Conversations about race in the United States have gathered momentum over the past decade and show no signs of quieting in the current political climate. The conservative policies of the new administration have been met with nationwide protests—a now familiar sight in news reports from around the country. With jarring ease, social media users capture and amplify incendiary footage of police officers killing black civilians, weaving these images into a steady visual stream of unmediated black death across multiple platforms. During my September 2015 conversation with the artist Damon Davis, we spoke about this phenomenon, its consequences, and the new mixed-media collage series that he created in response, Negrophilia.
By his own account, Damon Davis was not in the streets when protests erupted in Ferguson, Missouri, in August 2014. Born in East St. Louis, Illinois, in 1986, Davis’s youth in the economically depressed, postindustrial city had persuaded him that the protests would lead to nothing. The racial climate seemed equally tense and stagnant on the other side of the Mississippi River, where he finished a BA in communications at Saint Louis University. With a uniquely millennial perspective and process, Davis’s work evokes a series of experiments in multimedia, material, and lines. Working across genres, he looked at the impact of historic and economic lines in the public sculpture, The Wailing Wall (2014). His fluidity with media is impressive in his sonic work with the FarFetched Collective, where he slips easily among the roles of musician, creative director, and producer. By the time Davis got involved in grass-roots organizing in September 2014, he was already a respected storyteller, committed worker, and prolific artist in the St. Louis area. His racial justice work with the movement for black lives inspired Davis to document the Ferguson uprising in the feature film Whose Streets (dir. Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis, Magnolia Films, 2017), which was in limited release by July 2017.
In this interview, Damon speaks about how these experiences have informed his work and his recent experiments with lines and death in Selections from Negrophilia, which was on view at the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts in Brooklyn from August 4–November 6, 2016.
—Olubukola A. Gbadegesin
Olubukola A. Gbadegesin: I’ve heard you describe yourself as a lot of different things. You call yourself a multimedia or multidisciplinary artist. What is the scope of your work?
Damon Davis: I’m a storyteller. That term doesn’t limit my work to one particular field or medium—it’s just about telling stories well. I tell those stories through visual art, music, film, creative writing, and other media.
Gbadegesin: What stories are you interested in?
Davis: Specifically, I’m interested in telling the black experience right now. Not so much the stereotypical black experience, but the ones that depict black people as human beings with regular, everyday problems. Black people are regular, everyday people, and they just happen to be born to a skin color.
Black people are often portrayed as magical superhero figures that leap these huge obstacles or as if we are subhuman. We are consolidated into an amalgam of all these characters that are arguably one-dimensional. They never have the depth that historically white characters are given. It’s important to be conscious and intentional in telling stories about the beauty in everyday life that is just culturally different.
Gbadegesin: How did you start on this artistic path and what shaped your approach?
Davis: I’ve never felt as though I fit in, probably like every artist. I grew up in East St. Louis, so it was different from not fitting in in other places. There’s a constant guard, a constant anxiety there. My dad was strict, so I wasn’t the kid running the streets. I was a nerd. I was in the house. Because I grew up in volatile times, I spent most of my time reading, watching TV, and drawing—solitary things. When I was about fifteen, I discovered music. For the last ten to fifteen years, I’ve been active in the music community [in St. Louis]. With music and visual art, I feel like I can get a lot of quality in a short amount of time, which is why they are the two main storytelling mechanisms for me.
When I went to Saint Louis University (SLU) as an undergrad, I began as a studio art major. I let my father talk me into believing that I wouldn’t be able to get a job with that degree Instead, I got a degree in communications, which has not allowed me to take care of myself, so I should’ve just got the damn studio art degree since I was going to do it anyway. Later, I got accepted into the Regional Arts Commission’s Community Arts Training Institute, where I was able to see how activism and community organizing intersect.
After SLU, I worked on a film that was politically and racially charged. Color of Justice (2010) focused on Reggie Clemons, who is currently on death row for a crime that many believe he did not commit. It was real guerrilla production, and we worked on it for four or five years. That’s when I first met Jamala Rogers and Danny Glover, who came to the premiere in St. Louis. That year, I also did another project about the Delmar Divide, the racial and economic differences that take place along Delmar Boulevard in St. Louis.
When I go to New York City or Los Angeles, culpable racism is not as apparent as it is in St. Louis. I haven’t been to another place where racism is still so tangible, so thick you can touch it. It’s a source of strength, but it’s also draining. It’s not always the best environment to be in as somebody who wants to be hopeful about humanity.
Gbadegesin: What do you think about where your work is now?
Davis: It could be draining to have to speak to [a broader audience] through a practice that at one point was just a solitary escape. Sometimes I just want to retreat again, so I got to be real intentional about the type of work that I do these days. I want to stay true to where I come from, but I also should be allowed to grow. In my experience, white people never have to explain themselves when it comes to growing. When black people get any traction in a career, the first thing we have to worry about is “keeping it real.” To be great, artists have to be allowed to grow and experience new things.
Gbadegesin: What are some of your current collaborations?
Davis: Five years ago I founded FarFetched Collective, which is a music imprint currently [featuring] fifteen different artists, most based in St. Louis. We have also some international [performers] that work with us. It’s all about progressive music. It has been called the most diverse music collective in St. Louis. Six or seven years back I started Civil Ape with Lenard Blair. It has morphed into more of a clothing line because Lenard is an amazing designer. I’m less active in that one now, but we’re still trying to get it off of the ground. We’ve got both local support and a significant international fan base because of the internet.
Now, the biggest thing I’m working on is the Ferguson documentary [Whose Streets (dir. Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis, Magnolia Films, 2017)]. It is another collaborative situation where I’m trying to navigate a new world. This is film is a whole ’nother industry [with its own] logistics. The narrative is a story that has to be told, and we have to tell it. Other people usually get to tell our stories. We have to do it this time.
Gbadegesin: Why did you decide to do a documentary on Ferguson?
Davis: Self-representation is crucial right now. It’s important that somebody who was actually there get that story out because regular people made [Ferguson] happen. [When historians] talk about Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, they seem like nobody else. But they were regular people doing these things, and kids need to know that. We’ve got to represent ourselves, because if we let others tell the story, important parts are going to be erased.
Gbadegesin: How did you get involved with Ferguson?
Davis: I was teaching at an art expo on August 9, 2014. Afterward, I just went home. I thought people were just going to go back home and let it end there, but it did not. I went out because of the Facebook videos that my friends were posting. I just kept thinking, “This can’t be happening right here.” I got involved with creative actions and giving a visual identity to what was happening, along with many other talented artists. As artists, that’s the way we fight. Some people think that the answer is legislation or education, but I don’t agree. We’re fighting for hearts and minds, not the right to sit next to people anymore. You could sit right next to [someone who doesn’t see] you as a person. You can go to school and [never be acknowledged]. Art is the only viable weapon we have at this point in getting people to see each other as human beings. Some think the main issue is police—art ain’t going to save you from that. The underlying issue of all of this shit is white supremacy, and it’s been ingrained in American society for so long that everything else is influenced by that. Art can change worldview. You can put pictures, movies, or words in front of them, or music in their ears, and those things travel exponentially. I can’t talk to every single person on the street, but I can make art that people can see.
Gbadegesin: Of all the projects that you’ve done this past year, what are you most proud of?
Davis: I’m proud of the All Hands on Deck project. It may be the biggest project of my career when I look back over it. I think it was perfect timing. I’ve never had a project happen in three days and get the kind of response it got from the people who saw it. People were walking up to me, kids wanted to help put it up, old women saying, “Keep it up. We need it. This is the thing that people need to see and not a bunch of burning and looting.” There’s no way to flip that experience into negativity. It received a lot of positive attention: Banksy retweets and news articles. On the strategic level of telling a story, I think it was one of the most powerful yet simplest projects I’ve done.
I’m also proud of the piece I did for Rekia Boyd when she was killed. I sat on it for a while until Sandra Bland happened. I love black women. They raised me. They still take care of me on many levels. But suddenly, it didn’t matter whether a person is a man or woman, straight, gay: we all get caught up in a melee of black death. I wanted to do something to hold up the fact that mamas are dying—your mamas, your sisters, and your girl. They are under attack. I don’t know where the fight is going to take us, but this artwork is what sustains me through it. That’s what I’ve done with most of these projects. My specific goal has been to keep hopes up, because it’s just been trauma all the time.
Gbadegesin: What are you doing to keep your hopes up?
Davis: I’m working on a new body of work, and it’s purely therapeutic for me. I’ve been posting some of the images from it on Instagram, but I’m going to call the set Negrophilia—the idea around the obsession we have with watching black people die. Even in my personal life, I have some family members who are very ill, so everywhere I go I’m seeing black people die. I don’t meet up with my family unless we’re at a hospital. I don’t see my friends unless somebody died and we have to go out into the street. That’s it, all the time.
When I go out of town, people think that I’m on vacation but I’m actually going to talk about black people getting killed. Then I come back home for more of it. To keep my mind together, I make these pieces, and they are solitary, alone: something that you need to just work out your own internal shit. It’s is a powerful series, but it’s not bright or sunny. It’s not trying to alleviate pain, but rather basking in it for a second to understand that it’s a natural thing to be in pain. Without it, you wouldn’t even know when you’re having a good time.
There’s been a constant barrage: somebody is dead and we got the live video feed of it. How did we get here? In the beginning, the videos were supposed to get justice for people, but no video has done that yet. So really, all it’s been doing is watching people get killed and hash-tagging it. It’s a weird practice that’s been perpetuated these last few months, and I’m documenting the snapshots of it.
Gbadegesin: Do you plan to show Negrophilia?
Davis: Art loves to wait to be on the right side of history, but if this is our front and our fight, then we need to push the art world in the same way that everybody else in this movement is pushing for radical change in other institutions. We need to be in those spaces telling stories about black people that are not cool or easy to take in. Art is not about a homogenized, safe, or sterilized look at things. Art is supposed to make people uncomfortable, so I want these pieces in a visible place, just to get as many eyes on them as possible. I want Negrophilia to find people, make them uncomfortable, make them think about it and do something about it. If it just stays in my room it won’t do that.
Damon Davis is an award-winning interdisciplinary artist who works and resides in St. Louis, Missouri. His scope includes illustration, painting, printmaking, music, film, and public art. Davis has work in the permanent collection at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC, and has exhibited at the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts (MoCADA) in Brooklyn and the San Diego Contemporary Museum of Art. Acclaimed cultural critic and scholar Jeff Chang licensed Davis’ piece, All Hands on Deck, as the cover art for Chang’s 2016 book, We Gon’ Be Alright: Notes on Race and Resegregation.
For his work as the founder of independent music and art imprint, FarFetched, Davis received The Riverfront Times MasterMind Award (2013), St. Louis Soup Across the Delmar Divide Award (2013), and Best Hip Hop Producer SLUMfest Award (2014). He is also a Regional Arts Commission Community Arts Training Fellow (2012) and was named to ALIVE Magazine’s Buzz List (2013). The documentary short A Story To Tell (2013), which profiled Davis, his work, and the creative process, won an Emmy Award Mid America for Best Short Form Program. Whose Streets?(2017) is Davis’ first foray into feature-length documentary; Filmmaker Magazine selected him and director Sabaah Folayan for their “25 New Faces of Independent Film 2016.” Davis is a 2015 Firelight Media Producers Lab Fellow and a 2016 Sundance Institute Music and Sound Design Lab Fellow at Skywalker Sound.
Olubukola A. Gbadegesin (Associate Professor, Department of Fine and Performing Arts and African American Studies Program, Saint Louis University, St. Louis, MO) has published in African Arts, History of Photography, and Critical Interventions: Journal of African Art History and Visual Culture. In addition to a recent book chapter in African Print Cultures (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2016), Gbadegesin is currently working on a book manuscript titled “Picturing Modern Selves in Colonized Places: Photography as a Strategy of Power in Lagos, Nigeria.” Her research interests focus on photography, portraiture, politics of representation, and print culture in Africa and the Diaspora.