Activism and art are frequently complimentary forces, but a new exhibit at Miami’s Art Basel brings the two together in a visionary new way. Artist Damon Davis is using sound, photography, film, illustration and written word to reframe and deify blackness—specifically, the ways in which the media represents and fetishizes blackness and black pain—in his Art Basel debut, Darker Gods in The Garden of The Low Hanging Heavens.
“I think that the media in general value the pain of black people and the culture of black people over black people themselves,” Davis told The Root. “My work is about myths because myths help shape the way we see ourselves and others. The media creates myths and perpetuates them. The media should be careful with what myths they push, especially if they are speaking about and for black people.”
Using his own modern myths and fables to magnify and manipulate the ways in which blackness is generally portrayed, Davis takes an Afro-surrealist approach to our narrative, imagining “a world where Gods of color reclaim their identity through the supernatural,” according to a press release.
What’s more? He’s partnering with Black Lives Matter to further challenge perceptions and disrupt the aesthetically driven atmosphere of Art Basel, hopefully inspiring a deeper conversation about the profound power and potential dangers in how blackness is represented in art.
Fellow artist Patrisse Cullors-Brignac, co-founder of Black Lives Matter, will be joining Davis for an artists’ chat on Friday, Dec. 7, along with Philip Agnew, artist and co-founder of Dream Defenders. Speaking with The Root, Cullors-Brignac spoke about Davis, whom she met in Ferguson, Mo., and the network of cultural workers bound by their movement, including original BLM member Damon Turner, Sharaz Gorman, Tanya Bernard, Darryl King and Funmilola Fagbamila.
“I’m an artist, so I was naturally attracted to the work Damon was doing,” she told us. “Damon Davis’ work is actually a response to a response. He is letting go of being reactive to black death and black pain and actually developing a new mythology about blackness. He says this very well. He talks about the mythologies that already exist … about the drug dealer, the single mom … he’s trying to create new mythologies that look at us as our whole selves. In fact, he’s really inspired by the Yoruba gods: Obatala, Shango, Yemoja. All of these gods, which were at one point humans, who turned into deities. And if they were human once, that means they had human flaws. So that is the second part of this. It is a larger conversation around black people being whole (and, of course, we are), that this project challenges us to remember.”
Black media isn’t immune to Davis’ critique.
“I think that it’s easy to separate our culture and our pain for the sake of commodifying it,” he told us. “But I think black media should have more self-awareness about the community they say they serve. “
And while the concept of envisioning and elevating ourselves into deities may not be new—whether in our art, our indigenous religions or our greetings to each other—what distinguishes Darker Gods from other interpretations is Davis’ own commitment to and participation in the movement for black lives.
“I think what’s most important about this interpretation of black people as gods is that Damon Davis is the artist behind it,” Cullors-Brignac said. “Damon is deeply rooted inside of our movement. He’s also deeply rooted inside of the hood. He’s also deeply rooted inside of our community. He, himself, takes up space in all of these different spaces and so his lens is critical because he’s not interested in performing for the white gaze. He’s not creating black gods in contrast to white ones. He’s creating black gods because he deeply believes that’s what we are.”
And while his work may be classified Afro-surrealist, Davis reminds us that it’s not all that different from our current realities.
“I feel black people’s lives are surreal by nature, at least in America,” he said. “A life where you are simultaneously feared, hated, fetishized, and ignored at the same time. Our everyday lives are surreal, so Afro-surrealism is a great vehicle to imagine a better world for us. I think imagination will be what will save the human race from destruction.”
Darker Gods debuts as part of “Our Basel” by Smoke Signals Studio in Miami, Fl., with an opening reception on Thursday, December 6 with music by Coco & Breezy. The gallery is free and open to the public, and the exhibit will be on display Wednesday, Dec. 5 - Sunday, Dec. 9 at 6300 NW 2nd Ave from 10 a.m. - 5 p.m. daily.