Bayou Artist: DreÌk Davis
In 1926, W.E.B. DuBois wrote, “All art is propaganda and ever must be, despite the wailing of the purists.” DuBois was addressing Harlem Renaissance artists, but Rodrecas (DreÌk) Davis believes the sentiment is still relevant today and is one shared by him and most of the creatives he knows. According to Davis, “DuBois understood that Negro artists have a responsibility to people who look like them—to serve some sort of larger purpose and create art that is not just aesthetically pleasing.”
Davis, an Associate Professor of Art, has taught at Grambling State University since 2007. His work is inspired by many things, including the quote from DuBois. “I’ve always felt compelled to produce something that will stimulate conversations,” he said. He also believes that DuBois was calling artists to create work that stirs a response. “By igniting the conversation, you are changing the world,” Davis said, “even if only in a small way. Getting people to interact with each other can be magical.”
Davis has always enjoyed creating things, even as a kid. While in grade school in Monroe, Georgia, he made crafts for his mom and completed paint-by-number kits his grandparents gave him, but it wasn’t until sixth grade that Davis had his first real encounter with art. At the time, his art teacher Mrs. Adams noticed something worth nurturing in a few of her students and invited them to participate in an extra art class during social studies. “She gave us the freedom to explore more in that special session,” Davis said.
Before being invited to do more art, Davis was extremely bored in school. Nothing engaged him, and he was doing so poorly he’d been placed in a class for students with learning disabilities. This placement later turned out to be a mistake because, according to Davis, art ignited a passion in him that increased his feelings of self-worth and helped him approach other academic subjects in a different way. “Having access to the arts through grade school really changed my life,” he said.
In high school, Davis began playing the alto saxophone and joined his cousin who played in the band. He surrounded himself with creative people and also took Advanced Placement (AP) art classes. “That was the fun time—playing music and acting a fool,” he said. Simultaneously, his art teacher Dr. Nelyne Allan encouraged all her students to take their work seriously, which included exploring options to further their education. Because of her, Davis participated in a statewide art exhibition, prepared a portfolio and visited Ken Williams, a professor in the graphic design program at the University of Georgia. After the meeting with Williams, Davis decided to pursue art. “It made sense to me that art is what I should be doing,” he said.
According to Davis, his grandparents sowed the seeds of his career as an artist, but Dr. Allan and others watered and nurtured those seeds. Another root of encouragement Davis relied on in high school was a school-based organization called The Men of Distinction. The organization, which was advised by Dr. Getachew Belayneh, aimed to support the spiritual, emotional, social and academic development of young black men. Davis said the group strived to be socially responsible and have a positive impact on their peers and community. These motives carried over into Davis’ ambitions for his art. Having an uncle who graduated from the Art Institute of Atlanta in photography also helped water the seeds planted by his grandparents. Through the “perfect confluence” of all these factors, Davis realized he could do more than create art; he could create art that reached beyond his family, friends and immediate community.
When Davis entered college, he was attracted to studio art, especially drawing, and he focused on learning the basic technical skills that any working artist would need. Then one day a professor named Radcliffe Bailey walked into class and uttered two seemingly simple sentences that changed everything. He said, “We know you can draw. What else can you do?” Afterward, he walked out, leaving his students to grapple with answering the question. Davis took his words as a challenge and started experimenting with collage, mixed media, sculpture and found objects. What he discovered was that this type of work fit him better. “It just happened. I followed the flow of things,” Davis said. “It was meant to be—how these strands combined and brought me to where I am.”
Since Radcliffe’s challenge, Davis has earned his Bachelor of Fine Arts and Master of Fine Arts from the University of Georgia. Now a tenured professor, he said he’s always preferred media that give him a sense of immediacy. In the beginning, he was drawn to oil pastels, but he was never much of a painter. “Brushes always got in the way between me and the canvas,” he said, “and I never had the facility to work with clay, so the sculptural thing found me.” As a student, Davis discovered that sculpture and collage could carry the weight—the gravity—of the subjects he wanted to engage in a way that drawing and painting couldn’t. “I wanted to make work that could speak to the things I wanted to speak to, and now I can’t stop,” he said. “The subject matter has always been about social responsibility in some form or fashion.”
Ideologically and stylistically, Davis’ work has come to be about fusing things that don’t seem to belong together. A class in Photoshop that Davis took as an undergraduate also helped him discover his affinity for unlikely combinations. After meticulously practicing all the traditional, basic skills, Davis said, “Photoshop exploded all that.” He started to think more about the critical side of art—how to choose subjects with magnitude that could be translated across multiple media, and he realized that technology could be another tool in his artistic arsenal. “It’s all about exploration. At least it should be,” he said.
While in college, Davis not only explored by creating a variety of work. He also became a member of an artist collective in Athens called US that would take exhibitions into the community, an experience that has continued to impact his work today. “I’m trying to make work that speaks to the public, so I try to push back against the pressure to make it all academic,” he said. Striking a balance between personal and academic is important to Davis, who also strives to make his work approachable through the use of images and references that resonate. “Everything I’ve made and will make,” Davis said, “is a reflection of the reality of the America I live in. I want people to see themselves reflected in the work, especially young people and artists of color.” He wants them to think about how they see themselves, how the media sees them and whether they are being wholly authentic. Are they holding back due to fear? Are they afraid of physical violence? Are they afraid of being misunderstood?
A collection of work Davis calls Post Modem Discourse or P.M.D. attempts to raise these kinds of questions by addressing the persistence of stereotypes in modern times. In the same way that a modem converts digital signals into accessible content, Davis converts used wooden chairs into stylized “pickaninny” heads with modern elements attached to convey a message. According to Davis, he is using the shape to reconstruct pieces as a kind of mirror to encourage viewers to reflect on how they see themselves and how society sees them. The chairheads, as he calls them, are inspired partly by the Hip Hop group K.M.D, and some of the modern elements attached to them include CDs and speaker parts. However, the inspiration runs deeper. In 1993, when K.M.D. placed an image of Little Black Sambo getting lynched on its “Black Bastards” album cover, the choice was so controversial that Elektra shelved the album. “These iconic images carry weight,” Davis said. The result of his P.M.D. collection and the K.M.D. album cover, according to Davis, “is a subversive statement about how black men are viewed.”
Davis said the P.M.D. collection, as well as some of his other work, is also a response to a speech he heard Bill Clinton give in which Clinton presented technology, especially the internet, as a kind of panacea capable of bridging the gap and leveling the playing field across racial, ethnic and socioeconomic lines. However, Davis said, “We’ve seen that we can’t eradicate ignorance by giving people access to the internet. The same stereotypes that existed before the internet have persisted and in some cases worsened.”
Much of Davis’ work draws heavily from music, especially Hip Hop lyrics and culture. For example, he finds ‘90s artists, such as Run-D.M.C., Public Enemy, Tupac Shakur, Biggie Smalls and Parliament-Funkadelic, inspiring for their politically relevant messages of freedom and liberation. In creating work that directly references this music, he acknowledges that “Hip Hop culture has in some instances synthesized hypermasculine, anti-intellectual stereotypes that distort the perception of what it means to be an African American male.”
Davis deliberately selects and combines subject matter and materials so that they have the potential to incite strong reactions. One thing he has discovered in growing his body of work is the necessity of meeting challenges head on. “The thing you are trying to run away from is the thing you should be doing,” he said. As a result, the work produced not only challenges the artist but also the viewer.
In an article he wrote for The Gramblinite in April of 2013, he said, “I've displayed and curated exhibitions that antagonized viewers with what some might call visually assaulting imagery.” According to Davis, “The personal is always political, even when you don’t mean it to be.”
But Davis is a staunch supporter of freedom of speech. In fact, the primary purpose of the 2013 article was to defend students against censorship. “Depending upon the theme and subject matter,” he wrote, “I still believe that such works have a place in society.” He believes students and people in general need to be challenged on occasion to avoid stagnation. “To shield students at every turn,” he wrote, “insinuates on some level that they can go through life without having their ideas/beliefs challenged, but who would want that?”
At one point, Davis wasn’t convinced people would understand what he does. “Most people still see art as decorative,” he said. “They don’t see that it’s a part of the life we live—interwoven into everything.” As a student, he said, “I made a conscious decision not to fit into the glossy art magazine aesthetic—the celebrity side of art making. I knew it wouldn’t satisfy my soul because it’s never been the kind of thing that drives me.” Nevertheless, Davis has been satisfied to have an impact on a more intimate level, and he’s since had experiences that reassure him the work he’s producing is having the right kind of effect. One of these experiences was an encounter with a white friend’s parents while Davis was an undergraduate. Davis said they admitted to being somewhat bigoted before encountering a series of large pastels he’d created. Afterward, they told him the work really changed their perspective.
Around the same time, Davis also received some positive feedback from Jerry Cullum, an art critic who said Davis “makes (not keeps) it real.” He was responding to two church fans displayed in a student exhibition at the University of Georgia. One of the fans, “Good Hope I,” includes images of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. The second, “Good Hope II,” depicts Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls (a.k.a. Notorious B.I.G.). Cullum said the two fans “summarize a generation of changing expectations.”
These moments of affirmation were pivotal to the confidence of a student preparing to enter the real world as an artist. As Davis has grown his body of work, he’s continued to be interested in subject matter he sees as socially, culturally, spiritually and personally relevant. He is especially interested in the way politics and spirituality are addressed in society and the influence of African American spirituality on southern culture. He shared that there is a wide range of material and traditions his work considers that are outside the realm of Southern Baptist traditions. These include Santería, Voodoo, and the religion of the Yoruba people.
Davis’ work often investigates how elements of these religions are reflected in popular culture and how they’ve been muted or corrupted over time. He’s interested in the history of things—where the symbols, beliefs and traditions come from—as well as how their meaning, like the meaning of song lyrics, movies and images, is often lost in translation. This subject matter provides space for interpretation and room to play with language and imagery. Davis said, “I like puns, and I like to play with illusion, fool the eye, make people question what is real.” He has even created digital works that look like collages and collages that look like digital works, but the end result, he hopes, is work that “considers what it means to be a citizen in the world, what spirituality means to us and how to navigate the world and family.”
In terms of process, Davis said he facilitates the integration of ideas with the goal of helping others see the integration. “The materials do the rest,” he said. “They dictate the way things go.” He likes to use materials in the same way that Hip Hop producers do—by putting disparate things together in a way that makes them feel like they belong together. According to Davis, this process involves a lot of critical thinking, problem solving and sometimes revision. At the same time, it gives him a sense of freedom and peace. “When you’re in the zone,” he said, “everything else falls away.” Davis also works on more than one piece at a time, so he can see how they play off one another. “As long as the works continue conversing with each other, I’ll keep making them,” he said. “If that ever stops, something else will find me. That’s how it happens. It’s an exploration, and I’m riding the wave to see where it goes.”