From The White to Be Angry (1999), dir. Vaginal Davis (© Vaginal Davis; all images courtesy the Art Institute of Chicago)

CHICAGO — In February, the Art Institute of Chicago held a public talk by an artist of wide-spread notoriety in queer communities of color, whose work is now installed in the Institute’s Contemporary wing: Vaginal “Creme” Davis.

Davis came of age in the Black and Latinx punk and club scenes of Los Angeles in the late-1970s and 1980s. A performance and visual artist, she is best known for her work currently on view in Chicago, The White to Be Angry, a visual album of channel-surfing vignettes of appropriated television clips and footage shot in Los Angeles. Through camp mimicry, the vignettes deconstruct whiteness and its controlling posturing towards multi-pronged policing of Black and Latinx communities in the US.

Songs in the film by Davis and P.M.E. (Pedro, Muriel, and Esther, a band she was part of during the film’s creation) use lyrics riddled with references to gay sex, racist and sexist thought patterns, and the psychological conditions which position Blackness and femininity as both threatening and desirable. Scenes of homoeroticism and murderous heterosexuals feel deeply referential and rehearsed in a way that blurs raced and gendered ideas of supremacy, exposing and emphasizing their ridiculous logics.

At a time when considerations of identity underpin many of conversations about culture, the intersectional nature of Davis’s commentary on Black feminism, sexual orientation, the distinction between sex and gender, and the exponential danger these overlapping experiences are subject to, has aged incredibly well — much like Davis herself. Her work is hailed in three communities who often simultaneously overlap and revile one another —  academia, the commercial art world, and queer and of color club and punk scenes. Davis’s work brings to the fore how the norms of the status quo are always already underpinned by violence against Black and brown, queer and trans individuals from all walks of life.

Vaginal Davis in 2002 (photo by John Vlautin)

The following conversation with Vaginal Davis was conducted intermittently between her teaching schedule in Geneva and the Berlinale Film Festival:

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Hyperallergic: Race and camp are not popularly associated, in spite of camp’s place as an invention of Black drag queens. How has that dissonance between the mainstream perception and your historical experience appeared in your life?

Vaginal Davis: The Freakazoid has always been a black queer modality.  This goes back to the 19th-century with Black performers becoming famous in Europe for introducing the Cake Walk. Also, the infamous transgender sex worker Peter Sewally alias Mary Jones, AKA Eliza Smith, the so called “Man Monster” of NYC’s Five Points area.  She was conveniently left out of the Martin Scorsese film about the era, Gangs of New York.

The notion of freaky-ness as expressed in race is seldom addressed. The Black freak is a comic take on Black eccentricity, the historic weight of (e)motive notions, weirdness and freaky-ness as an act of organic resistance. Everything that is culturally fascinating and interesting in the world originated in the Black queer demimonde then gets adapted by the Black straight populace, then co-opted into dominant or popular culture.

H: You mention in your interview with them. how you still feel like you’re coming into the backdoor of spaces like Chicago’s Art Institute, in spite of your global fame. What are the spaces today, in the United States, Europe, or anywhere else you’ve traveled that you feel comfortable owning a front door reception?

VD: First of all I am admired in certain circles, but I am hardly a well known entity. When I began my career I would proclaim myself as “world famous” or an “internationally acclaimed blacktress” but I was using these terms to negate the typical showbiz lexicon.  With my writing in queer zines and independent publications I acted as if the queercore movement was this huge vibrant scene when in actuality it was quite small, but in pretending to be a larger movement it actually activated its growth internationally.

By being a back door,  around-the-way-girl, I can influence culture surreptitious[ly] without the hyper scrutiny that comes with entering the front door arenas of so-called respectability and adulation.

Installation view of Vaginal Davis: The White to Be Angry at the Art Institute of Chicago

H: Who are some of your favorite queer, punk artists of color working today?

VD: My Chicano Sister of the Clothe Alice Bag Armendariz, AKA Violence Girl, who is the co-founder of one of LA’s first and foremost riotously creative punk bands, The Bags, has always stood out ahead of everyone else with her talent, intelligence,  charisma, beauty, unparalleled style, and unrelenting activism.

Of the younger generation, I have really been impressed by Osa Atoe of the punk band the New Bloods and the zine Shotgun Seamstress. Her creative synergy reminds me so much of the many unsung Black girls in the punk and post punk scene of yore.  Osa is very humble and never tries to bring attention to herself, she just does her work quietly and effortlessly and has managed to attract a throng of admirers and attention from publishers for her amazing thoughtful writing.  I am expecting big things to emerge from Miss Osa, guaranteed.

H: What significance do you feel about The White to Be Angry appearing in Chicago, given the history of the film’s name and its relationship to Chicago?

At the SPEW Homographic Convergence at Randolph Street Gallery in Chicago, 1990, the first queer zine convention, one of the main organizers Steve LaFreniere was attacked and stabbed by some suburban white supremacists while hanging outside of Hot House during the closing night party and festivities.  This was 30 years ago and I still remember the intensity of that night. After a wonderful convention with everyone in such a good mood the horror of Steve getting shanked and almost dying still overwhelms me.

There was so much hope and optimism in the air that evening and then something tragic happens and brings in a mist of darkness.  That’s why one can never let down their guard and become complacent. You must be vigilant at all times. The stabbing was definitely floating about in my mind when I started working on The White to be Angry, the concept album in 1994 and the video installation that I began in 1995 after the big Queercore Festival in Chicago.  It’s only fitting that twenty-one years after White to be Angry‘s initial debut at Outfest Film Festival in Los Angeles that it makes its way back to Chicago and The Art Institute.

Installation view of Vaginal Davis: The White to Be Angry at the Art Institute of Chicago

H: During your talk, you spoke at length about how everyone in the United States wants to become “a walking career.” Do you see that happening amongst American artists? How so?

VD: The phrase “Walking Career” is a term coined by the late great artist, performer, and filmmaker Jack Smith.  He was wary of careerism, and careerists. Jack called a lot of people out! He didn’t care.

There is nothing wrong with being ambitious but some artists take it to an extreme, always giving you the “hard sale.”  I prefer the “soft sale” approach. Jack Smith was very critical of the “Uncle Fishhooks” of the world. That Jack Smith had such a way with language.  He also called careerists “Yvonne DeCarlos,” after the 1940s actress groomed to take the place of Universal Pictures’s reigning exotic Technicolor film star Maria Montez.  Maria was volatile and didn’t cooperate with her promoters while Yvonne was an eager beaver starlet ready to do backflips to reach another rung on the career ladder.

Sometimes trying too hard can backfire and all those strategies and plans can just evaporate before you even know what’s happened.  It’s a cautionary tale that artists should take to heart. It’s nice to get attention but it’s not the be-all and end-all.

H: Historical accuracy is a frequent complaint of journalists and cultural critics when consuming film, literature, and other forms of artistic production. However, something that resonated from your talk was [your point]“you cannot speculate about the future unless you’re willing to speculate about the past.” What is at stake when we refuse to speculate about the past?

VD: It’s all about perspective.  Those jocks and cheerleaders and popular kids in high school peaked early and then what?  Nothing. It’s the misfits, the maladjusted, who advance culture. Everyone else is just a slug.  The maladjusted RULE!!!! in the long run.

H: During your performance, there was a brief repetition of “women, with weapons,” three times. What would a feminist state look like to you?

VD: I love repetition for emphasis.  I had actually gone to a theocratic ministry school as a child.  I loved the study of the bible and the pageantry involved in religious services and ritual. Also my public speaking abilities were forged in ministry school.  Of course my religious training was more for the historic elements then the rhetoric. My mother questioned and rebelled against organized religion but she still wasn’t able to fully escape her Black Creole Catholic upbringing and didn’t shy away from it but embraced it.  Her involvement in Liberation Theology led to her fully accepting her lesbianism and then that led to her joining a radical lesbian group with ties to Red Army Faction and Symbionese Liberation Front. My mother put her penis where her mouth is and when she died in June, 2000 I had to help my sister get rid of her stockpile of weapons that included a bazooka, AK-47s, and hand grenades.  I kid you not! In Los Angeles they have a program where you can turn in weapons, no questions asked, so when the police came and [got] them out of the ‘50s dingbat apartment that my mother and sister lived in, [they] were visibly shaken by the arsenal of weapons in my mother’s travel trunks.

My mother always spoke fondly of World War 2; with all the men away it was like a feminist utopia., the camaraderie and sisterhood.  My mother worked as a Rosie the Riveter and also did hard labor on the railroad with infrastructure detail. I can only imagine from the stories my mother would tell when she was a bit drunk, that it was a panacea for her with no men around.  For a brief shining moment America in the early 1940s was a feminist state.

H: You have cited your mother’s art making as your core, saying if you’ve achieved any success it’s been by way of copying her. Which of your works do you feel her most in? How does “motherhood” impact your art making approach, if at all?

VD: I come from a matriarchal lineage, with my mother and Auntie both producing only women child[ren] of the promised land; that tradition is still growing strong with my niece and her girls, also with my niece’s oldest daughter who has her first child, a baby girl.

Nothing is ever coming out of my womb so I mother by mentoring young people.  It’s draining work but someone has to do it, and since I refuse to get involved with anyone romantically it’s where my main energies go.

Now that I am an elder spokeswoman I realize that I really dodged a bullet by keeping my independence and not getting sidetracked by the tyranny of tired romance.

Vaginal Davis: The White to Be Angry will reopens July 30 at the Art Institute of Chicago (111 South Michigan Avenue
, Chicago, Illinois). The exhibition was curated by Solveig Nelson and Hendrik Folkerts.

Keenan Teddy Smith is a writer and researcher native to Flint, Michigan. Currently living in Pilsen, Chicago, Teddy’s words have appeared in PAPER Magazine, the Advocate, RaceBaitr, and the New York...