Patrisse Cullors x Damon Davis Interview | 'Darker Gods'

by Charmaine Griffin

This year’s Art Basel Miami has a new face changing the narrative for what representation looks like in the contemporary art scene. Artist, musician and filmmaker Damon Davis premiered an exclusive Afro-surrealism exhibition, Darker Gods in The Garden of The Low Hanging Heavens, this week. The award-winning post-disciplinary St. Louis, Missouri native uses includes illustration, painting, printmaking, music, film, and public art to tell a story — one that he calls therapy and part social commentary. Davis work has been featured in the permanent collection at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, the Museum of Contemporary African Diaspora Arts in Brooklyn and the San Diego Contemporary Museum of Art. His list of accomplishments includes creating an independent music and art imprint, Far Fetched, in which his new album Darker Gods served as the background track for the gallery.

Davis’ Basel debut draws attention to cultural tropes that have been used to label Black identity by creating an exhibit that reimagines Black people as supernatural deities. Darker Gods combats the narratives and beliefs that center around communities of color. Through sound, photography, film, illustration and written word, the artist taps into modern myths and folklore to bring 11 Black deities to life. The fantasy-like imagery retells a reality where superhuman characteristics combat negative cultural ideals. The exhibit is apart of “Our Basel” by Smoke Signals Studio, a community-based space that features local Miami artists.

His project takes on an even more profound stance as he teams up with Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors for an artist talk Friday, December 7 at 4PM. I had the opportunity to speak to Davis and Cullors about Darker Gods, representation, art, and social justice, with Davis opening the conversation about his work.

Damon Davis  “Darker Gods in The Garden of The Low Hanging Heavens”

Damon Davis “Darker Gods in The Garden of The Low Hanging Heavens”

Where did you come up with the idea for the Darker Gods exhibit?

Three years ago I started working on this project. Initially, it was a project about how Black people are rarely seen as whole human beings — Black people are superhuman or sub-human — the complexity of who we are is rarely seen unless you are one of us or you grew up in a community with us. As I was working to materialize it I started to look at the Gods of the Yoruba cultures and different polytheistic cultures because those type of Gods makes way more sense. If you don’t respect them they will act out. The imagery and the storytelling is what inspired me. I guess it was a perfect storm of those things. This project came as part therapy for me and also shifting the narrative. At first, I wanted to talk about the humanity of Black people, but I said let’s go right to the superhuman. It was a blend of different influences that I had at that time and also therapy for me to stay positive with the things we see every day.

You created a multi-sensory experience in this exhibit through imagery and written folklore. What folklore stories did you pull from for this project?

Really a lot of it was is modern folklore that I told in more traditional ways. It’s the stories of single mothers, absentee fathers, the ideals of Black masculinity, the angry Black woman… playing with these stories and questioning are they like that because that’s who they are or is that what we’ve been told about who they are? Everything you know about gender and race is all stories being told to us over and over again until we fall in line. What happens when we start telling new stories? Like the goddess of love and sensuality’s name is Eros, that’s a greek goddess, I liked the name and I wanted to take that and change it around. Some of the names I created out of Yoruba words. But the stories I pulled from Greek mythology, Hindu mythology, and overall humanity before the big three.

Darker Gods is described as an “Afro-surrealism exhibition.” How did this genre fit with your vision for the project?

Anything that's fantastical or magical that happens to Black people is in the future, but this isn’t the future, this is right now. I thought I made it up, but I googled and found out Afro-surrealism is actually a movement. Most of the stuff that I thought was afro-futurism is actually surrealism. Usually, I’m talking about an alternate reality. Black peoples realities is surreal, waking up as a Black person and walking in a Black body is a surreal experience. I wanted to push that into my work so I can start that conversation. If you can just get killed for the skin that you are in every day, that surrealism. Most people don’t live that situation that we’ve been through as a people.

You address western fears and infatuations of Blackness by creating a world that reclaims their identity. What specific narratives of identity did you target?

The people that everyone is so fascinated with in music videos — the idea of riding through the hood and feeling like you’re on a safari — those people. I wanted to think about those people, more than making them about fetishization because what you get in music. It’s not so much an explanation of why their situation is like that, its jsut people telling you “this is what’s going on,” which is needed but I wanted to give some background. Also how we treat Black women, I wanted to turn some of those ideals on their heads. If you were a woman how would you feel, but tell it in folklore. I wanted to talk about gender and sexuality, which is a big part of the Black community but its taboo to us because of how conservative we are as people in America. As I get older I get friends that don’t fit into a box, and I never had that growing up, so I don’t want to create a whole universe that leaves them out again. I touched upon everything about what it means to get older as a Black person to the nuances of Black people.

You teamed up with Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors. How do social justice and art go hand and hand?

So Patrisse has been my homegirl for years. We met during the Ferguson uprising and I have nothing but love for her. She’s an artist before this and people put you into a box. You get known for one thing and people only know you for that, so we also connected on an artistic level. It wasn’t just her, I told people I was coming down here and I’ve done a lot of work for a lot of people since this movement started, so people were down to get behind me. Phil Agnew, the director of Dream Defenders which is a Miami based activist organization and Smoke Signals, they came to support me. It’s a lot of people who are in the movement who aren’t artist — I asked for some help and they came through for me.   

What’s the art scene like in Miami for artist of color?

See that, I can’t speak wholeheartedly about because I’m from St. Louis, but when I speak to my friends like Asia Monet, she tells me there are a lot of people who feel left out of this big Art Basel machine that happens every year. That’s also the reason we wanted to do this in Little Haiti, in the hood, and bring people together who usually wouldn’t hang around each other. I wanted to put that it in a place where my people would also feel comfortable coming around. The classism and the illegalism in art kinda tell people that they don’t belong. But the people I have met down here, a lot of them are trying to figure out how to break in. I’ve just been lucky. We are all trying to get our work out and get appreciated — if you don’t have certain resources it’s a whole lot harder to do.   

You’re a St. Louis native, in what ways has your hometown helped inspire your art?

Art imitates life. You talk about what you know. A lot of work is about the things I’ve grown up in, the way the world is and the way I want to see it. It’s also the way you see the world and the way the world sees you. St. Louis is the biggest influence on what I do and I grew up in East St. Louis across the river. Even on a more micro-level, I just grew up in a Black community. I grew up around Black folks, so that was an element of it and church was an element of it. So that was a big thing about me humanizing Black people, I try to bring some humanity to the conversation from a specific point of view. It’s kind of cathartic.

Describe one takeaway you want people to have after seeing the Darker Gods exhibit.

I want Black people to see themselves. There’s a kid that goes to school right up the street and he walked in and I was telling him about it, he was staring at. When you see things that are bigger than you that look like you it gives you the idea that you can do something bigger than what's in front of you. I’m trying to play with the idea of how mythology informs identify. I want people to walk out feeling empowered and feeling inspired. I want them to see themselves in ways they have never seen themselves. I also want people to come up with their own ideas but to leave with a sense of hope and power.

What artists do you believe are currently leading the charge in representing Black narratives?

I’ll put it to you like this, I like this generation of artist. I like that my generation of people who are around me right now that are contemporaries are not worrying over how we are remembered but what we represent right now. I think that’s where real power and inspiration is built. I like Lorna Simpson, and she’s not super young but I do like her stuff. There’s a Liberian artist and her last name is Lina Iris Viktor. I really like her work because she touches on mythology and she puts herself in the work. I also like a lot of St. Louis artist as well like Basil Kincaid, he’s on the rise right now. February James, I like the way she plays with form and the human body. Now that I think about it, I like a lot of female artists because they are on top of what’s really going on.

What’s next for you?

I’m going to keep making stuff until I can’t do it anymore. In the immediate, I want this show to keep touring. I’ll probably be in Atlanta but before that, I want to hit LA and Chicago. I’m also a filmmaker so I’m working on some new stuff with that, another documentary film. Also, keep making music, I operate a record label. I like to incorporate all of those mediums into my work so I’m going to keep creating and keep telling stories.  

Damon Davis  “Darker Gods in The Garden of The Low Hanging Heavens”

Damon Davis “Darker Gods in The Garden of The Low Hanging Heavens”

Activist and artist Patrisse Cullors followed Davis’ commentary with some insights of her own.

As the co-founder of Black Lives Matter, why was it important to lend your voice to the Darker Gods exhibit?

It was important for us, Black Lives Matter, to lend our voice to Darker Gods because we understand that Black art is absolutely necessary and critical, especially in this current moment. But, also, Damon’s work is a testimony to something bigger than even I think we understand. The idea of creating and developing gods for us to see and look at and respond to is incredibly healing.

What was your biggest takeaway after seeing Darker Gods? How do you think Darker Gods can help change the narrative around Black representation in art?

This will be my first time seeing it in person and installed in a gallery. I’ve talked to Damon about this work for years now, and I have seen the images on Instagram. We used one of his pieces at the Black Lives Matter ComplexCon launch and I was so impressed by it. A dark-skinned Black woman with grills. Her face and eyes chilling and her gold grill exposed and beautiful. This project has already changed the narrative around Black representation in art. Damon’s work is an offering.

When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir powerfully uncovers your story as a social justice pioneer. In what ways can art spaces create room to examine social justice issues?  

It’s absolutely necessary that artists use what they’re practicing as a way to talk about what’s happening around us. This isn’t political, this is our lives. I think part of what we need to challenge, specifically in the art space, is this idea that when we talk about “politics” it is no longer art. In fact, I think the art-to-art movement can be really frustrating as the only art form. So yes, we need artists to talk about what’s around us because that is what’s real. Art isn’t some airy-fairy stuff. It’s real. It’s real life. And it helps us build a muscle to image a new life.

Darker Gods is on display now until Sunday, December 9 at 6300 NW 2nd Ave. It is free and open to the public from 10 a.m. - 5 p.m. daily.