Amanda Williams. Study of We’re Not Down There, We’re Over Here. 2020. Digital collage. Image courtesy the artist and AW | Studio team

How Do We Design Free Spaces?

Artists Amanda Williams and Olalekan Jeyifous use architecture to explore liberatory possibilities for Black communities.
Arlette Hernandez Apr 15, 2021

Speaking about the works in Reconstructions: Architecture and Blackness in America, artist Amanda Williams told the New York Times, “Folks who...think we’re going to solve gentrification—or other problems we understand personally and very well but didn’t create—they won’t find any of that.” Instead of being a tool for fixing what has been broken, Williams asserts that architecture can be “a vehicle for liberation and joy.”

Williams’s words remind me of many artworks in MoMA’s newest online course, Reimagining Blackness and Architecture, including Tourmaline’s film Salacia (about which curator Thomas J. Lax has written on Magazine).

Combing through archives, weaving together divergent viewpoints, and using the “magic of narrative” to fill in whatever gaps the artist encountered, Salacia recalls the power of self-making. Whether confronting the ruin of climate change or shaping our houses into homes, Black people across time have turned to imagination, storytelling, and invention as paths to freedom, becoming, as Lax puts it, “anything we want to be.”

Across the United States, and indeed the world, Black communities are continually disrupted by gentrification, over-policing, and environmental racism, among other conditions. Artist Olalekan Jeyifous takes as his subject his neighborhood of Crown Heights in Brooklyn, New York, imagining new possibilities in the face of these existing realities that displace and harm people.

Inspired by speculative fiction, a narrative genre that explores the question, “What if?” through imagined elements, Jeyifous asks, “What if Black communities were given the space and resources needed to thrive?”

The Frozen Neighborhoods explores this question through digital collage, animation, and sculptures that combine Jeyifous’s architectural training with his artistic practice: “I take photographs with my iPhone, email myself these images, and then I place them into a 3D software like Sketch Up. I use them as an underlayer to design the architecture, the technology, the gadgetry, everything that you see in the scene…. Over hours and hours, I build up a full scene around this photo without any kind of sketching or drawing.”

The artist’s creative vision is guided by a story of his own making. In his alternative reality, the climate crisis has reached a boiling point, and with restrictions on mobility, Crown Heights has become a “Frozen Zone” cut off from the rest of the city. Through this isolation, the community gains an autonomy that allows it to develop robust systems, technologies, and sustainable practices. Able to shape their own futures, the neighborhood’s citizens establish networks of mutual aid and open access to education, healthy food, and green spaces.

Installation view of Reconstructions: Architecture and Blackness in America, February 27–May 31, 2021

Installation view of Reconstructions: Architecture and Blackness in America, February 27–May 31, 2021

Amanda Williams’s We’re Not Down There, We’re Over Here provides tools and directions that Black people might use to “navigate their way to free Black space.” Spatial diagrams, emergency blankets, a short film, and a proposed patent for navigating free Black space coalesce around a device the artist calls the “SpaceBoatShipVesselCapsule.” Williams finds inspiration in patents for everyday tools designed by African Americans in the late-19th and early-20th centuries, and fragments of these objects are evident throughout. The vessel’s protective exterior is covered by ice cream scoopers and the dome of a blue mailbox; curling combs are transformed into jet propellers while sprinkler nozzles function as the pins holding everything together.

“These are all things that are part of our everyday [lives],” Williams affirms. “And they’re all things that have their lineage in Black inventions. It’s powerful to think about how you might create freedom enshrined in or augmented by these objects.”

Rooted in the history of Kinloch, Missouri’s first all-Black town, founded in 1890, Williams’s project considers the ways Black space has been restricted, undermined, and erased throughout history. The title refers to the Missouri Compromise of 1820—or as Williams’s refers to it, “Missouri’s refusal to compromise”—whereby the government admitted Missouri as a slave state despite its location in Northern territory. As Williams explains, “Essentially, the ratification of the Missouri Compromise says that ‘We’re not up here, We’re down there,’ both geographically and in terms of a state of mind.”

Though people and governments have attempted to isolate Kinloch from inclusion in society since its founding, the town became—and continues to be—a site for the self-actualization of Black residents in Missouri. Channeling Kinloch through her project, Williams highlights the importance, reality, and potential of free Black space, showing us exactly how architecture can be a vehicle for liberation.

Be sure to also check out Amanda Williams’s participatory project about space, Embodied Sensations, in MoMA’s Donald and Catherine Marron Family Atrium.

Installation view of Reconstructions: Architecture and Blackness in America, February 27–May 31, 2021

Installation view of Reconstructions: Architecture and Blackness in America, February 27–May 31, 2021

Reconstructions: Architecture and Blackness in America is on view through May 31. You can now enroll in MoMA’s new online course, Reimagining Blackness and Architecture. Through original films, audio interviews, and short readings, the course will introduce learners to the ways in which Black artists, architects, scholars, and writers have responded to these histories of violence and exclusion to create new ways of being, reimagining the spaces that have refused us.

The exhibition is made possible by Allianz, MoMA’s partner for design and innovation.


Volkswagen of America is proud to be MoMA’s lead partner of education.


MoMA Audio is supported by Bloomberg Philanthropies.