Art History

Exploring Memory, Science and the Art of Family Folklore

By John Nathan

Photo Credit: April Banks

It started with a DNA test.  Perhaps it was their artists’ curiosity that made them do it.  Or, as the descendants of African slaves, maybe their keen understanding of the loss of history is what set them on this journey to self-discovery.  Whatever the impetus, it’s clear that what started with a simple DNA test has now resulted in a work of art.

Neither April Banks nor Amanda Williams knew what their DNA tests would tell them about their identities. They had no clue what definitive proof they should expect.  Interestingly, though, the results of each of their DNA tests led to far more questions than answers:

“In this age of technological dependence, do we have too much faith in science?”

“Why do we need to know where we come from?”

“Why are the results of a DNA test more valuable and definitive than the stories passed down from our mothers and grandmothers?”

In their mixed media collaboration re-Fable, artists April Banks and Amanda Williams combine photography, video, sound, mixed media installations and works on paper to recreate fading memories, fabricate new “truths” and bridge the gap between scientific fact and cultural understanding.  Using legends that have been passed down through their own families for generations, they dispel the myth that science provides definitive proof of our identity. As April Banks so thoughtfully noted, “Identity is abstract and science can’t define who you are.”

Through her plaster installation Possession is Nine Tenths (2011), April Banks breathes new life into the legend of a violin – rumored to have been a Stradivarius – bequeathed to one of her foremothers that mysteriously disappeared.   “The fact that no one knows what happened to [the violin] only adds to the myth that it ever existed in the first place,” Banks laughed. The installation is about collective memory and how heirlooms are become placeholders for oral history.

Photo Credit: April Banks


The analog digital slide show component– a series of photos delicately balancing reality with fantasy – is an homage to the family photos, slide shows and home movies her father used to show.

Photo Credit: April Banks


In her piece “My Grandmother was Not One to Repeat Herself,” Amanda Williams seemingly replicates a DNA strand – interpreting an oft-quoted familial description through paint and wood.  The image featured in the piece is an actual picture of Williams’ great-Grandmother, Amanda (my namesake).

Williams – whose DNA tests traced her migration path all the way back to Africa – visually translates the genetic journey as he rgreat- grandmother’s image remains unchanged, yet becomes increasingly more faint, as it passes through subsequent generations.

“The title comes from a quote that I stole from my mother,” Williams said. “She wrote me a letter describing her own grandmother as one who didn’t repeat herself. Conversely, my grandmother (my mother’s mother) suffered from dementia in her later years, and she often repeated stories to me.”

Part of the exploration of this piece is blurring that legibility between personalities/overlaps in generations. The title is also a play on the long held family belief that Williams is her great-grandmother incarnate (she died 3 months before Amanda’s birth). “So in a sense, I am her ‘repeat’ or replica…a DNA double entendre,” Williams remarked.

As a collective effort, re-Fable is breathtaking, cohesive and remarkably seamless – particularly given the fact that Banks lives in Oakland, and Williams is based in Chicago. “We speak the same architectural language,” Williams said of their ability to collaborate from afar.   “We trust and understand each other, and have respect for each other’s artistic process.”

After a year of brainstorming sessions by phone, samples shared over Skype, and critiques via text message, re-Fable has made its way to the Swarm Gallery in Oakland, CA. Gallery owner Svea Lin Soll has worked in Oakland’s art scene for more than a decade and has been a fan of April’s and Amanda’s for the past several years.  “I have an affinity for artists who work with unique materials, architecture and have a solid sense of design,” she said.  “I was naturally drawn to re-Fable as a conceptually rich work.”

Banks and Williams’ re-Fable is, all at once, serious and humorous, comprehensive although curious, and intimate yet universal. As Williams put it, “My hope is that, even though [our families] are the source material for this piece, once people see it, they’ll want to learn more about their own families.”

One of the most intriguing questions that re-Fable raises is that of “how much do we really need to remember?”  As we know, over time, only certain, dominant genes remain unchanged.  And, in our memories, some stories fade, while others become embellished.  Is it that we humans, whether regarding our scientific fact or our experiential fiction, hold onto only that which is most significant?  Possibly.

As April Banks carefully surmised, “Science, like art, is about theory, diligence and is open to interpretation.”

If you will be in the Oakland area on Thursday,  May 12, please join April Banks and Amanda Williams for an artists’ talk at Swarm Gallery from 6pm – 8pm.


Swarm Gallery is located at 560 Second Street, Oakland, CA 94607.

Gallery Hours are Wednesday – Sunday, 12:00PM – 5:30PM

For more information, please visit:, or call: (510) 839-2787
[learn_more caption=”About The Artists” state=”open”] April Banks is a conceptual artist. Her image-based installations explore issues relating to international trade and commerce, farmer’s rights, and race and human rights. Though the subject of her work varies, the common thread is the disparity of access and economy. She straddles disgust and desire making work that is simultaneously attractive and repulsive. The sensitivity of the subject is tempered by a touch of humor or irony, making the work a mutual effort between the artist and viewer. Her installations pay keen attention to detail and form. They are the result of deep and immersive research processes, including travel to other countries to gather first-hand experience. She experiments with new materials and processes and ways to combine photography, sculpture, video and sound to distort and re-image the “image.” April graduated with a Bachelor of Architecture from Hampton University in Virginia in 1996 and a Master of Science in Environmental Design from the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena in 1999. She has exhibited in Los Angeles, the San Francisco Bay Area, Chicago, Minneapolis, Cleveland, Daytona Beach, New Hampshire, Maryland, New York and Zurich, Switzerland. Banks has lectured at universities around the San Francisco Bay Area and taught a photography workshop at a refugee camp in Amman, Jordan. In 2009 she was one of six recipients of the Visions from the New California Award.


Amanda Williams is an artist and architect whose work explores themes of personal freedom and identity. She has cultivated a signature style that blends her spatial sensibilities with a love of color. Amanda integrates fragments of material from sources as varied as parking tickets, historic legal documents, found objects, rap lyrics, and old family photos. Best known for her abstract oil paintings, she is also an accomplished photographer and installation artist. Williams grew up on the Southside of Chicago. She received her Bachelor of Architecture from Cornell University. Amanda practiced as an architect for 6 years before shifting to a fulltime career in fine art. She has exhibited extensively throughout the US, including the Studio Museum in Harlem, DePaul University in Chicago IL, the August Wilson Center for Art and Culture in Pittsburgh PA, the Soap Factory in Minneapolis MN and the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco CA. Williams has been the recipient of much recognition including the Eidlitz Travel Fellowship to Ethiopia, the Hennessy Cognac Emerging Artist Award, the San Francisco General Hospital Foundation’s Heroes & Hearts Public Art Commission, being selected as a ‘featured artist’ by the Department of Cultural Affairs for Chicago Artists’ Month, and most recently being selected as a contestant on the inaugural season of the Bravo channel’s reality competition, “Work of Art: Next Great Artist”. Amanda has also served as an Adjunct Professor of Architecture at both the California College of the Arts (CCa) and the Illinois Institute of Technology.[/learn_more]

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