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ST. LOUIS — As a visionary movement, “Afro-Surrealism” was first fully realized in the manifesto of D. Scot Miller in 2009, but its roots go decades back to the Négritude days of the 1930s, in which Caribbean students such as Aimé Césaire and Léopold Sédar Senghor reimagined Surrealist methods to denounce the legacy of colonialist literary models.
In his seminal 1939 Notebook of a Return to the Native Land, Aimé Césaire famously proclaimed: “We are standing now, my country and I, hair in the wind, my hand puny in its enormous fist and now the strength is not in us but above us, in a voice that drills the nights and the hearing like the penetrance of an apocalyptic wasp. And the voice proclaims that for centuries Europe has fore-fed us with lies and bloated us with pestilence.”
The radical spirit and sensory immediacy of Césaire’s Notebook are palpable in Damon Davis’s most recent exhibition, Darker Gods in the Garden of the Low-Hanging Heavens, on view at St. Louis’s the Luminary. Allegorically driven through 12 divine characters whose backstories are lyrically rendered in the gallery guide, the show plumbs the depths of Black history, fantasy, and mythology to propose a radical vision of resilience and transformative power.
“I was calling a lot of my work Afro-Futurist before because it was the only term I had heard before that described any kind of Black experience based in fantasy and imagination,” Davis related in an interview with Hyperallergic. “When I found out what Afro-Surrealism was, I knew this project in particular was definitely in this genre.” A polymath who has called his creative practice “part therapy, part social commentary,” Davis is an artist, DJ, music producer, and writer whose passions merge in Darker Gods for an immersive multi-sensory experience.
Known best for the unflinching 2017 Ferguson documentary Whose Streets?, which he co-directed with Brooklyn-based filmmaker Sabaah Foloyan, Davis is a self-described “post-disciplinary” artist whose political goals are always at the forefront of his work, even if, as in the case of the Luminary show, they are more poeticized than polemical. He is also quick to point out that art necessarily plays a limited role in a larger project of reclaiming Black power. “I think any problem creates opportunities for creative response,” Davis reflected, “and systemic erasure is no different. But it will take more than artistic narratives to correct hundreds of years of erasure.”
Central to the narrative of his latest exhibition — and largest solo show to date — are a series of digitally altered portraits taken of members of the artist’s community, anonymous yet deified in archival prints on metal. Across a dreamscape that swings between the natural and supernatural, the naked and ornamental, the vulnerable and the mighty, these “darker gods” illuminate new possibilities for bodies of color. Trees shoot up from a crouched woman’s spine or like wings from a man’s shoulder blades; a triptych of silhouetted busts expose teeth made of gold; a third eye glows from the forehead of a baby whose hand and waist fade into air. “Work like this is absolutely about creating new narratives and origin stories,” he explained. “Both to correct the purposeful lack of representation, but also to outright ignore the Western narrative and create new ones.”
In “A Creation Story,” a black-and-white film directed by Davis and choreographed by Audrey Simes, gods and goddesses take the form of modern dancers playing a hypnotic version of parachute with an airy black sheet that transforms into a gown. “The concept around the film was the birth of the universe where the Darker Gods reside,” Davis shared. “I told Audrey the concept that I wanted and gave her the song ‘Bloom of EROS,’ from the Darker Gods album [which Davis produced through FarFetched Records]. The main dancer represents the Megadonna, the mother and creator of all the Gods in the universe. The supporting dancers represent the other Gods of the universe. This is the Megadonna creating herself from nothing, then creating the Gods, or planets, around her.” In the final seconds of the film, the camera cuts to a bird’s eye shot of the Megadonna lying back and lifted up by the fabric, its perimeter undulating like a billow of smoke.
Through a mythos at once epic and earthly, Darker Gods celebrates Black bodies that confront and reckon with history as a continuum of the past, present, and future — the creation story a catalyst for rejecting White lies. This show both asks and dares to answer the question of how to escape the literal and metaphorical shackles of centuries of abuse and erasure. Even for those unfamiliar with the Yoruban and Greek allusions throughout, Black life clearly “matters” here not simply for the distinctive draw of each of these characters, but for their collective strength as they pull the rug out from under our colonized consciousness.
Darker Gods in the Garden of the Low-Hanging Heavens continues at the Luminary (2701 Cherokee Street, St. Louis, Missouri) through July 12.
Editor’s note: The opening paragraph of this article has been amended to clearly state the role of D. Scot Miller’s manifesto in the creation of the term “Afro-Surrealism.”