Even as Damon Davis' Star Rises, His Work Most Resonates in St. Louis 

St. Louis artist Damon Davis is now earning national acclaim.

THEO WELLING

St. Louis artist Damon Davis is now earning national acclaim.

It's Monday afternoon in early June and Damon Davis is plotting. He's working in the white-walled space of the Luminary, the Cherokee Street gallery and event space where he'll premiere his multi-media art show, Darker Gods in the Garden of the Low-Hanging Heavens, in a few days. Most of the gods in question are encased in frames that have yet to be hung, and there's a question of how best to use the gallery's 4,000 square feet — no small task for a single artist in a space that usually hosts curated, multi-artist shows.

As Davis walks around the perimeter, gallery co-owner Brea McAnally tends to the telephone and a printer that seems to be working overtime. The Darker Gods material has been in process for a few years, Davis says, but since this is a multi-media show — he corralled digital images, sculpture, text and a dance performance, as well as an accompanying full-length album — he's not sure how best to tell the story.

"Now I'm just trying to figure out, thinking about how we can put the words into the space," says Davis. "Brea just had a great idea about putting a poem right there, because this wall is so big. So now I'm just thinking about what's the best way to represent what's going on here — the words, the photos."

By the Friday night opening reception, the art is hung, DJ Stan Chisholm is pulling deep soul from his record crates, and the gallery is full of well-wishers, friends and curious patrons. In keeping with the show's religious overtones, Davis himself is dressed like a cleric, in black pants and a collarless white button-down. He's gracious among fans and family, often posing for photos in front of a space that, four days ago, was a blank canvas. He and McAnally chose a quatrain from Davis' self-made mythology to fill the previously empty wall:

Tar, soot, soul
Heat pressure coal
Diamonds are her eyes
Teeth made of gold

While the verse relates to one of the gods in his pantheon, many young women at the opening are taking portraits and selfies in front of the wall. Something about the lines resonates; perhaps it is the transfiguration of something dark and earthen into a powerful, luminous being.

That idea is at the core of the Darker Gods experience and was the impetus for Davis' most comprehensive undertaking to date. The story, as presented at the Luminary, was told primarily through photographs, all of which were digitally altered in some way. A brief video of a dance troupe enacts what Davis calls a "creation story" on a continual loop in the gallery's alcove, while a room of physical media represents altars and artifacts.

The aim was to create an immersive experience, says James McAnally, who runs the Luminary with wife Brea. He noted that the scope of Davis' vision required the entirety of the gallery space — something the Luminary has only accommodated once before.

"It was clear, as soon as we started talking with Damon about this project and how expansive it was, even at that stage, which was probably a year, year-and-a-half before the show happened, we just realized very quickly that he not only wanted to work on that scale but also needed to set the tone of his own environment," says McAnally. "So it was important to give him the entire space and full resources and attention that goes with that."

The Darker Gods opening reception drew a line that stretched along the block. - BREA MCANALLY
  • BREA MCANALLY
  • The Darker Gods opening reception drew a line that stretched along the block.

Davis, 33, grew up in East St. Louis but came to the Missouri side of the river to attend Saint Louis University, which he graduated in 2007 with a degree in communication tech. He has now lived and worked in south St. Louis for the better part of a decade. His hair is a halo of tight braids, and his eyes seem permanently half-lidded through his glasses, giving an air of both benign benevolence and extra-strength bullshit detection.

Local fans who know Davis primarily as a musician won't be surprised at his sense of scale. As co-founder of the music collective FarFetched, Davis has grouped together a number of local acts that don't fit neatly inside genres — acts like electro-shoegaze trio CaveofswordS, soul preacher Rev. Sekou and Davis' own glitchy, cavernous hip-hop fantasias. Every year the label rolls out a compilation called Prologue. Along with its annual showcase and regular events, private parties and gallery takeovers, the album projects have elevated and integrated elements of the St. Louis music scene that were formerly balkanized.

And though Davis still records new music and has his hands in FarFetched's continuing mission, his work has increasingly pushed into visual mediums. His art began to reflect the struggle of fellow African Americans in St. Louis and the language of protest and activism that arose after Michael Brown's death in Ferguson in 2014. His project All Hands On Deck used the rallying cry of the Ferguson protests — "hands up, don't shoot" — as inspiration, pasting black-and-white pictures of outstretched hands over the plywood used to barricade area doors and windows broken during the ensuing chaos. One piece from that series is currently housed in the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington.

But it was Whose Streets? that solidified Davis' reputation far beyond St. Louis. Filmmaker Sabaah Folayan enlisted him as the co-director of her documentary, which focuses on the fallout from Brown's shooting at the hands of a Ferguson officer and the way the activist community was galvanized by it. The film was both widely distributed and widely praised, making many best-of lists in 2017; PBS aired it nationwide on July 30. The experience took Davis and Folayan all over the country for screenings and discussions, which left Davis in a curious space: an artist, activist and storyteller tasked with retelling one of the darkest chapters in St. Louis history.

At this point, Davis calls himself a "post-disciplinary artist." "I don't really have a primary medium — whatever works best for the story I'm trying to get across," says Davis. "Some stuff, you can get an idea across in three minutes. But some ideas you need two hours, you need a movie, and some ideas you can do in one photograph. It's more about me figuring out what I want to say and then thinking about how I want to present it to people."

The scope of Darker Gods dwarfs all of his other projects. Coming off the success of Whose Streets?, Davis had a lot of eyes on him, and rather than stick to a single mode, his show explodes in many directions. And while the show was only open at the Luminary for a month, Davis has plans to extend the world he's created. He calls the show "just the beginning" of the story.

Davis co-directed the documentary Whose Streets? not long before beginning Darker Gods. “One is entrenched in the reality of what was going on, - and one is completely negating that reality and creating a new one.” - COURTESY OF MAGNOLIA PICTURES
  • COURTESY OF MAGNOLIA PICTURES
  • Davis co-directed the documentary Whose Streets? not long before beginning Darker Gods. “One is entrenched in the reality of what was going on,and one is completely negating that reality and creating a new one.”

All myths have their origin stories, and Davis' Darker Gods is no different. Touring with Whose Streets? was exhausting, both physically and emotionally — he says he can't watch the film anymore, and the experience of talking through those events, even in front of supposedly enlightened crowds, left him feeling hollowed out.

Davis says it fell to him "to be the ambassador and go to all of these places and listen to these motherfuckers talk and let them trickle out their little prejudices of 'we stupid' or 'we country' or whatever, in places where these liberals know how to say racism a lot more politely than people here."

He continues, "I needed space because, even for all of the good things that happened to me, or in regard to the people that had seen my work and could appreciate it, a kid had to die in the street for people to even know that we existed, to know that St. Louis wasn't some place that you just fly over, or where beer and the Cardinals come from."

In thinking about his next undertaking after the experience of Whose Streets?, Davis returned to an idea he began working on a few years ago. Having spent much of the last few years telling a story of black trauma from a boots-on-the-ground point of view, he initially sought something much more mundane.

He says that, due to the nature of the film and his work in protests and activism, "people only want to talk to me about the worst shit that happens to black people."

"It's still a very safe place for black people to be under somebody's boot and to be a fucking victim and to be a joyless sort of creature," Davis says. "So for this project I wanted to really accentuate and speak to the power and the joy and less about pain all the time. Because that is not our entire lives."

Davis believes that black people's everyday lives — picking up your kids from school, falling in love, dealing with depression — get blotted out in popular culture. "Being a human being doesn't really get attributed to people of color, especially not on screen and in art," he says.

But Davis is much more of a maximalist than a minimalist, so something about scaling down the black experience didn't feel right. He'd always loved mythology, so Davis decided to take this idea to the logical extreme.

"Why don't we think about accentuating things to a super-human level?" he asked. In his telling, people of color aren't perpetual victims of violence and white supremacy, and they're not living some humdrum existence. His Darker Gods are creators, seers, prophets and guardians.

Davis' most recent musical release, LOA, spanned three albums. - VIA HEARTACHEANDPAINT.COM
  • VIA HEARTACHEANDPAINT.COM
  • Davis' most recent musical release, LOA, spanned three albums.

The larger Darker Gods project is in some ways a continuation of Davis' last musical project, a three-part release called LOA that pulled from elements of Christianity and voodoo practices. He called that project a work of Afro-Futurism — a term that, for Davis, relates to a recasting of science fiction that aims to make space for people of color. But for Darker Gods, he prefers the term "Afro-Surrealism."

The term fits, especially when viewing the twenty-odd photographs that comprise the bulk of the Darker Gods show. Davis took photos of black people of all ages — some friends but most found by word of mouth, many of them first-time models — and digitally altered the images, sometimes to the point of obfuscation and erasure. Each alteration, he says, speaks to the power of each god but, on a more human scale, speaks to the many unseen facets of black experience.

'The Transfiguration of the MegaDonna' by Damon Davis - BREA MCANALLY
  • BREA MCANALLY
  • 'The Transfiguration of the MegaDonna' by Damon Davis

As he sat with the models for each session, Davis plumbed his subjects for their stories. "What do you think people see when they see you?" he would ask. Over time, Davis' mythology began to merge with the real-life stories of his subjects.

"I built a lot of these stories around what they were telling me," Davis says.

As he walks around the Luminary during the week of his opening, Davis points out the melding of fact and fiction.

A naked woman, her head a digital blur and her midsection a transparent oval, hangs on the wall next to the venue's stage. "That model right here, with the hole in her chest, that's what she was telling me," Davis says. "The goddess I wrote about for her was just, like, the goddess of the unseen. Since they never got noticed, their strongest power was being able to see through you and see the truth in you."

He points to an image of a young man's torso, the space around his heart crudely removed. "This guy, he was telling me how he gets objectified because he's queer, and he gets objectified by other men that are usually white men," Davis says. "Let's think about what that means. I made him the god of tenderness and love."

Stan Chisholm, who makes art and music under the name 18&Counting, has been a friend and collaborator of Davis' for years. FarFetched has released his music, and Davis tapped him to DJ the opening reception. As a fellow visual artist, Chisholm was most struck by the depth of the images.

What stands out, he says, is "just the richness of personality in the portraits. They could have been paintings. They could have been more abstracted. But they weren't." He adds, "That's something that stood out to me was how important each individual seemed, because one would think you would want anonymous people or someone who wouldn't read as much as a person."

Davis' mythology for the Darker Gods content is highly developed; he says he has a book-length piece written about this pantheon. But it wouldn't resonate without its intimate connection to the personal experiences of his subjects and many of the people in his audience.

James McAnally notes that, even though Davis sought with this show to create a liminal space, its real power rests in how the art relates to the here and now.

And that has roots in Davis' experience as an activist.

"The way he framed it was this idea of conceiving a new world as something that both in protest movements and coming out of it, specifically people of color in St. Louis have been pushing for a different world, and that has started here and he wanted to premiere this work here," McAnally says a few weeks after the show's opening. "The opening and since has been an extremely diverse audience, but specifically what it's meant for a black audience has been really profound to witness, honestly."

Davis says that he sees little difference between those personas. "I think art is activism and vice versa, and I don't think they separate from each other," says Davis. "I don't understand why people do art for the sake of art — it's just empty, shallow shit if you're not saying nothing with it. I don't see the point of it."

As he talks, though, he butts up against the limitations of the term. "Maybe activism is the wrong word," he says. "The word 'activism' means that you got a choice about things. It's like a job and a choice, and when it comes to talking about human rights of people that look like me, I don't really have a choice 'cause I'd get shot."

Arguably, it is Davis' role as activist and documentarian that has attracted local and national attention to his work. McAnally notes that the opening reception had more energy than a normally staid, sip-and-stare gallery opening.

"It was strange to see people coming and looking for his autograph, and just to say 'thank you,'" McAnally says. "I mean, people brought Whose Streets? posters to the opening. Before we opened the show — this was a first — there were probably 40 people in line, like at a concert. And that does not happen at exhibitions and museum spaces. Nowhere, really, do you get that, in St. Louis."

For McAnally, Davis' position as a St. Louis artist telling, in part, St. Louis stories makes him a vital figure in the local arts community, especially as his star continues to rise on a national level.

"He's certainly arrived at a place that is rare for any artist, just in the sense that he's been a TED fellow and a MacArthur fellow and, like, Whose Streets? was definitely getting Oscar buzz," says McAnally. "You take for granted that this person you've interacted with for a long time is getting flown to speak at MIT and Harvard and his art is in the collection of the Smithsonian Museum of African American History. Those things are really profound accomplishments for anyone."

click to enlarge Art from Darker Gods in the Garden of the Low-Hanging Heavens. - BREA MCANALLY
  • BREA MCANALLY
  • Art from Darker Gods in the Garden of the Low-Hanging Heavens.

Since much of his recent work has centered on perceptions of blackness, Davis considers if any of his art — music, photography, film — will be inextricably linked to his race.

"If I'm just being myself, that shit is gonna come out anyway because of the way I was raised and the culture I was raised in, how I view myself and how others view me," Davis says.

But, in an echo of what Darker Gods ultimately aims for, Davis says he's much more interested in talking about elements of the human experience. "I do think that I'm talking about love and anger and those things are universal things. Just 'cause there's a black face in front of it that doesn't necessarily mean that it's a statement about blackness: it's a statement about humanity."

"I'm one person; black people are not a monolith," Davis continues. "I've got a very unique upbringing and situation, and we're always charged to be a speaking body for, what, 12 million people I ain't never met? There's no way for that. But I can tell you my little piece of what I'm thinking about."

For now, at least, Davis is more comfortable telling stories and creating alternate universes. He does so, he says, in hopes of "creating the world that I want to be instead of showing the world the way it is."

"I think fiction is where I wanna be," he continues. "I can still get the same messages across. I can talk about the same political stuff, the same human nature shit."

"The funny thing is, people will believe the lies before they believe the truth. They'll believe that shit before they believe a goddamn documentary."

Davis felt "bolstered" by the support at his opening reception, says James McAnally. - THEO WELLING
  • THEO WELLING
  • Davis felt "bolstered" by the support at his opening reception, says James McAnally.

At his opening reception, Davis ascends the stage and takes the microphone for a few brief words of gratitude. After he thanks everyone for coming and the staff at the Luminary for making it all happen, he addresses one segment of the crowd in particular.

"I hope the black folks in the room see themselves," Davis says, "and I hope they see God."

Those words were powerful for McAnally, who notes that Davis felt "bolstered" by the support in the room. "He made a very intentional decision to show this work in St. Louis. He's at a point in his career where he could have premiered this in New York or LA or San Francisco or wherever, and for him, it was really important that it happened here," says McAnally.

For Chisholm, the simple sense of representation stood out to him in Davis' words. "I took it as I hope you see your presence in the room. Often it feels dis-balanced when you're a black artist making music. Sometimes you are the minority in the room. That doesn't always come up as an important mention, but to have that put out front as 'I hope you see yourself here,' there was just something about that that felt good. And it usually doesn't. It's usually awkward."

For Davis, much of the show sprung from the idea of "creating your own acknowledgement, creating your own ideas about things and creating your own universe for safety and comfort, because you're not allowed to have that usually," he says. "And if you're waiting on people that have historically taken that away from you to give you that, you're gonna be waiting forever."

"When we can get past that, it's gonna be a glorious day," he continues. "The stuff I'm making now won't be necessary anymore. We won't have to say, 'Black people don't get to be human beings, so I'm making them into gods.'"

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