American DNA: Tucson Museum of Art Spotlights Willie Bonner During Black History Month

click to enlarge American DNA: Tucson Museum of Art Spotlights Willie Bonner During Black History Month
Courtesy Tucson Museum of Art

The Tucson Museum of Art recently highlighted local multi-media artist Willie Bonner, whose work has appeared in the museum multiple times. Bonner’s art, which includes paintings and sculptures, serves as an “allegory of what it means to be Black in postmodern America.” 

This is accomplished in works such as “Cotton” (2018), which was Bonner’s contribution to TMA’s Arizona Biennial 2020 exhibit. The mixed media work on canvas features a cotton plant made entirely of tar and feathers, a fitting allusion to the days of slavery and Jim Crow, and black and white fusing together on a broad sheet, itself made of cotton.

“My artwork intends to engage the viewer and create an extended dialogue regarding the culture of African American people both historically and in contemporary society,” reads Bonner’s artist statement. “However, in its essence, its objective is to transcend language.”

Another work, “Black Gold,” was described by Tucson Weekly contributor Margaret Regan during her coverage of the Biennial 2018 exhibit: Bonner layers the work with rows and rows of tar, and it looks like he pressed the soft material onto the cotton with his thumb, an arduous task that mirrors the monotonous work his ancestors did picking cotton. But here and there the black tar is smudged or scraped off. These imperfections, you begin to realize, represent scars created by the sting of the whip. 

“Just as jazz is indigenous to America, more specifically, Black America, with its roots in African rhythms and dances, so too is my painting a reflection of indigenous African American culture and experience within the larger American culture,” his statement continues. “The meaning is multi-layered and multi-cultural, seeking to engage the audience through the content of its social applicability as well as the complex ‘rhythmic’ patterns that exist in the work itself.”

A native of Cleveland, Ohio, Bonner earned his bachelor of fine arts degree at the Cleveland Institute of Art before moving to Tucson to attend the University of Arizona. After earning his master’s, Bonner taught art throughout the Northwest, then settled back in Tucson. Bonner’s work has appeared throughout Tucson, including at the Davis Dominguez Gallery and the Joseph Gross Gallery at the University of Arizona. 

Bonner was also previously featured in an episode of “Arizona Illustrated” for KUAT-TV, Southern Arizona’s PBS affiliate.

“A lot of times when I have an exhibition, people categorize me as a Black artist, instead of an American artist,” Bonner said in the episode. “And I really want people to see the work and the techniques that I do in the work, moreso paying attention to the images.”

Bonner’s art will appear next at TMA’s 4x4, an exhibition of four solo shows by four preeminent Southern Arizona artists, showcasing personal experiences, the politics of space, and the social issues of our time. Bonner’s work will appear alongside Mexican-American artist Alejandro Macias, Iranian visual artist Nazafarin Lotfi, and Vietnamese-American photographer Anh-Thuy Nguyen. 

Bonner’s contribution to 4x4 is entitled “American DNA,” and comprises a mass of interwoven chains, again out of tar, so closely interconnected and mixed the entire canvas becomes black.

According to TMA, through these distinct bodies of work and media exploration, including painting, sculpture, photography, video, and drawing, the artists of 4x4 remind us that “there is no collective experience of life in contemporary society. Instead, the range of human conditions is varied, nuanced and individual.”


A four distinct bodies of work and media including painting, sculpture, photography, video, and drawing that seek to remind us “the range of human conditions is varied, nuanced and individual.”

4x4 will run from Saturday, May 22, through Sunday, Oct. 3, on view in the James J. and Louise R. Glasser Galleries, Earl Kai Chann Gallery, and Lois C. Green Gallery at TMA. The Tucson Museum of Art is open Thursdays through Sundays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. 140 N. Main Ave. For more information, visit