LOS ANGELES — Artists know that negative space holds opportunity for so much creation, and those involved in spiritual practice know that shadow work contains the deepest opportunities for self-exploration. An artist like Kenturah Davis explores both — and in so doing creates opportunities for us to see the sacred and meditative in the words we write.

Dark Illumination, on view at OXY ARTS, the art gallery of Occidental College, is the artist’s first solo institutional exhibition in Los Angeles and the culmination of her residency at the gallery. Two projections near the entrance appear to show the artist at work in her residency. We see her arms and hands gracefully etching onto what looks like stained glass as she creates her works. In reality, these are just projections, but I had to check behind the wall to confirm, just to make sure she wasn’t actually there.

Davis, the exhibition text explains, draws her inspiration from the earliest forms of writing and mark-making, whether on temple walls or clay. Indeed, while much of this early writing had a role in accounting and business, it also had a role in worship. The famous hieroglyphs of Egypt, for example, are preserved within tombs and temples as thousand-year memories of a long-ago civilization.

Kenturah Davis, “Planar vessel XV” (2023)

In one portrait made with rubber stamps, “In Praise of Shadows,” a figure gazes upward, to what I imagine is the sun or moon. Upon closer inspection, the figure’s face and hair are made of dozens, perhaps hundreds, of rubber letter stamps. Next to this piece, “planar vessel XVI” consists of 12 clay tiles that form another figure staring directly at us. Upon her eyes is written a passage from Carlo Rovelli’s The Order of Time:

The hardest stone, in light of what we have learned from chemistry, from physics, from mineralogy, from geology, from psychology, is in reality a complex vibration of quantum fields, a momentary interaction of forces, a process that for a brief moment manages to keep its shape, to hold itself in equilibrium before disintegrating again into dust, a brief chapter in the history of interactions between the elements of the planet, a trace of Neolithic humanity …

“Planar vessel XV,” spanning nearly 15 feet, contains 168 tiles composed of further reflections and contemplations of time and space as a figure appears to dance and dissipate into light. Set in a dark gallery space, the installation encourages soft reflection and contemplation about the nature of light and writing in forming the basis of how we see the world.

It’s as if Davis is reminding us of how magical it must have been, some 5,000 years ago, to see writing appear for the first time. In dark temples illuminated only by fire, the writing would have appeared like ghosts, placing in print our very human thoughts and culture. Today, writing continues to contain the possibilities of magic, but it is also a chore, a casual note fired off while waiting for the subway, a piece of bureaucracy. 

But expressed so often as dark text on illuminated paper (or screens, which is likely how you are reading this right now), writing continues to be one of human society’s great inventions — millennia old but relatively young in the history of our species and therefore subject to evolve. Through depictions of Black femmes, Davis asks us to consider writing’s next evolution, moving beyond the patriarchs it’s historically captured to a broader range of human experiences. As Roberto Casati, one of the authors whose words appear in Davis’s clay tiles, writes, “the shadow of the earth reveals the true nature of the moon.”

Kenturah Davis, “artist book” (2023)
Kenturah Davis, “planar vessel XVI” (2023)
Kenturah Davis, “dark illumination I” (2023), detail
Installation view of materials in Kenturah Davis: Dark Illumination at OXY ARTS, Los Angeles
Kenturah Davis, “Fall and Recover–Dunham” (2021)

Kenturah Davis: Dark Illumination continues through April 29, 2023 at OXY ARTS (4757 York Blvd, Highland Park, Los Angeles). The exhibition was organized by OXY ARTS with the artist.

AX Mina (aka An Xiao Mina) is an author, artist and futures thinker who follows her curiosity. She co-produces Five and Nine, a podcast about magic, work and economic justice.