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

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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
  • 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
  • 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
  • '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."

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