v+b
(L) Brontez Purnell, courtesy of the artist. (R) Vaginal Davis in he Afro Sisters in 1986. Photos by and courtesy of Albert Sanchez. 
Identity

Art-Punk Icon Vaginal Davis on Creating, Quarantine, and Rebellion

In an intimate email correspondence, Vaginal Davis and Brontez Purnell share memories, photos, and instructions for thriving as outsider of the art world.
June 26, 2020, 5:06pmUpdated on June 26, 2020, 5:30pm

Queers Built This is our project about queer inventiveness and DIY culture then, now, and tomorrow.

In the realm of punk and performance art, Vaginal Davis is the almighty mother. She began her legendary career as the front woman to LA art-punk band the Afro Sisters, inspired by Black radical activists. (She named herself after Angela Davis.) She then went on to perform in a slew of iconic bands that infused a theatrical confrontation with identity into punk: Black Fag, ¡Cholita! and the Female Menudo among them. Since, she’s been prolific and playfully indiscriminate in choice of medium, having created zines, films, sculptures, paintings, musical compositions, and written works—all of which skewer and revel in otherness.

Born intersex and mixed Black and Mexican in L.A., Davis deems herself a “sexual repulsive” and embraces the title, along with the idea that her whole existence is a threat to our bland society. Instead, she molds the world to make it her own—constantly costuming, adorning her studio with collages, and refashioning words and names into more poetic constructions. Everything she does rejects our rigid standards of self definition, fine art, propriety, and even kinship. In their place: freedom and abundance.

Today, Davis is an idol to countless artistic outcasts who follow in her footsteps. Among them is similarly multi-hyphenate author, dancer, musician, and director Brontez Purnell. Originally from Alabama, Purnell moved to Oakland at 19 and soon started making gay punk zines, including his now canonical Fag School. He then formed the band Gravy Train!!!!—not far from Davis’ own early bands in its campiness—and later the Younger Lovers, followed by his experimental Brontez Purnell Dance Company. He’s best known for his novels, including The Cruising Diaries (2014), Johnny Would You Love Me If My Dick Were Bigger (2015), and Since I Laid My Burden Down (2017), all of which agitate ideas of identity through a singularly hilarious, uninhibited, and often trashy tone.

When I proposed a conversation with Purnell to Davis, she initially requested it be done via snail mail. We compromised and landed on an exchange over email (or “emug,” as she calls it). It was the end of May, just as the coronavirus quarantine was cracking open, making way for nation-wide protests against racism and police killings. Although the two had never previously met, they were instant family—sweet and intimate. The intended short interview soon became a lengthy, daily back and forth, only a small excerpt of which is published below. All in all, the duo shared snippets of their days, memories, thoughts on quarantine and rebellion, dozens of photos, and videos of personalized performances. (Their references alone are a delicious syllabus for anti-institutional performance art, and I've dropped in a few hyperlinks to kickstart your education.)

At an intense, mournful time for many Black Americans, the correspondence is persistently sassy, inspired, and filled with joy. For the sake of length, some emails here have been cut down. But, for the sake of authenticity, they remain otherwise unedited. —Sarah Burke


Let it Flow Jo, Like the River Phoenix
Thu, May 28, 12:49 AM EST
From: Vaginal Davis

Hey Darling Brontez Purnell with the movie star, matinee idol moniker!! It’s 5:30 am here in Berlina and I am off on my little girls Dutch bike with my two giant loads of dirty laundry to the Lavenderia. Not very glamorous eh? Most people here in Berlin have a washing machine but not the Vagimule Doll.

I get up every morning like clockwork at around 5am. This is pre Covid mind you sweetie. No alarm clock needed. My mother Mary Magdalene Duplantier was also an early riser so it’s in my system. It’s very quiet and peaceful and with all my pre-existing conditions like high blood sugar, hypertension and asthma I can’t be around people during this Pandemic Pandora.

I adore your novella When Johnny Comes Marching Home with a Bigger Penis. I put it on my syllabus for the performance art seminar I teach Perverse Assemblages at Work Master HEAD art school in Geneva. I had the library order it. Teaching online is very difficult for me as I have to use my old smartphone. I don’t have WiFi here at my home studio The Cheese Endique Trifecta. You can’t really teach performance art and you really can’t do it via technology. But I am glad I still have a job as so many people are struggling. I made the right decision to leave Vomit, California for Germany in 2005. Best decision I ever made. Oh by the way Vomit is what the golden era Hollywood star Montgomery Clift aka: Princess Tiny Meat called Los Angeles, the city of my birth.

Well here is a nice beginning to our emug conversation.

Can’t wait to hear back from you.

Love adaisial on the moist farm

Vaginal Davis Jr.

Just for giggles a photo of me right before the West of Rome / Public Art Trespass Parade in Downtown Vomit, California 2011. Photo by Hector Martinez.


Re: Wash House Photos
May 28, 2020, 1:24 AM EST
From: Brontez Purnell

i'm taking ho pics in my back yard- like i'm doing this project where i put myself on ho sites on instagram and like dudes in hella closeted countries hit me up for free sex cam shows- and i do it for like - the pandemic and like - they need free cam ho's in homophobic countries? it's also a rad self esteem booster - i can hardly get a call back on grindr in oakland but dudes in afghanistan and iran are like SOOOOOOOO stoked on me apparently - also I CANT BELIEVE IM TALKING TO YOU!!!!!!! ok so i was like 16 or 17 in Alabama and a punk and this older punk guy gave me the queer issues of Maximim Rock N Roll from 1992 (i still have it) and yr dressed like a cop fucking Bruce Le Bruce with a strap-on- IT COMPLETELY CRACKED REALITY IN HALF FOR ME-

first of all thank you second of all I LOVE YOU. third of all- do you ever miss california? even a little bit?


Splendour in the Grass
Thu, May 28, 7:05 AM EST
From: Vaginal Davis

My Dearest Darling,

What a lovesexy asstrovar!! Who could resist all that lusciousness? I love sexual altruistic spirituality. So generous.

I’ve never had any romantic or fleshy success in Northern California, or Southern California for that matter. Of course you can’t go by me I’m a naturally born sexual repulsive.

You’re from Alabama and my dear late mother is a Black Creole from Louisiana who during the great migration settled in Watts in 1945. LA had restrictive housing covenants back then. Watts was a lower middle class multi-racial area of the city at the time.

Oh that photo of me plowing Judy LaBruce with a black strap-on dildo—was a still from a documentary that Miss Judy was making of me at the time called Truth or Nair. Beulah Love was behind the camera. Judy didn’t douche so when I pulled out of her bunghole she had a projectile mudslide. Word to the wise: Don’t eat a Del Taco Burrito before filming penetrative sex. Judy was very nonchalant about it, she just said breathlessly, “We can edit that part out.” I don’t remember why I was dressed as a prison matron. Maybe I was doing an homage to Pat Ast in “Women Behind Bars.”

Judy LaBruce got rolled by a trick in San Francisco that stole his camera and most of the footage for the documentary. What he managed to salvage he used in his feature film Super 8 1/2 1994. Too bad the reels he took of me got stolen by the concubine Judy leased. There was some great material from performances I did all over the USA and Canada. Oh welp!

I love you too, sweet pretty man-child of the promise land. You are so prolific. As a blacktor—the best thing in that Travis Matthews film, writer, zinester, musician and leader of your own post moderne dance troupe.

In high school I lived at The Inner City Cultural Center in LA’s Pico Union District. The Lulu Washington Dance Company was a favourite of mine at the center. I took jazz dance class with Marilyn Mask and ballet at Stanley Holden with Miss Denise who worked with Gene Kelly at MGM.

I’m a sucker for good olde fashion barefoot modern dance and interpretive dance. A lot of the modern dance I see lately they do everything BUT dance. I kind of spoof that with my VooDoo Williamson Extemporaneous, Contemporary Dance Theater of Lynwood live performances I did, and short subject film.

I try not to do too much “yesterbating” as Miss Kembra Pfahler of Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black calls it. I’m all about moving forward lest I turn into a pillar of saltines.

Love&kissy kisstat

Tante Vag

(L) TWIN GAY, BLUE MOVIE MALE INGENUES NOW IN PRISON. I’VE NEVER SEEN THEIR OUVRE BUT WOULD LOVE TO SEE THEM IN CINEMATIC DISHABILE. PHOTO SENT TO ME BY NORMAN GHOULSEN VON HOLTZENDORF. (R) WALL OF MARVINA GAYE SHAME.

Early morning studio sunrise semester.


Re: Photos inside the Cheese Endique Trifecta, the Studio of Vaginal Davis in Berlin
May 29, 2020, 4:44 AM EST
From: Brontez Purnell

1. What do you miss about America, if anything?

2. I'm really fascinated by your trajectory. How did you come into punk rock? The Los Angeles scene boasts so many radical poc and their work lives. I love Taquila Mockingbird and her stories of being a Black punk in LA in the 80s where like because of the movie industry she said she literally worked as a punk rock extra in random films and made enough money for beer for the week. I also am friends with Alice Bag and her book “Violence Girl” and her reconciling of her Chicano lineage through the filter of punk rock. I also had the blessing of reading Sean DeLear (of Glue’s) teenage diary about being out gay and Black in the scene. Along side that I remember watching the “Decline Of Western Civilization” and the weird cringe-worthy racist moments that happen all throughout the movie. It seems like punk by design was violently white but also an incubator for radical poc beings. How did your emergence come through this and what were you feeling and dealing with at the time?

3. How did you reconcile being mixed race black and latino in LA? A place where historically there has been very engineered tension between these two racial groups?

4. There is a loooooong history of Black American artist self-exiling (I hope that’s not too heavy a description) in Europe —Josephine Baker, Eartha Kitt, James Baldwin, etc. But when you read their autobiographies there was still tension in their existence there. I have to say everytime I’m in Europe I somewhat feel like a bull in a china shop. I think there is something to be said for America as an incubator for a certain type of raw and uncontained artistic expression. I will sometimes have European punks lecturing me on American capitalism while sitting in an art squat their government funds, whereas in America if you are an artist, unless you move in moneyed circles, the government is like, “here’s a dead dog, make it work.” What are your tensions with being an ex-pat artist in Europe?

5) To follow up on that question I feel like my art is very very American- like it almost has no context to a European audience in a way because the themes I deal with (the American South, California Experimentalism, African American punk expression) doesn’t always translate I feel. Did you ever feel like you had to trade in part of your identity?


Hot-N-Tot Venus!
Fri, May 29, 4:08 PM EST
From: Vaginal Davis

My Dearest Darling,

Thank you for sharing your lovely tableau vivant Video short subject tribute to the Hot-N-Tot Venus. Brilliant!!!

I have been commissioned to make several more or less 60 second iPhone videos by the Smithsonian's Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. I love working in this format—very immediate. It’s so strange with Covid all these institutions are scrambling for original online content.

I’ve always lived alone even when I was young. So isolating myself isn’t much of a hardship. I am a loner deep down who forces herself to be social and extroverted. I love going to the movies all by myself. When I lived in America I loved going to matinees, the earlier the better.

When it comes to the first wave of Queercore and images from my zines Fertile LaToyah Jackson and Shrimp, The Magazine for Licking and Sucking Bigger and Better Feet I am so surprised that people are still fascinated by that period. I would just make something and then move on to the next project. I am bad at archiving my own work. I am thankful to hungthrobs like Larry Bob Roberts of Holy Tit Clamps Magazine who had the foresight to save copies of my zines. I never thought I would live beyond my twenties and here I am almost 600 years old. It’s great being an elder stateswoman.

I would have never been involved in punk if it hadn’t been for my cousin Carla Duplantier of The Controllers. Carla and Alice Bag were one of LA’s first 100 punks. Before the advent of Hardcore the early scene was led by women, queers and people of color. It was very art based and urban. The white boys from the Beachy suburbs didn’t infiltrate till late 1978 followed by Orange County meatheads.

Since I was younger then Carla and Alice I never considered myself punk. I wrote songs that I felt were more like show tunes and operetta but with my flat, bad singing voice people took it for punk.

You remind me of this sweet very smart black punk boy named Ktimmy who ran an illegal punk club on Skid Row called the Hideaway. Ktimmy also owned a punk clothing store called Aliens that was next to the Vista Theater in Silverlake. He was very fashion forward and his club had the best fashion shows using all black punkettes and some trans women who were in The Cosmetics a performance group led by a famous DJ named Michaelangelo who ruled a teen disco called Gino’s 2 that was at Santa Monica Blvd and Vine Street.

Ktimmy also worked as a substitute teacher. I wonder what became of him? After his punk store closed around 1986 he was helping the man who ran The Ebony Showcase Theater and Jewel of the Black Lesbian Club Jewel’s Room and the Black Gay disco The Catch One. Last time I ran into him was at the The Horizon Club in 1988. The Horizon was a black gay bar in South Central that had the nastiest, sexiest male strippers I’d ever seen. It was like a return to the Buffet Flats on Central Avenue in the 1920s these male Vadettes basically put on a live sex show with sexual calisthenics ending with ropes of seminal emissions penetrating the ceiling and walls. It was the first time I ever saw men doing helicopters with their penises. The majority of the strippers were black but there were a few Latinos, Blatinos and Asians in the mix. After the show there was dancing with the best DJs and music. Someone needs to write about this period in LA as it was very unique.

Did you ask about my background? My father was born in Mexico City, but he and my mother were never married. She was twenty years his senior. My mother was a lesbian and only wound up getting pregnant when she would get really drunk. People drank quite heavily in those days. I didn’t start to explore the Mexican part of my heritage till the mid 80s when I formed the band Cholita, the female Menudo with Alice Bag. At that point in time I was sick of post punk and so-called alternative music and was only listening to Spanish language radio like K Radio Amor.

Being of a mixed racial background is no big deal. Every black person in America is mixed with either American Indian or white because of slavery. My mother is a Black Creole from Louisiana on her father's side and her mother is Choctaw Indian born on the reservation. That’s where I get my high cheekbones.

I can’t wait to read your new book about Alabama. Is it out yet? I had mentioned I wanted to read your last book on my blog and a fan sent it to me. When I used to write book reviews for the LA Weekly I got so much swag, books and gifts sent to me. I got really spoiled. When I lived in LA I had a giant split level flat in Koreatown 3 bedrooms and two bathrooms a balcony and terrace that on a clear day you could see Catalina Island. I was lucky the owner only rented to artists and never raised my rent. I paid $500 a month for almost 20 years and the apartment came with a garage and I’ve never owned a car. I don’t even know how to drive. In the city of cars I used public transport and my vintage bicycle from the 1940s.

I have to stop here as typing on this old iPhone keyboard is very tiring.

Can’t wait for our next volley.

Hugs,

Love&kissyz

Tante Vag

My old LA Weekly press badge. I was editor-in-chief of my high school newspaper. I’ve always been a strange overachiever.


hello my love...
Sat, May 30, 5:19 AM EST
From: Brontez Purnell

1. I just got back from the George Floyd protests in downtown Oakland tonight. It sits on repeat tho, this constant roll call of trauma and Black deaths- Oscar Grant, Eric Garner, George Floyd. I have abandoned years ago the idea of any kind of finality around violence and generally position myself as a soldier who carries on the tradition of both fighting for my right to exist and for those around me to live in relative peace- I tend to think this is a fight we will wage into eternity. How/where do you position yourself in lineages of resistance personally? Do you think the realm of creating and critiquing culture is the strongest strategy we who live in the margins have for changing the world around us? Or do you think direct action is still the strongest method of resistance?

2. who would you want to star as you in the biopic of your life?

3. so much of the nihilistic trajectory of our counter culture seems to pivot that artists only make their most critical work in their youth- how do you dispute this.You boast such a long and critical career that paved the way for the likes of me and several others (thank you by the way)- do you look over the work and impact you have made and feel contentment? Or do you still think you strive for something beyond?

so so so so much love,

bronny


Invisible Cam
Sat, May 30, 10:53 AM EST
From: Vaginal Davis

Hey My Beautiful Darling,

Back in December when I was in Geneva teaching my performance art seminar when I got back to my hotel room on the TV they first started rumblings about Miss Covid. When I got back to Berlin as I have been commuting from Berlin-Geneva for the past 2 years I immediately started to stockpile canned goods. I sensed this pandemic was the ONE and would later segue into Helter Skelter. Not to be a Deborah S. Downer but...

I feel fortunate that I grew up in a very unique historical moment in the late 60s and early 70s. The Black Panthers just took over my elementary school and the white administration couldn’t do a thing to stop them as they were armed and ready to throw down. My inner city elementary school had Black, Brown, Asian and some White kids whose parents were too poor for white flight into the suburbs and here we were all being indoctrinated into spirited Black Nationalism singing protest songs together and learning war chants and solidarity dance routines.

I still remember when one caucasian classmate named Brian took the teachings a little far saying he was going, “to kill his honky parents as they slept.” People then really committed to radical ideas and there was a lot of strident intersectionality to address injustice and inequity.

It was a very utopian time wrought through the threat of anarchic violence, disruption and turmoil.

One day school was like it was in the 1950s, male teachers wore white shirts and ties and you had to wear dresses and skirts if you were a girl unless it was raining when you left the house then you could wear slacks. Then the spirit of 68 and overnight —boom! bell bottoms, love beads, fringe, micro mini’s and Jesus sandals. LA elected the country's first Black mayor Tom Bradley, just a few years after the Watts Riots.

Because of the threat of the Panthers all these social programs magically appeared that I benefited from.

Biopics. I abhor biopics. The tone set in biopics is always so wrong. If someone were to make a film about little lady me it would have to be non linear, non narrative in structure with several people portraying me none of them professional actors or darstellars.

I’m never content with anything I do. Everything is a work in progress or something I’m continually workshopping. Jack Smith only finished one film Flaming Creatures. The others he recontextualized, re-editing endlessly, to be used again in his expanded cinema happenings.

I’ve been sending you little fotos but I am not sure you are receiving everything I send. My iPhone creates some bizarro excrement on its own volition.

Stay safe, sane and healthy

Love&kissyz