A conversation with Bill Ming

In the new episode of A Culture of Possibility, out today, Arlene and I talk to Bill Ming, one of my oldest friends (“less of the old, François!”). We met almost 40 years ago, when I moved to Newark-on-Trent to set up a community arts project on the Hawtonville Estate. At the time, I was still working as a muralist, the field I’d been trained in, but I was discovering its limitations, too – the obvious ones in my minimal abilities as a painter and the more complex ones in this as a medium for active co-creation. Bill, Nadia Nagual (his wife) and I worked together on the Appletongate Mural (1985), that I’m glad to say is still there. But our conversation ranges over the course of Bill’s life and working, growing up in segregated Bermuda, art college in England, working in schools in the long-defunct AEMS Programme and much more.

Listen to Bill Ming – “We are coming in the front door tonight, people!”

Bill and I have talked about art, history, culture and politics over many, many years. I have learned more than I can say from our exchanges and I count them among the most important of my life. You can read more along those lines in this essay I wrote about Bill’s work for his most recent major UK exhibition in 2013, and below, is Arlene’s take on our conversation.

Nadia Nagual and Bill Ming, June 2021 (photo, François Matarasso)

For episode 8, François and I spoke with Bermudan artist Bill Ming in his studio in Nottinghamshire, England. Bill’s work in sculpture, assemblage, painting, and collage draws on the whole of personal and collective history, from the racism he faced growing up in segregated schools to his response to the death of George Floyd, from childhood toys to the blues to the Middle Passage. He’s worked in schools and communities, his work has been exhibited in major museums, and his public art can be seen in several countries. Bill talked with us about how all of this fits together, each practice informing the others, and his long journey in making art out of the memories and materials that come to hand. 

Some people are born artists, persevering despite obstacles. Bill said that when he was young, “I always saw the art thing as a curse because I was always in trouble with it. I was painting on the walls or the furniture. I was a kid, but you just can’t help doing these things. You just have to satisfy this need to make or create. I always wanted to do that, but because of how Bermuda was, after you go to the city you find there were art clubs that wouldn’t accept you because of your color. It was very, very difficult.” 

But committed teachers made a difference. “The teachers were Black and they had to go abroad to study. They were doing it for the children. They wanted us to succeed. They would call me out to make drawings on the blackboard like for Christmas, a bunny for Easter. They encouraged me and gave me confidence at a very early age.”

Bill’s journey included a stint as a cook on a boat, kindling his love of travel and imprinting many of the memories layered through his work. In 1963, he moved to England to study. “When I left Bermuda, I was interested in graphic design, more money in it. I went from London all the way up to the north, but I couldn’t get into a college because I had no qualifications. I had to start at the bottom and work my way up. Finally this guy gave me an opportunity to be a part of the college, but I had to prove to him that I had done the drawings he saw. He set up an easel and I picked up the fruit for a still life. After a week he said, ‘Yeah, you’re in, Bill.’ It was amazing that he trusted me to give me a shot. That’s all I needed, someone to say, ‘Look Bill, we want you in our college.’” 

In the UK, standardized tests—”O levels and A levels”— were required to enter a degree program, so Bill had to put in years to secure these qualifications before going on to art school, where he had space to embark on an organic journey of self-discovery as an artist. One day, when the materials store was closed, he decided to think of the campus as an island, saying, “Let’s go see what’s around my island. The sculpture department, all the ex-students leave the sculpture they did from previous years. So I decided to take to my space all these bits of canvas, wood, all these different things. The students in my group thought, “Christ, Bill’s lost it.” I just took this up into my space and started to working with it: tying it in knots, hanging it on the wall. It was a new kind of sculpture. In fact, I’m doing the same thing now, even 30-40 years later.” There were issues of acceptance, cultural elitism, barriers, but Bill said, “I didn’t let the place use me, I used it,” and spent time in as many programs as he could, printmaking, sculpture, artists’ books, and more. 

This took him to quite a bit of work with schools and communities, much through a program called AEMS (Arts Education for a Multicultural Society), discovering that just as children could learn from the experience of working together, his work was also influenced by it. “I remember a piece I brought in, I left the bark on it. One of the children, eight or nine years old, she said ‘The bark, it’s like a disease from the bible, it was leprosy.’ How does this kid know what leprosy looks like? So every time I took work in, I would get the kids to talk and write about it, poems or anything they wanted to do. I have these books of kids telling me what the work meant to them. So I’d get all this feedback.” He’d come out of art school with a dark palette, but this work “made me want to use bright colors in my art, for the children….For me, working with children is like a give and take. They sit with me, I sit with them. They take from me, I take from them. It all comes together like a big shared explosion that works!” 

To read more about Bill’s work, check out Wit Des Hands, a publication on his work and life that includes some illuminating writing by François). You’ll find images and text to go with some of the amazing projects he describes, including an exhibit at the National Gallery in Bermuda where Queen Elizabeth came to meet him. That’s where the title of this blog comes from. Growing up in Bermuda, institutions and schools were segregated. When Bill greeted people at the opening of this exhibition, he said, “We are coming in the front door tonight, people!”

The history of colonization and enslavement figures powerfully in Bill’s work, with memories from his own past layered with fragments of history.These days, he’s focused on the state of the world. “When the [George] Floyd thing came down and he was lynched in midday for the whole world to see what America was like in certain places, it took me back to Emmett Till. We were kids when he was murdered by these racists. I never forgot that. It’s only recently I found out that the mother wanted the photograph of him when he died to show the world what these racists had done. It was in our newspaper. We were like 10, 11, 12, and his face was just like mush. I never forgot that. 

“So when I saw that I went straight to a book I bought in the seventies called The Black Book [a 1974 anthology of Black experience in America co-edited by Toni Morrison]. In there is a picture of five black guys, they were lynched, they were hanging from a tree. I took one of the guys and I photocopied and I put him in this work that I’m doing and I felt that I needed to bury him, to cover him, so I put him on a tree, and I started to use my black pen. He’s still there but he’s covered. I wanted to give him a burial. You know the flotsam and jetsam on beaches, you start to pick them up and try to make things with them. I’m trying to make sculpture out of this flotsam and jetsam. All the things come back to me because I know that we are in a bad situation in this world. I see this. That’s why the work has to change for me, has to say something about what we’re going through, how we feel about it.”

You’ll enjoy hearing Bill’s stories on the podcast, I’m certain. You’ll find his website here.