Artists like Damon Davis Are Transforming the Image of Blackness
We talk with BLM Co-Founder Patrisse Cullors-Bignac and Damon Davis about black art becoming more than the trauma and struggle.
Art by Damon Davis, photos by Brea McAnally.
You’ve heard the statement before: Blackness is not a monolith. It stands as true in life as it should in art, but isn’t always acknowledged in that same space.
Throughout history, art has been the silent tool in addressing racial, class, and socio-political strifes. It’s additionally been used to combat hierarchies enforced by those in power by giving the marginalized a place to be seen and heard. In the act of all this, the idea of blackness being more than the “oppression” has often been overlooked. Artists like St. Louis-born Damon Davis, a documentary film-maker best known for his short film around the Ferguson Protests, Whose Streets?, has long since been attempting to change that.
“We shouldn't just have our feet to the ground, always chronicling and transcribing the world around us. We need to be able to imagine the world as we want to see it,” he tells me in a joint conversation with Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors-Bignac—an artist herself. “It can’t solely be based on anger because you’ll burn out.”
For three years now, Damon has been using western anxieties and obsessions with blackness to create worlds where Gods of colour can reclaim an identity through the supernatural. And in response, cultural initiatives like Black Lives Matter have been teaming up in joint efforts with artists like Damon to steer greater conversations in the ways that blackness can be symbolized in art; not just through pain and trauma, but through strength.
In advance of his afro-surrealism exhibition, Darker Gods in The Garden of The Low Hanging Heavens, making its debut at the Art Basel next week. We took the time to talk Damon Davis and Patrisse Cullors-Brignac about art, and the roles they often play as disruptions and forms of therapy.
Damon, you’re obviously multi-talented, from music to film. But when did your more surrealist based art become this outlet for you?
Damon Davis: I’ve always been into the surrealist art scene, especially in the world of film like in the case of Guillermo del Toro, or even before when it was Terry Gilliam’s work and his 80s outlandish style. The thing for me though, is that I just never saw anyone that looked like me in those spaces. So as I got older and acquired some skills, it became a natural thing. The last few years for me has been an alignment with black people and the pain around what we’ve been going through. But prior to that, it was already surrealist and far more out there. It was the nature of the climate we were living in, especially in the specific place where I lived in being St Louis, Missouri, where we needed a more aggressive political form of artwork that could be used as a weapon. Now, what we also need is some joy-based work with a larger basis in the imaginative. I think that’s why the surrealist scene has been really moving, and I’ve been pushing back into that.
But looking back, when did this artistry get to this point where you viewed it less of a hobby and more as an important tool?
When I was a kid, my identity revolved around being an artist. People would have me drawing tattoos and shit. Teachers would have be drawing this and that, and I just became known for it. It became an idea, that I could draw, and from there, it was a gradual progression. When I was about 12, I got into hip-hop real hard and started making beats and DJing, and that became another thing. I was the guy who knew how to do it, and the one that saved up for the equipment. I just wasn't like other people, and the art became a bridge for me to have conversations with people in the ways I couldn’t through talking, because I was too shy and all that. The art was my language, and I began to see how people resonated with what I was creating. At a certain point, I just knew that it’s what I was supposed to be doing going back for as far as I can remember.
And now you’ve got this ‘Darker Gods’ project you’ve been working on for a while now. What was the thought process behind this?
I’ve been working on this for three long years now. It started about a year out from the protests in Ferguson, where I was working on a film about it all. I was going places, talking, meeting people, and hearing all of these stories. And the initial project became about how black people weren’t seen as total human beings. They were either superhuman, like Lebron James, Michael Jordan, and all these larger than life motherfuckers. Or they were regulated to poverty porn, drug addiction, dealing...like on some sub or below human level shit. So I was always fascinated by the big chunk in the middle that no one talks about, like the human that’s there for both good and bad.
And that’s where the idea of Gods came from?
Around that time, I was working on a three-part album based around voodoo culture, and that whole region in Louisiana is synonymous with voodoo. Given that my mom was also Creole, it became this whole thing about where I came from. I wanted to know what was going on in family’s culture. That lead me to gods, and other polytheistic religions, with multiple gods that always felt more like people. Up until that point, a lot of the art was based on reactionary shit...someone getting killed or hurt, and it always stemmed from a push back to them as if I was always in defense mode. And that’s always been a black people thing. So it came down to me being more proactive in my art, basing it more on love, joy, power and all that shit they don’t want us to have, see or revel in. Why not take these attributes of blackness that black people can agree on, the tropes included, and turn them into deities much like the Greeks once did.
Tell me more about that, do you think a lot of black art is too reactionary to struggle?
I definitely think it’s an important side, much like armor. It’s a defense, but also, there’s only so much shit you can sustain mentally. That’s why a lot of us are fucking depressed. Even right down to the rappers of this generation who are super fucking depressed. You’re listening to the music, and you’re hearing that art reflecting life, and it already tells me that I’m not the only one in that place. A lot of black folks are in that place. No one else has to wake up on a timeline of motherfuckers shooting you, and shooting people that look like you just because they look like you. No one else has to worry about that shit on that level. So the fact that people do that and conduct art in that way, I understand it because I do it at times.
I also think art is important on a joy-based level man. It should be an imagining of what shit could be. We shouldn't just have our feet to the ground, always chronicling and transcribing the world around us. We need to be able to imagine the world as we want to see it, and whatever side you’re on, it’s equally valid. But we know this world is depressing as fuck. There are very few wins, and there’s a lot of work to do. So we sometimes need something to keep our moral up. It can’t solely be based on anger because you’ll burn out. Sometimes we need weapons, and at other times we need armor.
And Patrisse, you’re obviously like minded in your actions and concerns for black lives. How do you personally value art next to what activists often do, which is to disrupt.
Patrisse Cullors-Bignac: Art, creativity and cultural work are at the center of all movements, be it a movement that’s going to empower black lives or movements that are empowering white nationalism. Cultural work i what gives a face to policies, and how people love or hate communities. It’s incredibly important that we understand, especially in this current moment under this particular government, that they aren’t just creating new policies that are changing, damaging, and destroying lives. They’re building entire cultures dedicating to radicalizing mostly men and women who carry a similar belief system.
What we see in our movement for black lives is that cultural workers and black cultural workers are creating our own worlds in which we can imagine a new of existing. And we’re allowing people in general to imagine black people as existing. We’re often so obsessed with death and the conversation around that, but yet we find it hard to imagine black people living. Damon Davis’s work in particular gives us a moment to imagine what it would be for black people to be all of who they are.
One of the more growing arguments is that some black art is becoming too instructional. Focusing on the struggle and not necessarily catering to black audiences. What’s your view?
Cullors-Bignac: I’m no fan of telling black artists what to do with their work. Everyone’s work is necessary and important and they all play a particular role because we’re all operating from a place of responding to our conditions. Some of the best art transcends, and not in the all lives matter sort of way. It’s in the way you look at a piece of art and understand that it’s a part of a global narrative.
The only problem comes from a white art world that’s only interested in our struggle and are unable to see the nuance in other artists. There’s a black artist named Adrian Piper, and she would never want to be labelled as a black artist. She challenges those labels, and her work is about a philosophy and about understanding humanity through her lens. We’re so used to living in a culture where our only understanding of humanity is through a white lens, so when black artists share our work, it gets categorized rather than being seen as an artist being human sharing work through a human lens.
So what do you guys think about the state of representation in popular media?
Davis: It’s a two-pronged thing. There’s a representation of us that everyone has become accustomed to and comfortable with, even black people. You see the shit out there. But there are also huge strides being made, especially in film, with several directors and artists from Ryan Coogler, Barry Jenkins, Jordan Peele, and Ava Duvernay presenting variations of blackness that we haven’t often seen from different angles and lenses. It hasn’t been like this since the 70s when black artists had room to show off different aspects of black culture. You may come in valuing it or not, but there’s never been this much variety in my lifetime.
Cullors-Bignac: For me, it’s such a tricky question because there are two things I’m thinking about. One, representation is an interesting concept. It reminds me of that word diversity, which is a hollow word. The concepts behind these words came from the ideas of challenging white status quos. What we’ve seen over the years though, and Damon and I are in our mid-30s now, is that we’ve lived through the Cosby era and A Different World, when we witnessed this representation of black people in a very specific way that was a challenge to the images of poverty that said we couldn’t be doctors or lawyers. But from there, it created a whole other world in which it was more fantasy, and it wasn’t real at all in relation to black life in America. These black folks didn’t go through any problems and that just wasn’t true about being black in this country.
We’re in an interesting juncture, and that happened largely due to the current iteration of the black power movement. Whenever we’ve had great uprisings, black artists have always been a response to that. So a part of the current movement, which I consider a new black renaissance, is manifesting in the fine art world, hollywood, and everywhere I go, where black folks are at the cutting edge of creating the many black worlds that black people live in. I don’t know if there’s a different word we can use rather than representation, but to me, the word doesn’t build power. The work of those like Damon introduce art that really thinks about the intersection of building black power and artistry.
Over the past couple years, we’ve seen white supremacy emboldened in the White House, in online spaces, to the point of more danger. What are the differing challenges that you both have to address in your art and political spaces
Cullors-Bignac: I believe it was Gloria Anzaldua who said, our existence is an act of resistance. Part of the interesting thing about being black in America, is just the act of living as being a threat to whiteness and governments. You don’t have to do much but exist, and when you do more than that and you challenge with art and creativity that builds a new face and presentation, it adds another layer to this conversation. What I’ve tried to do over the last two years in particular as white nationalists have been emboldened, was try to not deny the impact that its had on myself and my community. There’s a real life impact, but I’ve also tried to keep being me and showing up fully, unapologetically, and authentically, because for one, I have a two and a half year old, and he needs to see that. But also, black folks before us didn’t stop showing up. I’m talking about James Baldwin, Elaine Brown and all of these people who, despite their conditions, still showed up. And wow, what amazing works they were able to create under such duress.
Davis: Listen, my thing is, I don’t know why we’re even confused about what this country is. They’ve been emboldened yeah, but they’ve always been there. Day to day, personal interactions will show you that depending on where you live of course. You may live in a place where they’ve learned how to talk to the talk, but I’m from the Midwest, so you’re out here, or in the south, and they’re doing the same shit they’ve always been doing. Whether you liked Obama or not, because I’ve got mixed reviews myself, Donald Trump was always a direct response to that. That was fear...the fear of things changing too fast. That Ticki Torching was also a direct response to that. So whenever we start moving, or they see too many of us, there’s an underbelly that’s always there and it’s shown in how we move. When organizations become more vocal about getting their rights back, it’s a sign. It happens every 20 years. None of this should be surprising, and in terms of art, it has always reflected the times that we live in. If you see this shit out in the streets, movies, music, and gallery walls, it’s a reflection.
You’ve both addressed topics in different and similar ways. I wrote about the exhaustion of being an activist. So I ask, how do you guys manage self-care in this almost never ending climate?
Davis: I’m not good at that shit to be honest. We’re losing people to depression, and it’s not just about the police, it’s also about burning out. It’s when the addiction ticks up because the stress ticks up. What I try to do is sleep, stay around people that I love, and I’m also learning that everything doesn’t require a response. Everytime you see some shit, you can’t just jump into it, or you’ll burn out. You need to pick your battles, and learning that for me came with age. If you burn out, you’re not hearing, and then you can’t help anyone.
Cullors-Bignac: I’m a big, big proponent of self-care and we centre that as a part of the work we do within this movement, not as something separate. In some ways, part of colonialism has been to disrupt the ways in which we’ve historically cared for each other and ourselves. Part of the work we’re doing in this iteration is acknowledging that our elders were perhaps not thinking about self-care. They were just struggling financially, physically, without having health insurance during most of their lives. That’s not the message we want to send...that you have to sacrifice your body for this movement. Like Audre Lorde reminded us, caring for ourselves is a revolutionary act. So I’m a big fan of self-care in every way, and I believe that as a part of black people’s reparations package, every black person deserves their own therapist and that is incredibly important.
For me, art is also a major source of my therapy. If I’m not doing art or go some days without it, it’s no longer a healthy balance for me. My art centers me and reminds me that there’s more. It gives me purpose.
In saying all that, what do you hope audience take away from your art, Darker Gods, Damon?
Davis: I hope that when people of colour see it, they can imagine themselves in a greater light. I hope it brings joy to people, and that it makes others uncomfortable. I’d like them to deal with their own internal shit, and how they view black people when they’re presented with a blackness on a larger than life level. I hope they think and deal with it. I want people who don’t feel welcome in these spaces to feel welcome in this one, and I’m primarily talking about my people.
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