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Installation view of Damien Davis’ Collapse: Black Wall Street Study at the LatchKey Gallery booth at Untitled Art Fair, Miami Beach (all images courtesy of Latchkey Gallery)

MIAMI BEACH — Thousands of years ago, Western written language evolved from the pictograph (direct representations of a subject) to the alphabet (symbols representing sounds). For example, the Egyptian hieroglyphic for an eagle was an image of an eagle. Through a series of transformations by way of the Phoenicians and the Greeks, the Egyptian eagle ultimately devolved into the Roman letter “A.” Here in the 21st century we have come full circle, having returned to the use of pictographs in the form of icons and emojis.

Damien Davis’s installation of plexiglass collages, Collapse: Black Wall Street Study explores the development and use of written language to tell his own stories. Davis has developed a lexicon of negritude: race-specific signifiers, autobiographical fragments, visceral symbols of oppression, and technology-derived icons. Here, afro picks, cowrie shells,  Nefertiti profile currency, Black bodies, and hoodies are the new pictographs. “I love the idea,” Davis says,

that I can take these larger abstract ideas about what being Black means or what it can mean or what it looks like. Break it down into a really sort of base iconic form and then stretch the limits of what it’s capable of doing narratively by constantly remixing and re-juxtaposing them into new works.

The subject of the installation is the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921 — a buried part of American history that isn’t widely discussed because it doesn’t easily fit into our national mythology. The violent attack by white supremacists resulted in the destruction of the city’s Greenwood district, one of the most prominent communities for Black businesses during the early 20th century, popularly known as “Black Wall Street.”

Damien Davis, “Elevator Encounter (Blackamoors Collage #283)” (2019), Laser-cut plexiglass and stainless steel hardware, 16 x 22 x 2 inches

The massacre occurred after  a 19-year-old Black man, Dick Rowland, stepped into an elevator in downtown Tulsa.  Moments later the white female elevator operator was heard to utter a shriek that was quickly reported as being a cry of “rape.” 

Rowland was arrested and a lynch mob surrounded the jail. Black WWI veterans arrived to protect him. A shot was fired. White Tulsa residents descended upon Greenwood, killing some three hundred Black residents, injuring hundreds more, and destroying 40 city blocks, leaving 10,000 people homeless. 

Damien Davis, “Pre-Check (Blackamoors Collage #280),” laser-cut plexiglass and stainless steel hardware, 14 x 10 x 2 inches

The attack on Greenwood included an air assault in which white rioters dropped kerosene bombs from small planes. A state commission report in 2001 stated that, “Tulsa was likely the first city in the (United States) to be bombed from the air.” Eyewitness Buck Colbert Franklin reported seeing planes circling and hearing something like hail falling into the top of his office building. And upon walking outside,“The sidewalks were literally covered with burning turpentine balls. I knew all too well where they came from, and I knew all too well why every burning building first caught from the top.”

In “Black Gold Miner,” Davis chose a color palette and icons to symbolize the relationship between Blackness and wealth and, indeed, to symbolize Black wealth itself — seen as a threat to Tulsa’s White population during Jim Crow. Davis notes that a high level of state-sanctioned violence on Black bodies is something that happens every day, 

but to see it play out at that scale and in that way is a very scary thing to think about … we are getting close to the 100th anniversary of this massacre. I think that it’s an important time to bring this back up because it opens up all these other conversations about what happens when Black people amass wealth, power, and influence for themselves. There is an acknowledgement that needs to be made about the precariousness and the danger that Black people still face just by self-actualization.

Davis pushes against the boundaries of the two-dimensional collage format; works extend from the wall into layered sculptural compositions. The steel nuts and bolts that fasten the laser cut plexiglas components let light and air through the layers. The work invites the viewer to read the narrative in Davis’s language, contemplate, and ask questions. Most importantly, they invite viewers to  join in on a conversation nearly 100 years past due.

Damien Davis, “Black Gold Miner (Blackamoors Collage #279)” (2019), (detail) laser-cut plexiglass and stainless steel hardware, 12 x 13 x 2 inches

Damien Davis’s Collapse (Greenwood Study) is a series of 23 new works from his Blackamoors Collage series.. The works will remain on view in a solo presentation at the Latchkey Gallery booth at Untitled Art Fair (1144 Ocean Drive, Miami Beach)  through December 8, 2019, as part of Miami Art Week 2019. The installation will later have its institutional presentation at the Weeksville Heritage Center in Brooklyn (158 Buffalo Avenue, Brooklyn) from January 20, 2020 – March 5, 2020.

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M. Charlene Stevens

M. Charlene Stevens lives and works in New York as a photographer and art critic. She is the founder and editor-in-chief of Arcade Project.