Sophia Kayafas sits down with Damien Davis to talk about Blackness, language, lexicons and lasers. In Greenpoint’s McGolrick Park, they discuss gentrification, how artists can control their own narrative and understanding the business side of art.
- I've heard Greenpoint being called the new Williamsburg.
It has this very laid back atmosphere,
this dreamy waterfront, trendy bars,
and it even has a lively art scene.
But Greenpoint is uniquely Polish,
and not every neighborhood has that clear identity.
It's got me wondering,
what do things like identity and community
mean to the artists who actually live here?
One of the things that I notice in your work,
other than it being so colorful and inviting, engaging,
there's a mystery there to it.
As a viewer, it's trying to figure out
what are these things.
- I'm interested in this idea of language
and sort of embracing the messiness of it
or the convolutedness of it,
and that's largely accomplished through this
loosely fixed lexicon of shapes
that I've been developing for myself.
All of the sort of identifiable shapes are really rooted
in this ongoing project I have
that's about sort of like deciphering or decoding
all the ways in which Blackness or black identity
is coded in popular culture or in visual culture.
One of the earliest shapes was this
sort of Blackmoors face.
It's this tradition of decorative objects
really prevalent throughout Italy and southern Europe
that use the black body as an aesthetic trope.
The way I always try to explain it to people is,
do you ever have that one aunt or a family member
that's really into tigers,
so she wears all types of tiger stuff all the time?
There are parts of the world
that use the black body in the same way,
where it's just about an aesthetic.
There's different conversations
about whether it's an admiration or it's about subjugation,
and that interplay is something that interests me.
But then at the same time, it's wrapped up
in all these other historical instances
of depictions of the black body or Blackness
being used in a derogatory way,
so you think about the mammy or Sambo, blackface,
all types of darky iconography,
all of that becomes part of the soup for me.
So thinking about who's creating these symbols,
why they're creating these symbols,
what kind of power or control is obtained
through the use of them, and then trying to figure out ways
to subvert that or complicate that,
or get people to think twice about what that is.
- This is beautiful. - Yeah.
- [Sophia] So clean.
- This came out really clean,
and then it cools down and then you just fish it out.
- [Sophia] Is it too hot to touch it right there?
- No. - [Sophia] Oh, wow.
- There we go, one tiny little church fan for you.
- Church fan, oh my God.
What is this?
- It's all just acrylic sheets,
so some are thicker than others.
Some are mirrored acrylic,
so there'll be a mirror film on the back.
So for example, yeah.
The thing with the mirror, because of the film,
and we're using lasers,
lasers tend to bounce off of mirrors,
so those always have to be face down so it'll cut through.
Otherwise, I don't actually want to know what happens
if the mirror is facing up, but I would guess that it's bad.
There's a lot of potential for things to go wrong,
so there's kind of a lot of focus
that's involved on the early end.
The back end is a little bit more relaxing
'cause it's just assembly.
- [Sophia] You said you had to plan it out.
- [Damien] There's a lot of planning involved.
I was totally a Lego kid growing up.
- [Sophia] I saw some of those Legos in the jar.
I said that looks like it's related.
- [Damien] I like the idea
that there's a sense of play involved,
or maybe even some kind of whimsy, I don't know.
- [Sophia] But even the material itself
is like this kind of colored plastic.
- [Damien] Oh yeah, definitely.
I'm really into those types of materials
'cause they have such a tactile quality to it.
It's a material that's very seductive
and you like to touch,
so people are just sort of drawn to it.
- In a lot of ways, you've created your own symbolism,
your own symbols for what these things mean.
You have your own iconography, in a way.
When I see bones, which is, this is a bone,
it really strikes a somber,
kind of sobering reminder of death.
- Yeah, same.
It's like money.
Emotional currency, sexual currency, people as currency,
and the teeth for me were really about this idea
of slaves on the auction block
and having their teeth checked
and the quality of their teeth
being a marker of their value or their worth.
- You know, knowing that
and kind of having to grapple with that,
especially as a white person,
I think about that in detail.
How does that change the way you think
about your own humanity and other people's humanity?
It's really powerful, and it's just a little tooth.
- It's just a little thing.
I'm interested in having these conversations
about racism and race relations and gender identity
and sexuality and all this stuff.
Things that, for a lot of people,
especially people that are very comfortable
navigating galleries and museums,
people that go to them all the time,
might not feel comfortable having a conversation about.
The people that are really comfortable
going to galleries and museums but aren't comfortable at all
talking about racism and gender identity and stuff,
and then there's my community,
the community that I identify with,
that are black and brown and maybe poor or queer, whatever.
They're used to having to navigate those issues all the time
in every interpersonal relationship they have,
but also a large percentage of those people
don't feel comfortable going to a gallery or a museum space
or those spaces actively trying to make those people
- It makes me kind of inspired in a lot of ways
just by you.
You make your work into a bridge.
- I hope so.
I mean, I think that that's the goal.
You ever been to this park before?
- [Sophia] No, do you walk through here often?
- [Damien] Usually I'm cutting through there
to get my Chinese food.
The first few years I was kind of scared to sit out here,
to be perfectly honest.
I wasn't seeing any other people of color in any capacity
being out and about.
It's very different now.
Greenpoint feels like what Williamsburg did 10 years ago.
It's ironic in all these ways,
because the neighborhood was almost exclusively Polish
when I first moved in.
- [Sophia] Yeah, that's what I knew before.
- It's kind of weird and kooky and funny
for this gay black man to be coming into the neighborhood
and that to be the marker of gentrification.
Usually I'm the type of person
that's getting pushed out of the neighborhood.
I don't relish in it, but at the same time,
it's kind of crazy to think about the ways in which
neighborhoods in New York have been so insular
in all these ways in terms of identity
and culture and stuff,
and that's the thing I'm constantly struggling with,
is how do you embrace and appreciate the culture
of a given community responsibly?
Is you just renting an apartment
like violence in some kind of way?
It's hard to think about
and it's hard to wrap your mind around.
- [Sophia] Do you feel like you take on any Polish anything,
just being in close proximity?
Do you eat the food?
Do you go to the Polish shops?
- [Damien] Yeah, I've probably got more of an affinity
for the food than I did when I first got here.
It's a lot of meat and potatoes.
But yeah, Polish beer.
- [Sophia] Tell me about your administrative schooling
that you did.
- I did the regular art school thing for undergrad
and I got really disillusioned
with the idea of being an artist.
It kind of took a lot of my joy away in all these ways.
I left that situation thinking that there was no space
for someone like me in the art world.
I basically gave up and was like, well,
I still want to work in the arts,
so let me get this arts administration degree.
So I got the masters in grant writing, fundraising,
advocacy, marketing, all these things that art school
doesn't traditionally teach artists how to do,
but artists need to know how to do
in order to be successful.
- 'Cause it's how the artist relates to the public
in a public way.
- Well, it's everything.
It's like how the artists relates to the public,
how the actual artwork relates to the public.
You know, the thing that I talk about all the time,
it's like you have to be in control enough
over the administrative aspects of your studio practice
in order for the work, the artwork,
to really communicate what your core values are
as an artist.
I can write my own newsletters.
I can apply for grant applications.
I can apply for residencies.
I can do all these things that typically
felt really complicated and scary
before going to grad school that now felt super easy
and just do it, and I can have control
over the narrative of my work and not worry about
what kind of spin someone else is going to put on it.
It's tough, because so many people are super invested
in maintaining that control.
Curators, gallerists, dealers.
They want to be able to control the narrative
around your work, and that's been the thing
that that program helped me understand.
It's like, I now have these tools to validate myself.
I'm looking 'cause I'm seeing dust.
- How close is this to being complete?
- I think it's done.
Basically it's ready to hang.
I've got a little cleat on the wall over there,
so you could throw it on the wall.
- Let's do it.
I like that it's kind of asymmetrical, too.
- Oh, that's probably just because I'm a loser.
- No, mean the piece itself, actually.
- There we go.
I want to give you something.
- [Sophia] Damian. - [Damian] Here you go.
- [Sophia] You're going to make me cry.
- [Damian] Just take it, I want you to have it.
- [Sophia] Okay.
- [Damian] I like the idea that most of the work
is super reflective, so it forces you to sort of,
it's superimposing you into the work
so you have to sort of acknowledge your relationship
to the work as you're looking at it, I think.
- [Sophia] I felt Damien's grace and wisdom
reflected in his work.
He's searching and fighting for a better world,
a world where we can all look in the mirror
and question ourselves, and that takes courage.
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