Damien Davis is doing everything everybody told him not to do. And it’s paying off.
The artist (Louisiana-born, Arizona-bred, and now living in Brooklyn) recites a long list of taboos: “Don’t make work about race or racism. Don’t make work about design. Don’t make work that looks too polished. Don’t make work with craft materials.”
Despite graduating from New York University with a BFA in 2010, Davis had given up on art. “I had decided I’d never be a successful visual artist because there are all these people who are successful telling me the things I want to make aren’t the things I should be making,” says Davis, 33.
Grad school changed his outlook. He earned his MA in visual arts administration from NYU in 2013; only after getting that degree, he says, “did I realize that I have all the skills to do this for myself. I understand how to go out and get grants, how to apply for [a] residency. I don’t have to wait for someone to bless me.”
Davis made the first piece in his color- and symbol-saturated Blackamoors series in 2014. By usurping the term “blackamoor,” often used as a pejorative for a very dark-skinned African, Davis casually forces a reconciliation between an ugly stereotype and art in cheerful colors.
Many of the works in the 130-piece series were influenced by tragic news events with a racial edge. The 2015 death of Sandra Bland, who died in custody after being jailed for a minor traffic infraction, led to 2017’s Smear (Blackamoors Collage #71), an expression of cars as both chariots and coffins for black Americans. Smear shows floating car doors in bright colors paired with hazard signs, over a circular shape that Davis likens to an endless skid mark. Other Blackamoors pieces feature silhouetted heads taken from medieval flags, which evoke a Sambo stereotype and function as a “catchall for African diasporic people.”
“That’s a big part of where the plexiglass and laser-cut come in, to figure out how to make the work feel as sexy and pleasurable as possible, even when it talks about these historically or aesthetically painful things,” says the 6-foot-4 artist (who has found that his height, combined with the color of his skin, often leads to the assumption that he’s a basketball player). “I’m going to take that imagery and throw it back and have it be so beautiful that you’re like, ‘What is this? Can I touch this?’ ”
Davis’ mother was a home economics teacher with a deep knowledge of black history. She laid the foundation that sparked Davis’ use of teeth (considered a sign of health of enslaved people on the auction block) and chains, along with bright bursts of color. “The thing that really interests me and excites me is what colors mean on a psychological or emotional level and also the historical connotations,” says Davis. “Red has all this loaded history to it. It is not just an aesthetic choice. The color black is also super-important in that sense. When I’m using it, it is always a means to talk about blackness. The color compositions or selections are always about generating some psychological mood or some kind of political point. It’s not always obvious. It’s very subtle in a lot of ways.”
Mixed media: Davis uses plexiglass, stainless steel, brass, laser-cut wood, printed fabric, and digital embroidery. “I’m really interested in technology and the computer,” he says. The work involves “invading all these spaces that I’m told I shouldn’t be in.”
Inspiration: Davis, his mother, and her sister are organizing a show in Phoenix in October. “It’s kind of like a homecoming – a presentation of my work, but also a celebration of the 100th birthday of this artist, J. Eugene Grigsby, who ran with a lot of those Harlem Renaissance [artists] back in the day.” He was one of Davis’ first artistic role models.