(Create)ive Change

Damien Davis

What issues do you address in your work?


I’m trying to unpack and examine the myriad ways in which people and places things get marked as “black”—colloquially, conversationally, and emotionally. That gets accomplished through these loosely fixed, lexiconal shapes that I’ve developed. My goal with lexicon is to create a semi-narrative device which I can then deploy to talk about historical or culturally significant moments, as well as popular culture.

Your work uses recurring imagery; can you talk about some of the images in your work? 

 

I use images to create a narrative. The power of shapes allows room for the viewer to cognitively work to reconcile what the shapes mean in relation to each other. The shapes are about taking larger abstract ideas, distilling them into base forms, and then stretching the limits of what they can do narratively by remixing and re-juxtaposing them into new works—the cowrie shells are specific to ideas of commerce; the head in profile is lifted from the flag of Sardenia in reference to blackamoors. I also use shapes that are seemingly more universal such as teeth, lanterns, crowns, chains, etc.

How is research part of your process? 

 

Research is central to my process because the work is about language: the slipperiness and precariousness of language examined via use of shapes. I find that the most effective way to leverage the shapes is through narrative storytelling. My practice is rooted in rigorous research on various topics, such as Black Wall Street, Afro-Futurism, or Henry “Box” Brown, an enslaved man who was freed by shipping himself in a crate from Virginia to Philadelphia.

Being an artist is more than just creating work. In addition to research, what other aspects of being an artist are valuable to you?

 

My background is in arts administration, so more than the average artist, I think a lot about the role my practice plays within a larger art community. I think a lot about systems and ways to navigate those systems administratively, as well as the ways artists can use the administrative aspects to make their lives easier and communicate their values as an artist. A big part of that is helping other artists learn how to strengthen their own practices through administrative tools such as inventory management, record keeping, grant writing, and fundraising advocacy. I also find it important to maintain a super democratic practice, making sure that all aspects of the work are as accessible as possible to as many people as possible, whether that has to do with economic accessibility or physical accessibility.  

You were a resident at the Sugar Hill Children’s Museum. How do you explain your work to kids?

 

I’m very interested in emotional literacy. The target audience for the Sugar Hill Children’s Museum is three through eight, which are years in a person’s developmental history that are important for learning to speak about emotions, opinions, and interpretations. In passing the language of shapes to someone else, I got to learn more from them than they probably learned from me. Because my practice is rooted in the messiness of conversation, my time there was about language, and allowing the work to be messy. I wanted to allow the kids to feel empowered to articulate their own voices and create dynamic stories from what they were seeing.

How do you hope that your work will affect a viewer? What is the ideal come-away?

 

I hope that the viewer recognizes how precarious language is. Everyone is approaching the work with a different lived experience, which affects how one understands the shapes that I’m using. My interest is in this Stuart Hall approach to semiotics: the ways in which we create meaning and translate meaning to others is complicated by everyone’s individual backgrounds, which animate how that meaning gets formed or understood. Language matters. But language isn’t static, or uniform, or universal—understanding requires work. I want the viewer to come away with the knowledge that just understanding something requires work, and even the process of doing that work sometimes leads to failure in all these unexpected ways.

Your art is bright and bold and whimsical, and the themes of your work are quite thought-

provoking. Can you explain your reasons for displaying your work in this way?

 

The iconography in the work typically talks about darker themes or topics more difficult for people to talk about—as a strategy I use tactile surfaces and super recognizable materials, such as wood or plexiglass, as a method of disarmament. The viewer gets drawn in by the seductiveness of the object, which begins the dialogue. Once that dialogue is opened, it allows space for conversations about things they might not typically want to talk about. 

Quilting is a craft with historical significance. Can you talk about how and why you have incorporated quilting into your work and some of the imagery that is included in this work?

 

I’m Interested in traditional modes of craft production. Often with contemporary art we fetishize labor in ways that I find somewhat problematic, one example being the fetishization of the brushstroke in a painting. That’s a form of labor that I’m not interested in romanticizing, and it often becomes a way to place art/art making as something outside the reach of “average people.” It has to do with accessibility. When we romanticize the brushstroke, we put art-making on a pedestal that makes it unattainable. I want to dismantle that. I’m invested in using forms of labor, or depicting forms of labor, through methods that typically aren’t romanticized. That’s where craft and hardware come into play. 

Art is often elitist. How do you make your work available to a wider audience?

 

I always fall back on administration. One of the things about being an artist in our current day and age is that there are so many more resources for artists to disseminate their work to whomever, and in whatever context. I can share things very immediately, and with my administration background, I don’t have to utilize someone else’s knowledge to give me some of the access that I may otherwise need. If I don’t have to wait for someone to help me write a grant application, it allows me to take control of the direction of my work, and be able to help teach others how to manage the same things for their own practices. Hopefully, that’ll start breaking down these power structures that often make art feel “elitist.” 

Have you noticed any recurring misunderstandings of your work?

 

Misunderstandings are the point. My practice is rooted in wading through the messiness of language. If there aren't any misunderstandings, the work isn’t doing its job. This way of working with the lexicon feels very ancient, such as with hieroglyphics or adinkra symbols, but also feels very current, especially when considering the timeless nature of emojis. Historically, conversations have always been super messy: they have the ability to create lasting bonds, or sever ties instantly. There’s an interesting tension between the two polarities, and my work exists in the messy middle ground.