the artist explains: ‘“Joy & Rain” is both personal and comprehensive. For this exhibition, I dove deeper into the poetic and social narrative that stimulates my work.’ 

Her unorthodox use of materials frees painting from the rigidity of the formal canvas; her bold palette liberates forms from Western art history’s systematic othering of colour, sentiments reflected in the titles of the works: Strange Woman, American Fruit and Black and Blue. Williams’ work, retrospective and hyper-contemporary, forms part of the ongoing reconstruction of art history.

cotton cut outs and rope on a round canvas

Weary White,  2021. 

(Image credit: HV-studio)

black women wearing green top and denim jumpsuit

Portrait of Rachel Eulena Williams in her studio in Brooklyn, New York, 2019.

(Image credit: Nicholas Calcott)

cotton cutouts and rope on rectangle canvas

Black Raindrops On Roses, 2021.

(Image credit: HV-studio)

cotton cutouts and ropes overlapping on a round canvas

Play Of Jazz, 2021. 

(Image credit: HV-studio)


Rachel Eulena Williams, ‘Joy & Rain’, until 19 February 2022, Xavier Hufkens, Brussels. xavierhufkens.com

Harriet Lloyd-Smith was the Arts Editor of Wallpaper*, responsible for the art pages across digital and print, including profiles, exhibition reviews, and contemporary art collaborations. She started at Wallpaper* in 2017 and has written for leading contemporary art publications, auction houses and arts charities, and lectured on review writing and art journalism. When she’s not writing about art, she’s making her own.