Kiyan Williams (center) alongside fellow Unearthing performers at Stanford University. (Elijah Ndoumbé)
It's 4pm on a typical Monday afternoon, and the Stanford campus is mostly quiet as students walk and bike around its city of red-roofed buildings, minding their own business. Suddenly, Kiyan Williams arrives on the green, with long braids spilling down a bare back, wearing only a loin cloth-like purple skirt adorned at the front with an actual octopus whose slimy tentacles brush Williams' thighs as they proceed toward a round platform. As Williams walks with slow, confident steps, a procession of devotees in matching blue-ish garb and painted faces follow.
Williams -- who is gender nonconforming, and uses the pronoun "they" -- slowly covers themselves with dirt until their lower body is buried under a brown mound. After decorating the pile with flowers, Williams breaks into a fragmented monologue. “Why you always so dirty?” Williams bellows scathingly into the audience, imitating their grandmother’s harsh scoldings and rubbing dirt up and down their arms before eventually stuffing it into their mouth.
As Williams proceeds to cover their body with paint -- first gold, then green -- and glitter, unsuspecting students continuously bike past the performance, doing a bewildered double take. But Williams’ focus never breaks.
Williams grew up in Newark, New Jersey -- in the “hood,” in their words -- among a black and brown community. There, they gradually began using movement and performance as a tool for expression. “I learned to dance at non-institutional spaces -- at family barbecues, at queer clubs,” they recall. “Queer nightlife was a big part of my coming of age and my coming into my identity.
“It was a space where I felt that I could be freer than I could in other spaces.”
After moving to California at 17 to attend Stanford University, those clubs became even more important to Williams. They would study in Palo Alto during the week, then escape to Oakland and San Francisco on the weekends to “find spaces of belonging.” They would frequent parties such as Ships in the Night and The People Party, as well as regularly compete in voguing balls at community centers in Oakland and across the Bay.
When dancing, Williams is equally as compelling as when performing avant-garde monologues -- capturing the audience with unparalleled attitude, grace and confidence. That magnetism also led Williams to go-go dancing gigs at queer night clubs that they now cite as foundational experience for their fine art practice.
After nearly four years at Stanford, Williams had developed a critical art practice and attracted a community of queer black and brown folks that they now describe at “chosen family.” But, even so, with only one math class requirement left between Williams and their degree, the reality of Stanford became unbearable.
“I was very depressed from years of microaggressions, and just being at Stanford and the pressures of what it means for someone like me, and where I’m from, to be in that kind of place,” Williams says. “I just knew intuitively: 'I need to go and work on my emotional and mental well-being and find community.'”
So, Williams moved to New York City in 2014 and did just that. There, they first began developing Unearthing -- the performance they would eventually bring back to Stanford and perform on a quiet Monday in early 2017.
Unearthing is an ode to transformation. By the end, Williams appears transcendent, glistening from head to toe after showering themselves in paint and glitter. It is a story of coming into one’s own, reclaiming the baggage associated with one’s identity and, in doing so, achieving a new level of self-realization.
“For me, the idea of unearthing is a metaphor but also a life practice of excavating our personal truths, of literally unearthing stories that are often hidden or buried or erased, which is just how black and queer history is.”
What begins as a dirt pile that blends with the color of Williams’ skin ultimately becomes an altar of fertility. “Blackness is the stuff that nurtures seeds and gives birth to revolution,” Williams proclaims from within the soil.
In the performance’s final moments, Williams emerges with a dance routine fit for a voguing battle. Flawlessly bouncing from one foot to the other and manipulating their wrists with geisha-like precision, Williams flips their braids through the air. Finally, spreading their arms with sass, they land in a dancer’s position and announce: “I’m Kiki!”
There’s a lot packed into that ending. In our interview, Williams -- who speaks in an inimitable hybrid of street vernacular, scholarly vocabulary, and queer slang -- explains that the routine is a reference to ball culture: specially, the tradition of each competitor introducing themselves to the audience with a short, improvised walk.
And “Kiki” is the name that Williams began using when they began embracing their femininity. “When I was young, my cousins used to call me ‘Kiki’ and I hated it because I thought it was really feminine," says Williams. "So then years later… I reclaimed ‘Kiki’ as a way to reclaim my childhood femininity.”
But “Kiyan” still feels true as well: “I'm both. I’m Kiki and I’m Kiyan at the same time.”
That unapologetic fluidity and multiplicity is key to Williams' practice. Moving seamlessly between academic and queer nightlife spaces; between variations of gender; between “fine art” practices and ballroom techniques, Williams elegantly dissolves the boundaries between those categories and exposes the assumptions and biases that frame them as distinct in the first place.
For Williams, weaving those worlds together is not just an art practice -- it’s the product of years of personal effort shedding the narrow categories of identity into which adolescents are convinced they’re supposed to neatly fit. It's what prepared Williams to return to Stanford and receive their degree last December. And it's what allowed them to triumphantly proclaim an authentic version of self on the Stanford campus that warm Monday afternoon -- embracing the school as a home for black, brown and queer creativity despite the systemic inequities that challenge that narrative.
“For a really long time I felt policed at a space like Stanford and I felt like it was a space where I couldn’t fully belong or show up as my full self… but also in queer spaces I felt a really strong otherness because I went to a place like Stanford that’s associated with wealth and access, so there was always a sense of outsiderness in whatever spaces that I showed up in,” Williams says. “But the reality is that the imagined boundaries that we feel in these different spaces are indeed very porous.
“Through my own practice of self-transformation, I just came to accept that wherever I am is where I belong.”