Curating in an Era of Change: In Conversation with Damon Davis by Ashley Stull Meyers
Ashley Stull Meyers: I want to jump right in and talk about your work. Can you tell me about the "All Hands on Deck" and "Hands up" projects you staged in Ferguson?
Damon Davis: So, I was really passionate and pissed about the situation in Ferguson and St. Louis. It is something that has been apart of all my work for years, maybe because I grew up in the St. Louis area. The Hands Up project was a collaboration with my friend and contemporary, Basil Kincaid. Basil had an idea to do mannequin arms sticking up out of the ground. My objection was that the cost and access to mannequins was out of our range, so I suggested cutting them out of wood. It was super tedious but we were determined to make a statement. I was in a few organizing circles at that point and knew of the prosecutor in the case, so Basil and I went out to a park not far from his house and stuck them in the ground. It was a clear reference to and reminder of Michael Brown and the "Hands Up' chant that was used around in the wake of his death. What was perhaps less overt was that those hands reaching up were also an ode to our ancestors reaching up from the grave for justice. It looked like a graveyard, and we didn’t shy away from that association.
All Hands On Deck was later in the game. People were getting fatigued from constantly being out in the cold, and the anxiety of waiting on the ruling was beating us down. The businesses were boarding up in preparation for the announcement, and the overall scene on West Florissant was heavy. So, I began taking pictures of people’s hands. My homies and I hit the street the next day and wheat-pasted the images up and down West Flo. We got a lot of positivity back from the community, so I think it played a role in lifting morale.
ASM: Is that where you subscribe the value of art within political movements? I’ve worried myself more than once that the arts can be impotent in moments like these.
DD: I think the role of art in social movements is two fold. It can be "The Great Empathizer," meaning that it can confront the oppressor with the point of view of the oppressed in visual and visceral ways. It can provide a push toward the conclusion that that an unwitting oppressor is wrong or hasn’t considered all the angles—that there are real people on the other side who are deserving of dignity. That shit rarely happens. It can be a propaganda tool to mobilize one side again the other, which is the more common usage. I’ve been exploring a third alternative lately—using art as a tool to fortify the oppressed. I’m interested in speaking directly to those without a voice and giving them the "soul food" they’ll be needing for the really hard moments. My newer work wants to give the invisible something to feel good about—it wants to show them themselves instead of a ubiquitous focus on whiteness and the oppressive power structures that come with it. It’s important that we center ourselves in the conversation so that we keep our spirits up during the fight.
ASM: Having this work originate outside a gallery space was crucial for those sort of aims. Explain why you chose to leverage public space in particular, and what continued plans you’re making for disseminating images with so much at stake.
DD: My approach to disseminating my work depends upon the message and the timing. A lot of my work spreads through social media when I want to make a statement about something in a timely manner, especially if I can’t be on location. I couldn’t be on the ground for Eric Garner or Tamir Rice, so I did illustrations and put them up on the net. They went viral in the Black twitter and activism community.
When I do site-specific projects it is to present an idea that I don’t want people to be able to walk away from. When your environment is out of order, artists can point that out, but in ways that bring the focus back to the place and community. That’s the perceptive power of art, right? It can make the uncomfortable comfortable, and the comfortable uncomfortable. The use of public space is very important in times of upheaval because everybody is in the street. No matter which side you are on, you can bet both sides will see it.
ASM: How did the solo exhibition in MCASD come about? Did you have any trepidation about flipping the script and showing this work within the white cube? What, if anything, was valuable about the shift in context?
DD: The solo show was good. It was a proud day for me because it was my first ever solo show and it was in an institution that I never thought I would make it to. My feelings were mixed because I was happy that my work was being shown, but not to the people I initially made it for. I made it for the protestors and the victims. I was aware that those weren’t the people at the gallery. San Diego is one of the richest markets in the country, so it was sort of ironic to me that my art was of interest there—but I think that has power. These kinds of images need to be in the faces of people that either benefit or are culpable in what happens to our communities every single day. Occupying monied institutions and making a certain segment of their visitorship as uncomfortable as many of us are on a daily basis feels like a win. There’s also the matter of historization. There will be children that need to know what happened here, and art is sometimes the most honest artifact we have for a “true” reading of the zeitgeist at any given time in history. Museums collect and maintain work, and problematic or not, that can mean broader access and a longer life for an object.
ASM: Excellent call out where objects are concerned, but you've also done a lot of political drawings and cartoons. Those are the sorts of “artifacts” that are most overtly telling.
DD: I like illustration, a lot. I have been drawing longer than I’ve worked in any other medium, so I know how to get ideas out most coherently that way. I have an obsession with the face, the eyes, the mouth. I like to abstract these forms as much as possible and see how far I can go before the form is unrecognizable. Political cartoons haves to be simple enough so everyone gets it, but clever enough so that it’s worth repeating to someone else.
ASM: You were included in "Respond" at Smack Mellon, which is one of my favorite curatorial initiatives in the past 5 years. To create a space for the voices of people of color eschewing all other commitments was incredibly moving for an arts space of that size. Can you talk about the atmosphere surrounding the construction of the show? How did it stand out from other exhibitions within which you've been included?
DD: A great artist by the name of Dread Scott reached out to me to be apart of the show. I later met him in person at the Brooklyn museum when we were both on a panel together. I didn’t actually get to attend the show and I really regret it, but I am truly honored to have been apart of it. It is definitely one of the “Blackest” spaces I have had the honor exhibit in.
ASM: That sentiment is intensely valuable—to feel as though a space is “for you”! As a Black contemporary artist, what do you want to see more of in that vein? What is on your "wish list" from the future of museum culture?
DD: I want to see more people of color in the galleries as patrons and enthusiast of art. I want kids that come from places like the one I come from to think and know that if they want to be in that space, they belong there. It should not be this elitist thing that separates people. The good thing about growing up in St. Louis is that the art museum is free. I got to go with my school, and family, and by myself. That makes a difference. I also want the vibe to loosen up. I want people to have fun. As long as you don’t break shit, it’s cool, you know?
ASM: In any climate of racial disparity, I live for a moment where we can give each other a little shine. What other artists of color (current or historical) do you want to lift up?
DD: I have a lot of them. Historically, I’m definitely a huge fan of Basquiat. His work and life are a big inspiration for my own at times. Jacob Lawrence, Kerry James Marshall, Kehinde Wiley, and Theaster Gates are all giants in my mind. Gordon Parks is a huge inspiration because he was an interdisciplinary artist like myself. Currently I have a wish-list of people I want to meet and collaborate with (I hope they read this). Kara Walker is amazing. Ai Wei Wei, too. I would love to meet them both. I also like the work of Lina Viktor, and would love to do some work with her. The musician in me wants to collaborate with people I respect, and I don’t know if the art world works like that, but it’s nice to think about. Also my friends Basil Kincaid and Christopher Burch are really killing it right now. My immediate circle makes me want to go even harder.
Damon Davis is an interdisciplinary artist who lives and works in St. Louis, Missouri. Through illustration, printmaking, sound, film, and public projects, he engages community in timely and critical explorations of political issues. He is founder of independent music and art imprint, Far Fetched. Most recently, the series All Hands on Deck has been on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego.