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Our video series In Celebration of Black Contemporary Artists returns with a conversation between Duneska Michel and Dana Davenport, a Korean and Black American interdisciplinary artist who tackles the complexities of interminority racism as a foundation for envisioning her own and the collective futurity of Black and Asian peoples. Below, Dana discusses Blue: A History of the Color as Deep as the Sea and as Wide as the Sky by Nana Ekua Brew-Hammond and reflects on how the children’s book changed her way of thinking about the ubiquitous color.
Duneska Michel: Hi everyone! My name is Duneska Michel and I’m the School and Community Relations Specialist here at Children’s Museum of the Arts. I’m honored to bring in the third iteration of In Celebration of Black Contemporary Artists today. I am inviting Dana Davenport, who, through her use of installation, sculpture, video, and performance, addresses the complexities that surround interminority racism as a foundation for envisioning her own, and the collective future, of Black and Asian peoples. So thank you, Dana, for joining me today.
Dana Davenport: Yes, absolutely. Thank you for that lovely introduction. Hello, hello!
DM: Yes, so I wanted to start off with the usual, which is a book, a children’s book, that you would like to recommend that’s either written or illustrated by a black artist. I would love to see what you brought.
DD: Absolutely. So my book recommendation is Blue: A History of the Color as Deep as the Sea and as Wide as the Sky written by Nana Brew-Hammond, who is a American Ghanaian writer, and illustrated by Daniel Minter, an African American artist and educator. It was published quite recently in February of this year, and as the title suggests, it’s all about the color blue. It’s a really, really beautifully illustrated book. It talks about the history of blue and it makes it complex in a really beautiful way. The book starts off with human’s first efforts to obtain the color blue, and so thinking about lapis lazuli, which was found in modern day Afghanistan and later was found in Egyptian cosmetics and paints. Also, I just learned so many really, really amazing things about the color blue through this book. Folks used to extract the color blue from snail shells and feet. I was like, okay! So that was something very new that I learned. And then what we are most familiar with is indigo. So it talked about the farming of indigo and how that kind of made access to blue dye global. And it talks, honestly, about some of the dark sides of that, like how that was farmed, who was farming that. And so it taps into slavery, folks that were sustaining that industry. It also talks about how we associate the color blue as an emotion, so like “I’m feeling blue,” where that came from. It’s just a really, really exciting book. It’s really, again, just beautifully, beautifully illustrated. I was drawn to the book because of the cover, honestly. I know they say don’t judge a book by its color — oops, by its cover! — but it’s absolutely beautiful. And also, one of the newest sculptural pieces that I created is blue.
DM: I was just about to ask you if that at all changed your perspective around that piece or if you had already been thinking about the color blue when you were making that piece.
DD: I wasn’t! When I was first making that piece, I was not thinking about the intricacies of the color blue because I would just go to the beauty supply, pick up the different packets of hair that I can find, and blue was what they had in stock that day. I just kind of went with it. But this kind of brought some new meanings and weight to the color itself.
DM: Absolutely. The piece that you have that is primarily blue and white. Is this up at your current show at Swivel Gallery?
DM: Want to tell us a little bit about the show and how it’s been working with Jazmine and Kiara?
DD: Absolutely. Let me start by saying that I’m someone that has a very short attention span, and so I really love interactive exhibitions, I really love completely transforming a space, and that’s exactly what Jazmine and I wanted to do — really transform it from this unconventional still, the gallery is quite unconventional in the shaping of it, but we wanted to push that even further. So like completely removing the white walls. The walls are pink. The floor is a deep red carpet. There’s a chair where you can actually sit. There’s a meditation room in the back with TV monitors on the floor, with a new piece of mine called Beauty Supply ASMR, and so viewers are invited to sit on the floor and just kind of interact with things a bit differently than we do in a traditional institutional setting.
DM: Absolutely. And just thinking about the programs that you also have in the gallery right now, I believe I saw that there’s a meditation program coming up soon. It’s really interesting to see a gallery space which can often be very rigid, be transformed in this sort of soft, welcoming environment. Kudos to you!
DD: Thank you!
DM: When does that show close?
DD: It closes on April 23, so next Saturday. This Saturday, the 16th, is the final meditation that Jazmine is hosting, so I recommend that people go. I’ll be there. And then on Sunday, the 17th, we’re serving free waffles. Both events are children friendly. Then on Wednesday the 20th, we’ll be having a dinner discussion around care and relaxation. So we’ll all convene for a walkthrough through the space and we’ll share a communal dinner.
DM: Amazing. And Swivel Gallery is located in Bed-Stuy, for folks that are already in the community. This is such a wonderful opportunity to engage with art right in your area, so I really hope that you get a lot of kids in there too. I think that would be wonderful. So, speaking of kids, what’s your first memory, or most impactful memory, as a child engaging with art?
DD: Okay. I have some kind of silly ones.
DM: Let’s hear it!
DD: The first time I really felt myself kind of zone in and get that really freeing feeling from creating, it was very silly, but I used to mix up a bunch of different stuff, like orange juice, soda, glitter. I would put them into little jars and I would gift them to my family for Christmas.
DM: I love that. That is so cute.
DD: I used to say that I wanted to be a chemist, not knowing anything about that, but I was like, “I like to mix things.”
DD: And there was one year where my sister was like, look, I’m tired of getting this junk from Dana when I’m actually buying her Christmas gifts and she’s just giving me orange juice in a bottle. So, that kinda came to an end. But that was the first time I really felt kind of meditative in, I don’t know if I would call that art at the time, but like just in a kind of creative process. And then another memory, fast forward a bunch of years, I’m in high school, I was taking a yearbook class. Honestly, I took it ’cause I thought it was gonna be an easy A, and because I really wanted to be able to use those fancy DSLR cameras.
DM: I love it.
DD: Yep, so I would check them out and I would say “I’m gonna go shoot stuff around the school, like for the yearbook.” I’d just be hanging out with my friends getting pictures for Myspace. Honestly, that’s what really sparked my interest in photography, which is what I came to New York to study. And in that time doing yearbook class, I was also doing, one of my elective classes was junior ROTC, the military class.
DM: Oh my gosh. That is so interesting. And how was that?
DD: Very different. Right, very rigid. But I was in that class and I had thought that I would maybe try to get an ROTC scholarship to a university, go to school for free, do my, what, six years I think active duty and then go off and do something else. That was kinda my rough plan, but I started to take AP Studio Art and I was like, “Mm. I don’t know. I think I wanna do this art thing. Let me just see.” So that was a really pivotal time, I think, just in me choosing art over something that felt safer or kind of taking that risk and really investing in myself as an artist. Again, I was very young, right? I don’t think I would describe it like this, had I gone back to that time exactly, but in this time, I think that was the first time that I had really been like, I want to invest in myself and my interests, and I think I have something to say.
DM: Absolutely. And it’s interesting for me hearing all of these different aspects of your childhood, teenage years, just because I feel like in some way they’ve impacted your practice. Knowing you as a person, I feel like you’re very disciplined with your art practice and that might have stemmed from your ROTC experience. But then thinking about you mentioning the jars and exploring different materials that didn’t feel traditionally like art materials, just feels so relevant to your work now and the way that you use these materials that aren’t what we deem normal, right? They’re unique. And they’re unique to you and they’re unique to your story and your narrative. I would love to hear more about how you got to the point that you are now in your practice, and what drove you to explore these materials now.
DD: I started off studying photography at School of Visual Arts and somehow in that, I think our photography, at least my year, was pretty experimental. We were experimenting with different materials, video, performance, video performance. So that’s kind of what drew me sort of out of photography to explore the things. I started to create videos. Well, first I’d say I started to create self-portraits, and then I started to do video performances, and then after leaving SVA, I started to do full on performance. And to be quite honest, what drove me from performance to sculpture was a desire to have these same conversations, but not use my physical body to have these conversations around interminority racism. I think at some point it just started to weigh on me. And so I was like, okay, let me find a material that can kind of serve as a proxy for my body. And so that’s how I landed on synthetic hair, and that’s why I talk so much about the beauty supply itself. More than 70% of all beauty supply stores in the U.S. are owned by Koreans, which was a big surprise to me. I grew up in South Korea and then I came to the States and I go into a beauty supply store and I’m like, wait, why? Koreans didn’t know how to do my hair in Korea?
DD: Why are Koreans the expert right now, recommending this hair gel to me? I just couldn’t understand it. And I just became really interested in the beauty supply as a site for a lot of conflict, but also trying to reimagine it as a space where we can have some of this critical dialogue and envision a future kind of beyond what we’ve been served, or what’s kind of been given to us.
DM: Absolutely. And I know that you’re creating a scholarship fund through Dana’s Beauty Supply. What drove you to do that, and where are you with that now?
DD: Yes, absolutely. So, as part of my artist residency at Recess last year, honestly it was a lot of ideas. A lot of the work that I’ve done the past several years all kind of came to this home that I’d made through an installation called Dana’s Beauty Supply. And it was basically what I just described as my vision for the beauty supply industry. I created an experimental beauty supply store that fully functioned as one, so you could shop there. But there are also these little trinkets hidden throughout the shelving that asked some questions around the relationship between the products that you’re seeing, the environment that you’re in, and then these artworks that are critiquing Black and Asian relationships. And so as an extension of that, we’ve decided to create a scholarship for Black folks that are pursuing an education in cosmetology. And this kind of came about because we’re like, how can we support the future of Black beauty and just ensure that Black people are a part of it? How do we write ourselves into that narrative? And so we’re like, let’s create a scholarship!
DM: Absolutely. And is this available for folks of all ages that are going into cosmetology? Because I know that cosmetology school is really not contingent upon age, you can go as young as 18. So is this open?
DD: Yes, it is opened to folks that are currently enrolled and folks that are enrolled for later in that year. All ages are welcome. It’s launching this summer, so stay tuned. We’ve been working real, real hard for it. But we’re super, super excited. We’re taking our time just to ensure that it is everything that we want and need it to be. But it’s coming soon!
DM: Absolutely. So exciting! And just thinking about your practice too, especially that you’re releasing the scholarship fund and you’re having more and more shows. I feel like they were back to back, Dana’s Beauty Supply and now at Swivel Gallery. When you consider your work and how you’re going to display it and how you’re going to communicate your message, do you ever think about how it can be accessible to families and children and how they can receive it?
DD: Absolutely. So something that’s been really exciting about both the show at Swivel and Dana’s Beauty Supply is for kids out there that are like me, that have short attention spans, there’s a lot to interact with immediately. Whether you care very deeply about the art or not, there’s something alluring about it. So, the store, I just think about how exciting it is to walk through the store and grab things, pick them up, look at them. There’s also, in Dana’s Beauty Supply, there was a relaxation space in the back for folks to just chill out, digest, look at themselves in the mirror. And so I felt like it was a space that was really welcoming to families and children, just as the reality is that a lot of kids go along with their parents to the beauty supply. And so I was really happy to kind of create that type of a space. And then at Swivel Gallery as well, it’s just visually really alluring, I think. You walk in, it looks like your grandmother’s house, honestly. The floor is a red carpet. There are family photos dispersed throughout the walls. There’s that meditation space in the back. I think I found that kids really enjoy that ASMR video that I’d created. It’s basically folks with beauty products and making it really soothing. So like combs rubbing against each other, tapping on containers. And I found that kids are finding that to be really soothing, visually, and just in listening to it.
DM: Yeah, of course. I also want to say that the ASMR video, for me, was really special, especially when I think about how stressful hair can be. It can be relaxing, but it can also feel very anxiety inducing. Especially when you’re Black and you’re often being told to manage your hair, make it look a different way than how it naturally looks. So just thinking about exploring these hair products and exploring these tools that can manipulate your hair in this very peaceful way, how that can be a sort of meditative way of coping with that stress and anxiety. So I really appreciated that video specifically and all of your work, really. I think it would be really impactful to ask and leave the conversation with: what advice would you give young artists who wish to pursue an art practice or career in the arts?
DD: Ooh. That’s a loaded question!
DD: Yeah. Absolutely.
DD: I can share with you something that I really struggle with that I wish I had started working towards much earlier in my life. One would be to not be afraid of failure and to just get comfortable with it, you know? I think the more comfortable we are with failure, the more risks that we take, and I think that art-making is about taking risks, and our fear of failure really holds us back. So I’m trying to lean into it. I’m trying to lean into failing, but it’s tough, very tough. I’m a Capricorn too, so I don’t like to fail. But I’m practicing. And I think that it’s making me a stronger artist and it’s building my confidence, which you wouldn’t necessarily expect when you think of failure, but it’s kind of repositioning the way that we look at failure.
DM: Right. Absolutely. Thank you so much, Dana, for taking this time to chat with me. And I’m so excited for the Dana’s Beauty Supply Scholarship to be released. Yes, and make sure that you go out and see Dana’s work in person at Swivel Gallery!
DD: Thank you so much!