Get To Know Damien Davis

April 18, 2023

Damien Davis is a Brooklyn-based artist. His practice explores historical representations of blackness by seeking to unpack the visual language of various cultures and question how these societies code and decode representations of race through design and digital modes of production. Working primarily in laser-cut acrylic, Damien draws on his vast store of Black iconography to configure three-dimensional kinetic collages that invite viewer participation. One of the standout features of Davis’ work is his use of vibrant colors and intricate patterns. His bold and dynamic compositions demand attention, drawing viewers into a world where past, present, and future collide. Through his artwork, Davis challenges traditional narratives and perceptions of Blackness, shedding light on the rich and diverse heritage of African and African American cultures. Davis has garnered widespread acclaim from art critics and audiences alike. His unique blend of Afrofuturism, bold aesthetics, and thought-provoking themes has resonated with viewers, sparking important conversations about race, culture, and identity. Many have praised Davis for his bold and innovative approach to art, pushing the boundaries of what is possible and redefining the contemporary art world.

AFROPUNK had a sit down with Damien to talk about his work, inspiration and how he sees the art world.

What would you change if you could reshape the curriculum and learnings for art education? How would you change it?

I actually got my masters in visual arts administration, which teaches you about writing for grants, fundraising, advocacy, and marketing, (all the things that traditional art school doesn’t teach young students) which are the things that kids really need to know in order to make a career out of the work they are producing. I hope to see that change as dramatically as possible. As the access to information around art histories (I use the plural since we know there are multiple lenses through which we can create, consume, and appreciate art) is becoming easier to obtain, we
need to think about what kinds of knowledge we’re imparting to students. Are we just parroting the things that we’ve learned in the past, or are we trying to recontextualize those things? Are we trying to force-feed an art historical canon that may not be relevant for a lot of these kids, or are we trying to take a holistic approach to how existing as a creative person can (and maybe should) look like in 2023? I try to sneak as much of this information in as possible when I teach, but the opportunities to learn professional development skills (writing budgets, submitting proposals, etc.) are still lacking in most curriculums.

How have society and your experiences influenced your work?

My parents both started off their educations in segregated schools. They actually met each other in the first grade. They were also the first in their small town to integrate the local high school. My mother subsequently went on to go to a historically Black college (Grambling.) My parent’s experiences in education have largely shaped the way that I structure my artistic practice. I think about what it means to be systemically denied access to your own history, to be forced to learn history that may not be relevant to you or to be forced to learn in uncomfortable situations and settings. Having to fight just to hear or share your own history… that mentality was instilled in me at a very young age. This idea that Black history (and later queer history) is not a thing that’s given, but rather a thing that I have to fight for or go out and take has always been the norm. This sense of duty I have in disseminating and sharing information with folks I hope can get something useful out of it is not a thing every artist deems important. Not everyone sees education and learning, or understanding communication as a central component of their practice, and that’s okay. For me, it is the most important thing, and I can’t really think about making work that doesn’t involve teaching/educating/informing in some way, shape, or form.

Your recent work highlights topics such as queerness and hook-up culture. How would your work change if you had covered those same topics 10 years ago? How would it change if you covered in 10 years?

I have difficulty speculating about what my work (or my interpretation of these particular subject matters) would look like 10 years ago, or even 10 years in the future. For me, it’s really about trying to be hyper-present in the now. This is the thing that bell hooks talks about right? This idea is that popular culture is where we can find the real pedagogy. Somehow I believe that hyper-presence is maybe the most futuristic way to live a life, since it forces us to grapple with and shape the now versus contending with a thing we may only experience ancestrally, or speculate on a future we will only get to experience through our descendants. To get to a place where I’m making work about these types of topics (sex, lust, access, feeling out of control, etc.) is something that I’ve had to intentionally work towards. This show feels like a breakthrough in a lot of ways. It’s hard not to think about all the ways in which the work I wanted to make when I was younger was deemed sort of “naughty” in the past. For contexts, we’re talking early 2000s. There was sort of a “sobering up” from the culture wars of the 90s, and there was this desire to move away from what some considered an overly didactic way of making art or talking about identity toward more formal concerns. Abstraction, embracing a more “slackerly” aesthetic, and the beginnings of zombie formalism, were more en vogue at the time. It’s taken a while for the world to sort of understand or appreciate what it is I’m trying to do with the work, and I think it’s important that artists understand the importance of making work that feels true to them outside of time and space. Worry about the world catching up to you, not the other way around.

What was your path to creating your latest exhibit at Project for Empty Space?

The show was actually born out of a personal experience of mine, being hospitalized in the summer of 2020. I am typically a very private person, one who very often has difficulty asking for help. A close friend who knew that I was ill decided to send a doctor to my apartment in an attempt to get me to go to the hospital. While speaking to the doctor at my front door, on numerous occasions he would gesture toward me in an attempt to gain entry into my apartment. I later ended up having a conversation with my friend about how triggering that experience was, and the anxiety I experienced around a white person attempting to come into my personal space without my consent or permission. Keep in mind this was the summer of 2020, when the anxiety around Covid was at its highest and people were marching in the streets in protest of the George Floyd and Breonna Taylor murders. We were all experiencing a deep collective sense of loneliness at the same time, and I knew that these conflicting emotions I was dealing with (the anxiety of someone coming into your space without permission, but also desperately seeking to feel a sense of
connection by inviting someone into my space) was something that I wanted to make work about. It was during this time that I developed another online project called Checking In, which involved me pulling together information, artwork, and research from many people I admired and sharing that with the larger public. Most people didn’t know that I did the majority of this work from my ICU bed. In this sad way, I knew that asking others about themselves was the most effective way to maintain my own privacy. This idea of building community is somehow at the
forefront of my practice but also feels like the most elusive thing to me in so many ways. That deep desire to feel connected to another person, while also doing my damnedest to push people away at every turn is something I’ve struggled with for a very long time. Using the time afforded to me by Project for Empty Space was a godsend because it gave me an opportunity to really slow down and work through these ideas in the form of an exhibition that didn’t feel commercially accessible or viable.

Describe your process, where do you source your materials? Where did you get the idea to work with these materials?

The materials come from all over the world, depending on the specifics of what I need. Some I can only get from China, some from the UK, and the rest from Canal street in New York City. I’m drawn to the acrylic sheets for their immediacy, as well as the flexibility it offers in terms of construction. My goal is to always have the works situate themselves somewhere in the “in-between” space. Is it a painting because it’s acrylic on a substrate? Is it a sculpture because it has a dimensionality to it? Is it a collage or assemblage because they are made up of disparate elements? I enjoy having the works potentially be all these things at the same time. All the works start off as a digital vector file. There’s something about imagining how the layers, colors and hardware will ultimately connect without creating any mockettes or demos of the thing. There’s maybe an unnecessary amount of risk, but the feeling I get after laser-cutting the materials, putting it all together and having the plan play out exactly the way I wanted is an incredible feeling. Don’t get me wrong though! I can’t count the number of times I forgot to plot a hole or something went wrong with the machines I am operating and had to go back to the drawing board.

How has your experience been working with Project for Empty Space?

It’s been a dream to have this time and space with them to create the work. A lot of arts organizations treat the art and the artists as window dressing, or as a thing that doesn’t require care, consideration, and deep thought. Rebecca (Jampol) and Jasmine (Wahi) have been a dream to work with. I only wish every artist had an opportunity to experience a residency like this one.