On the High Wall: C. Davida IngramWhen I Rub the Dead Skin of the Thing against Me I find I am Soft, Brown, and Human
November 30 – December 3, 2017
C. Davida Ingram is an award-winning artist who is passionate about beauty and social justice. Her primary muses are race, gender and social relationships. Ingram’s impulse is to imagine tactics to get free–not further prescribing Otherness. With this in mind, she uses unorthodox mediums–Craigs List ads, hypnosis, drones, cell phone videos among other things to reshape what is possible in her own identification with being a black queer woman. Her art has been shown at the Frye Art Museum, Northwest African American Museum, Evergreen College, Bridge Productions, Intiman Theater, Town Hall and more. Her writings have been included in Arcade, Ms blog, James Franco Review and The Stranger. Ingram received the 2014 Stranger Genius Award in Visual Arts. She is a 2016 Neddy art award finalist. She is a current Kennedy Center Citizen Artist fellow and was recently voted one of the 20 most talented people in Seattle by Seattle Magazine.
C. Davida Ingram, Britta Johnson, and DK Pan discuss When I Rub the Dead Skin of the Thing against Me I Find I am Soft, Brown and Human
B: Hi Davida, thanks so much for sharing this work with us. Was there an initiating event or thought process that led you to making this work?
DI: I think the thought process behind making the work was a couple different things. In my practice I have been making social inquiries with marginalized communities, and often times my work is done with people who on a regular basis do cultural work – people who are teaching artists, people who are educators, people who are community organizers. I care about celebrating the public service that they provide by thinking about the connective tissues that keep society from falling apart. Most often in my art my intention is wanting to tell their lives in a medium that doesn’t flatten what they do, but actually helps it be seen in a more expansive light.
A separate part of my work is how the social conditions that I live in affect me as a person, an actual person since the chief tenant of white supremacy is that people of color are objects not subjects and incapable of feeling. As a human I am preoccupied with what it means to both think and feel in a dehumanizing landscape without always giving the precept the predominance it prefers.
The model that’s in this particular art piece is an engineer named Jane, and when I first met her, one of the things I noticed about her was that she had this really quietly powerful presence. Her beauty also aesthetically involves really pleasing harmonious features. (I really enjoy looking at birds, like sparrows, their beauty strikes me the same way, it sort of flutters through).
When I was working on the Lexical Tutor series, which When I Rub the Dead Skin of the Thing against Me I Find I am Soft, Brown and Human is part of, I did portraits of Jane with a pink parachute. A lot of times in my work, surfaces, fabrics, and coverings are part of the backdrop of the work, and they mean things to me; I don’t really expect them to mean much to the viewer – the viewer can make up whatever story they want – but I’m picking them for specific reasons.
Separately, along the way with making Lexical Tutor with Jane, I started working with – this is going to sound really strange and odd – raccoon penis bones. It’s part of Black folk culture, when you’re making conjures, raccoon penis bones show up. (Actually, there’s an awful lot of dead animal artifacts online; the animal trafficking market online is a little bit disturbing for me.) Anyways I got the raccoon penis bones, and as I was looking at them, I was like, ‘I wonder if there are raccoon pelts, too,’ so that is how Jane and the pelts came together. I care about depicting black beauty because it sits astride a lot of social ugliness. For example, in white supremacy, some of the racial epithets that have been lobbed at black people include calling us coons. Part of exploring Blackness for me is looking at all these different artifacts, not just how white people imagine us, which I think is the most minor thing – it’s there, and you have to contend with it in a white supremacist society, but for me it’s largely not very important – but how black people have made sense of those sorts of things for ourselves does matter to me, and how I see them for myself.
In terms of working with animal parts in my work, I have my own feelings of complicity around how these things are being gathered. I realize my complicity in it. I felt like once I ended up with two pelts that I wanted to do something that honored them. I didn’t know how they died, I didn’t know how they got skinned, and I didn’t want to be doing what we often do in America which is just acquire things, and turn things that used to be living into objects that we don’t have any feelings about. The piece with Jane was a kind of pulling together those two thoughts. I think in our version of humanity we’re apex predators, so we put our experience on top. As I’m anthropomorphizing the racoons and their presence, what I’m really trying to do too is the alchemy of equalizing, taking those pelts and thinking about what’s the spirit behind them, and then also thinking about the way black people are objectified in a likewise fashion in America, and putting that energy together, conjuring it into something that’s about agency and power, but without having to say a whole lot.
B: One of my favorite things about your work is that I think of you as one of the artists I know who is really trying to invent, not sure if utopian, but new spaces, to show new ways to be, and it’s a difficult thing to do, because you need to make decisions about what existing stuff to bring along, and what baggage it has, and how to transform it.
DI: Well, I always laugh, more than anything I’m a writer and I’m stubborn, so I think because I was trained as a visual artist I keep insisting on writing in the gallery, and also writing in ways that don’t require text, but I feel like the nexus point for me is being super promiscuous with materials but really monogamous to a personal narrative and storytelling. I don’t want to impose on my viewer. Like it’s really not essential to me that the viewer be able to follow along whatever diaristic thing I am up to, ‘cause most of the work that I’m working on is pretty therapeutic for me. There’s something I’m sorting out with my psyche that compels me to complete work, and it may be like an avoidance sort of thing, but I don’t think I want people that in my space.
When I was doing The Deeps, that was the first project I did with composer and vocalist Hanna Benn, who is one of my favorite collaborators, I worked with this hypnotist to figure out why I had stopped crying, or didn’t cry much, and she explained the concept of the unconscious to me, which is like, it’s this part of you that’s there completely just to keep you safe. It’s not verbal, it doesn’t have a sense of time, it’s always in the present. She unlocked something for me; I was like, ‘Oh, how do I talk to this part of myself that I may need to shift, or be in a different way, or to let it know that my conscious self is ok with a certain set of things that I have learned. And that I can also move on to the next set of tasks that came with recognizing something that may have felt super harmful to me at a certain point as a young person in the past, or even as an adult, is no longer a problem.’
And I think that when it comes to the psychic wound of race a lot of my artwork is like little magic spells. I’m intentional about always working with dark skinned models; clearly we live in a global world and there are all kinds of races and appearances of human subjectivity, but when we think about dehumanization, there’s a certain way that black women in particular are dehumanized, and I think that’s tied to understanding how a world that plays out in a linear fashion doesn’t like indigenous things. In every single society that you can imagine, Australia, Japan, South Africa, North America, there’s always been a darker indigenous population that’s been annihilated to make place for newer people coming in, and I think there’s a part of me that’s really aligned with having us as humans sit and think through the way that time plays out and knowing how the story ends and then, too, to begin imagining, is there some other way that we could exist with one another that is not so violent, is not so structured around erasures?
I was just reading an article by someone who was talking about the wisdom of forests, (I may be conflating two articles I read) but they had made a correlation with the loss of forests and the loss of indigenous tongues, because people who’ve been living in nature for a long time have words and ways of describing it that people who don’t live in nature don’t. When we erase those things, it makes sense to me that ecosystems are dying because we don’t have the knowledge systems in modernity to take care of the planet as we attempt to dominate nature. We can’t exist without the planet; we think we can, and our ego-based mind might tell us we can, but the things that have to exist depend on an ecosystem and an environment, not our human ego. My work isn’t eco-art at all, but it’s very tied to those older sign systems; I’m really interested in that type of semiotic that is not always prioritizing the human mind because it may be brilliant but it is not yet wise.
DK: So with the title of this specific piece, and then I feel like in general, a lot of your work has a sensuality, kind of a sensuous / emotive quality to it, and it’s interesting, knowing you personally I know you’re very… literate isn’t the proper term, but there’s a very writerly, an academic part to you. Can you speak about where you feel like that sensuality becomes kind of a communicative tool, and maybe also how your work becomes an invitation? ‘Cause I feel like its core is generous.
DI: Yeah, I think I am a really heady person, in a lot of different respects; I think that sometimes if you’re in your head a lot you’re avoiding things. I used to work with this energy healer named Colby, and he would be like, ‘you have to sink down into heart space’ and I would be like ‘you are so corny,’ but then that advice has been so helpful to me. A lot of my work is about vulnerability, and I think that’s because my work is following black feminist traditions, and if you look at some of the precepts that we have, around what being feminine is: it’s receptive, it’s emotional, it’s emotive, it’s nurturing, it’s open, it’s able to work with a lot of things that aren’t related to thoughts, so it may not be logical. I don’t think this society is set up in any way where I could function in that space the majority of my time, and I think we’re all a balance of masculine and feminine energies, but I think the things that we project on the feminine in capitalism and white supremacy and in patriarchy (I don’t know if it’s always helpful to conjoin those things like they work as one whole, I think they just happen to be layers of power), I think that’s external power, and I’m really interested in interior power.
Susie Lee got me thinking about soft power, and again, because I’m not like that, meaning soft, in my day-to-day life, it’s a protected sanctuary space for me in my artwork where I get to imagine, ‘what if the world were like this: what if the world was softer, what if the world was more magnificent, what if the world was more open-ended, what if the world wasn’t so deeply inscribed by societal notions, who would I be, how would I get lost, how would I find myself again?’ I don’t know if my work is always successful, but I think I’m always trying to do those things with it. I want to light a path for Black Diasporic thought to help illuminate human experience.
DK: When you were talking earlier about working with Jane as kind of a model you repeatedly use, and thinking about projections, and I guess tying into my personal thing, do you consider it self-portraiture in some context?
DI: Maybe not in a literal sense; I mean, I think it’s highly personal, and I think portraiture is always telling you how someone is looking, and so maybe it’s a self portrait because I could get a lot of people to take a picture of Jane, but it won’t look like the picture of Jane that I’m going to give. There are certain ideas that I’m bringing to that looking process that might make the picture look the way it does. When I did that series of photographs, Where Can my Black Ass Go to be Safe, I was testing a hypothesis of ‘can anyone beyond black women imagine safety for black women,’ (which seems to really not be the case in the series and its findings). The thing that I found endless perverse pleasure in that particular piece was just how strange my ass became based on who took the picture. Sometimes it was like an erotic object. Sometimes it was this alien, oblong thing, and then sometimes it looked just like a haunch, and so I was like ‘oh, it’s moving between meat and flesh.’ Like one you consume, the other you enjoy. Hopefully you’re not doing both.
I feel like the portraits of Jane were always more about getting to a certain kind of stillness with her, which I really enjoyed. It’s nerve-racking to be a model. I’m really fussy about my own picture; I love selfies, because I know what angles work for me, but it’s really hard to leave your face in the care of someone who’s not looking, or who’s looking at something beyond you.
B: Self-representation, control of body, is a big issue in general, and seems very present in your work; does controlling the figure feel like a way of gaining your own self, too?
DI: I think a lot of my projects come to me as these really impressionistic images, and I have to kind of be faithful that they can be realized. The piece Procession that I did with the women in the beekeeper veils is from a really really old memory of mine, when I was maybe 14. Years later, when I walked into the space at King Street at 39, I knew that I could go back to that memory artistically to help it come to life. But then there were also nice happenstance, synergistic things, like I happened to look at a picture of a woman wearing a beekeeper’s veil, and was like ‘oh, that looks strangely futuristic.’ Honey is such a familiar notion, but the thought of how do humans get domesticated honey, and going down that whole rabbit hole of bee culture was really amazing, especially because so many bees are dying right now because of modern life, and industrialized agriculture, and Monsanto’s use of neonicotinoids.
B: The beekeeper’s veil is such a nice part of that piece; it looks like a ceremonial object, and a veil, and a safety, and just grand – all these different things.
DI: With Procession, I think the thing that makes that piece work is that in the way that the human eye likes repetition. In the video there is the circle of the beekeeping hat, the circular motion of the drone, and the circles of the clocks in the clock tower. It’s almost like sacred geometry. It would never occur to me, logically, to shoot that, but intuitively it made sense as I worked with the crew and especially in the editing.
B: One of the goals of the High Wall is to honor the history of the Inscape building’s past function as Seattle’s immigration processing and detention center by showing the work of artists who come from immigrant families, or whose work deals with issues of migration and diaspora. Can you talk about how you approach these issues in your work?
DI: If you think about the notion of how America became, I normally spell these things out, in order to shift that binary of belonging and otherness, and the notion of who does America really belong to, and if you don’t belong there, does that make you an Other. Native Americans have been here since time immemorial. America belongs to them. Period. In America, there are also subsequent migrations and arrivals. Thinking about the history of detention in the old INS building, I think it really behooves African Americans, immigrants of color, and white people to talk about, well, how did we end up in this place? Did we get here a long time ago, did we get here recently? What were the things that made us come?
I remember a long time ago I was at a lecture, and there was a scholar named Hazel Carvey who was talking about the transatlantic slave trades being the largest act of globalization. It was done on the heels of the colonizing migration of European settlers who were coming to the new world, looking in an extractive way for resources. They were so annihilative with Native populations and they couldn’t subjugate them and turn them into slaves, which is why they went looking in Africa. I think the layers of present-day America are: Native genocide, the black transatlantic slave trades, U.S. and European imperialism, and white identity formation, along with subsequent immigrations of whites and people of color. On this path, there are people who used to not be white. They used to be whatever ethnicity or nationality they were in Europe. I think the violence of Europe was something that white people wanted to get out of, and I think in the Americas, whiteness got to have a life that it couldn’t have in Europe.
There is a wedge that’s often placed between African American identities and immigrant identities that does not have to be there, a false dichotomy. My family comes from Mississippi, the Carolinas and Arkansas on our American journey. My mom’s dad came from a family of landowners who farmed cotton. When I think about Black sharecroppers and Black landowners in the South it connects to migrant work; people who live from the land and hold connections there. They had to live off of the land and their labor was exploited because they lived off the land. That seems very akin to what happens with Latino fruit pickers. White European immigrants, because of whiteness, get to pretend that they are just naturally American–but many have that more modest beginning with the land too.
I was thinking about the white dudes in the khakis and tiki torches who recently marched in the white supremacy rally in Charlottesville. I would love to look at their DNA results. How many generations have they been here to be yelling blood and soil? Native folks can claim that, yes. White boys, nah. I’ve met so many white people who are really bought into the concept of the preeminence of whiteness. It’s not like they’ve been here super long. It’s just that the concept of white superiority is 500 years long in the States, and in white supremacy that magically somehow means forever for someone who does not understand time.
B: Did you see the documentary Rumble, that just came out, about Native Americans in the music industry?
DI: Oh yeah, I did see that, that was pretty amazing.
B: Yeah, so good! Something you said made me think of it – the idea of groups finding each other, and combining, but also how groups distance themselves from each other.
DI: Yeah but what I heard really loud and clear with Rumble, and I think this is something to be mindful of, I think there’s a rightful concern, and in some cases even resentment, from Native Americans about how Black pain is often heard over and above Native pain. And so I think in my own cultural practice, it’s really important for me to have meaningful ties with Native Americans. This is their land. I really appreciate living in Seattle because it’s one of the few cities where there’s more visibility and cultural power for Native folks.
I think in America there’s a lot of fancifulness, in terms of people who haven’t grown up in Native culture asserting that they’re part Native genetically. It’s one thing to have the phenotype or the DNA and I think it’s another thing to be committed to the culture. Like it’s really clear to me, whatever blood I might have inside of me, I’m culturally African American. If you spend holidays with me I’m gonna make certain foods, the foods I grew up with–greens, dressing, sweet potato pie. I stay in my lane for these reasons because I know where I was acculturated. As African Americans, we’re not settler colonialists; we have that one exemption that most other groups don’t have because we had an enforced migration. We won’t ever have an easy way of going back home. Maybe this is also why I would love to see black folks and Native folks organizing together much more and seeing that connected to immigrant advocacy because whiteness attacks us all at once. I think it’s a really important part of healing this country–making it a real home–to be intentional about how we come together and hold space for another. I don’t think anything’s going to go right in the U.S. until Native folks and Black folks have some space to heal, and not space that’s made to talk about whiteness, but rather to find out exactly how do we want to exist in this country once we abolish white supremacy.
B: Survival versus living… thank you so much for sharing this work with us!