How Art Has The Power To Fuel A Movement Like Black Lives Matter

Art by Damon Davis

According to Damon Davis and Patrisse Cullors

Art is reflective of the culture in which it's created, representing aspects of society and individuals in a variety of ways. An artist's depiction of their subject, no matter how abstract, gives us a deeper understanding of the world they live in. So it's only natural that art should be used as a vehicle to change a narrative or to rewrite dominant ideology. And this is exactly what self-proclaimed post-disciplinary artist Damon Davis set out to do with his most recent exhibition, "Darker Gods and the Garden of the Low Hanging Heavens".

Davis creates work that's reactionary, but he tells me that it's a good kind of reactionary—as opposed to the callout culture we're so used to seeing on the internet, or the kind of reactionary that's based in lies and hatred (like that of our current president). As a reaction to the negativity and fear around him, and with a lifetime of understanding of how it felt and what it meant to be stereotyped as a black man, Davis set to flip the script on the "tropes and myths that have been told about us, as well as myths that we tell about ourselves."

This resulted in "Darker Gods," a reclaiming of the negative portrayals of blackness that still dominate our societal understanding (for some reason). He created a surrealist collection of gods, who shed new meaning on stereotypes usually used to demonize black people. "What I'm just trying to do is to encapsulate these different cultural ideas into deity forms," he said, "and to give people of color something that uplifts these traits that are usually used to demonize us."

The particular work attempts to take back and refocus stories told about him and the people he knows. Davis grew up in the South and notes that there are people in his life that align with these negative stereotypes, including himself. He's watched himself and others be judged based on the stories that society tells us about them, which, he pointed out, are formulated by people who "don't know anything about our reality." "It's always some voyeuristic portrayal of us that people tell," he said. "It's like looking at us in a zoo. "He continued to argue that these stories are created "so that the people who are responsible for the circumstances that we grew up in can sleep well at night, and so that their kids can feel good about where they came from.

"Darker Gods," which is currently on display at Miami's Art Basel, has a co-sign from the Black Lives Matter movement, which was itself borne from the work of artists. When I spoke to Patrisse Cullors, an artist and one of the movement's co-founders, she told me that art and artists are central to any social movement. Further, she said, "Black radical artists have always been at the center of [them], especially black social movements." The art that is created by artists focused on activism works to shift a dominant and harmful narrative, which is precisely what Davis' work seeks to do. "Damon Davis is at the intersection of both arts and culture, and activism," Cullors-Brignac said.

Cullors also said that "Darker Gods" is made even more powerful by refusing to play into the callout culture that we see so much: "It's such an important work because it's not a reaction to police killings or black death, it's actually recreating a new development for how we imagine black life." This work isn't new, and neither are the prejudices and stereotypes Davis is rewriting. He started working on the project when the Ferguson protests were happening, a time that plainly demonstrated how little we had progressed as a country and a society when it came to adequately respecting the lives of black Americans. Just the combative, defensive reaction that white people took against the phrase "black lives matter" should clue you into the defensiveness inherent to white supremacy.

And things have only gotten worse under Trump. The FBI reported earlier this year that the number of hate crimes rose for the third consecutive year in 2017, which we have little trouble connecting with the rise of Trump's hateful rhetoric toward anyone who doesn't look like him. This year alone, 898 people have been killed by police force in our country, and 22 trans people (mostly women of color) have been killed. Even though the rhetoric of this administration is overtly racist, ableist, and homophobic (and the list goes on), the prejudice and discrimination have obviously been going on for much longer than that—it's just not been as obvious to people who weren't paying attention.

And Davis plans to meet fire with fire. "I want to be as blatant as the administration," he said, referencing his fight for representation and a place at the table. "Anyone who lives in America knows the stereotypes that we have about black people," he pointed out. The works being showcased at Art Basel this week refocus the stereotypes of "the abusive, absentee father; the mother with a bunch of kids with no education, the trappers; the people who are cool on TV, but who you don't want to be around for real." And by reimagining these harmful stereotypes, reclaiming them so as to change the narrative, Davis is hoping to change the way these stories are told across society.

He also stresses how important it is that the narrative is changed by a black person; he said, "I think it's just time for us to get a chance to tell our own stories. It's cathartic, and it's also something that can help us communicate with each other. What I'm trying to do is have a dialogue with all people of color." Davis brought up the fact that we all learn Greek mythology, but we never learn about the folklore disseminated by people of color. And that creates a cultural and power imbalance, and influences the way that people think about each other by "putting ideas into people's minds about who they are."

And, just like Hollywood, which still has huge diversity problems, the art world also has a long history of systemic racism. "The art world, unfortunately, in so many ways was established and commodified by white, European artists and white, European philosophers," said Cullors. And not only that but, Cullors noted, the art of people of color has been historically stolen by white people. "We know the terrible, terrible history of white colonizers pillaging African villages of their art and artifacts, and then stealing them and taking them to museums," she pointed out. "The art world has never been friendly to black people, and it's never been friendly to our culture."

Davis' work is in direct opposition to the silence and appropriation of black voices, and the harmful misrepresentation and stereotyping that comes as a result of it. And a large part of his mission is to force white people to better understand black voices. Most importantly, though, his work is for people of color. He wants everyone to be able to see themselves in art, and to see themselves authentically. Only once we allow people of every background to tell their own stories will we be able to have that representation for everyone.

"Darker Gods and the Garden of the Low Hanging Heavens" is on view through December 9 at 6300 NW 2nd Ave in Miami.

Nail polish is for novices

Fashion label The Blonds is known for its high-intensity looks that you'd only wear if you wanted to stand out (and who doesn't?). For its runway shows, wild press-on nails are the beauty step that can't be missed. So, since the brand has partnered with CND since it was founded, we thought it best to get prepped for the show with Jan Arnold, CND's co-founder.

See why you should take your nail look from a zero to a 10, in the video above.

Shot by Charlotte Prager
Edited by Gretta Wilson
Produced by Alexandra Hsie
Production Assistant: Polina Buchak
Featuring Jan Arnold of CND Nails and The Blonds



Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.

It would've been nice if someone said the word "fat"

Back in November, Rebel Wilson claimed to be the first plus-sized lead in a romantic comedy when she appeared on Ellen to talk about her role in Isn't It Romantic. Wilson was not only wrong, but she was—even if inadvertently—erasing the work of Black plus-size actresses like Queen Latifah and Mo'Nique, both of whom have expansive resumes that include romantic comedies.

Wilson's comment isn't the first example of white women taking up a little too much space in the fat acceptance ethos. It's actually quite common. But there is a reason why women like Wilson—women who are blonde, pretty, successful, and white—get put front and center in calls for body positivity. In the same way that feminism—the movement from which body positivity was born—has often failed to address how gender intersects with other identities like race and class; so, too, has body positivity been championed as a cause for otherwise privileged women. And that's why it's no surprise that Isn't It Romantic, which aspires to be both a spot-on mockery of rom-coms and a celebration of body positivity, is actually a perfect example of how very white both the movie genre and the body positivity movement tend to be.

In the film, Wilson plays Natalie, an architect based in New York, who is single and plus-sized—the archetypal rom-com underdog. Very early on in the movie, she endures the double humiliation of both being hit by a runaway food cart and then accosted by its owner for not stopping it with her "cement truck"-like body. At work, Natalie is similarly disrespected: The office manager hands off troubleshooting tasks to Natalie; another colleague always tasks Natalie to throw out his trash; her assistant Whitney (Betty Gilpin) won't stop watching movies (rom-coms, naturally) while in the office; and Natalie is so afraid to present her ideas for more innovative parking garage designs that she isn't even widely known in the firm as an architect, and is treated like an intern.

But is Natalie just a doormat? Or is it that she isn't asking for what she wants? And isn't very nice about not getting it? If Natalie's life is any example, the bar on suffering is set pretty low for white women. In her personal life, Natalie lives alone with her dog, and seems to be pretty well-off, financially; her best friend is actually her slacker assistant, Whitney, and she's close with another coworker, Josh (Adam Devine), who gives Natalie constant emotional support. She's decidedly anti-romantic, having been told by her mother from a young age that there's no such thing as real-life fairy tales; she's level-headed and practical. But also, she's filled with self-loathing. This leads her to be crass, sarcastic, and disconnected from people. And it was this last part that was hard for me. As a fat Black woman who grew up broke, does not have an assistant, and would get fired if I didn't do my job well, it was hard, if not impossible, to root for her.

For Natalie, though, everything changes when she bangs her head while fighting off a mugger. Her mundane life is tinted through rosy rom-com glasses. Suddenly, all the things that sucked about her life are gone, and everything is beautiful and perfect. But was her life so bad before? It didn't really seem to be.

And yet, looking around the theater at the mostly white, female audience, I accepted that my feelings didn't seem to be shared. But that almost seems to be by design; this feels like a movie for a white, female audience. There is only one person of color in the movie who even has a name: It's Isabelle (Priyanka Chopra), who shows up about halfway through the film—after everything has been rom-com filtered—as a yoga ambassador and swimsuit model. But a name is all Isabella has. A supporting character at best, she doesn't have any connection to anyone other than her white boyfriend, and is sketchily drawn. We learn nothing of her familial or ethnic background, and, even when she is shown at her wedding, there is nobody from her family celebrating with her. This huge oversight is particularly bizarre, given that Natalie has already bemoaned the lack of diversity in romantic films.

Another huge oversight? The presence of the word "fat." I don't think I heard it used a single time. Natalie only references her weight indirectly, by commenting on the appearance of straight-sized women; when talking about her own body, the word "fat" is replaced with "girl like me." But by ignoring this aspect of herself, and refusing to address it head-on, Natalie is succumbing to the same fatphobia that shapes her world, whether she identifies it as being a problem or not.

Before her life becomes a rom-com, Natalie feels invisible at work and in the world. Some of this is certainly her fault, but fatphobia is also at play. Fatphobia chips away at the humanity of fat people from different angles. It means that Natalie gets used to being dehumanized; she doesn't expect others to have empathy for her when she's physically hurt, because they don't value her body. And it's no coincidence that Natalie's fantasy world includes a magically bigger apartment with unlimited clothing options, because discrimination against fat people isn't just a matter aesthetics and preferences—it affects everything from our ability to dress ourselves to our ability to make and save money, since there's a price to pay for being fat, even if it's just having to pay more to travel. Just as much as gender and race intersect with fat bodies, so, too, do economics and class.

I knew I could count on a plus-sized white comedian to take down a genre of films that prioritized thin women. But I ventured to see if Wilson could go further than that, and challenge what it means to be white and well-off and fat in the process; it isn't just about taking down rom-coms but about doing so in a way that isn't just a mouthpiece for white feminist values. But, in the end, that isn't what happened. Isn't It Romantic is fine, but it needed to do more than target an audience of girls who are 10 to 30 pounds overweight and still too jolted by the word "fat" to ever apply it to themselves, so they go for acceptable alternatives, like curvy, plus-sized—or thicc, if they're hip. But I'm not afraid to say I'm fat, I'm just disappointed I will be waiting even longer to see a realistic reflection of that experience onscreen.

Isn't It Romantic is in theaters now.