IN THE FUTURE WHEN.....: Damien Davis Delano Dunn Tiffany Smith



By Diana McClure

The exhibition In The Future When…falls within a cultural moment when the black speculative arts, astro- blackness, and Afrofuturism are gaining momentum in popular culture and academia. Cultural artifacts known and unknown, are in fact bountiful in regard to the movements ever-evolving tenants, some of which include: metaphysics, aesthetics, theoretical and applied science, social sciences, and programmatic space[1].
Science fiction writers Octavia Butler and Samuel R. Delaney; musician and filmmaker Sun Ra[2]; visual artist Wangechi Mutu; and, most recently, the blockbuster film Black Panther, are often cited as some of the most visible examples of innovators in the field. The metaphysical natures of jazz musicians like John Coltrane can also be credited with preparing a wider public for a 21st century capacity to embrace the expanding edges of black imaginations.
Welancora Gallery as a platform for contemporary art, and the efforts put forth by curator, Daricia Mia DeMarr, and the three artists featured in In The Future When…, Damien Davis, Delano Dunn, and Tiffany Smith, are perhaps most related to these trajectories in terms of their contribution to an evolving phenomenon in the current zeitgeist: the reclaiming of imagination by typically disenfranchised or marginalized people. It takes effort to imagine, and perhaps even more stamina to invent. The power to shift consciousness from master narratives steeped in outdated perspectives and the fallout of misguided value systems, toward the possibilities and potentialities of self-actualized representation, is closely linked to the liberation of individual minds.
To that end, Dunn’s work reimagines the story arc of the character Jim from Mark Twain’s novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, first published in 1884. In Twain’s version, Jim escapes a life of slavery to become Finn’s right-hand man on the road, and subsequently, a hotly debated side character in a defining work of American literature. However, in Dunn’s visual narrative Jim exists at the center of a series of small scale collages that cast him in a time traveling adventure with superpowers. In each piece Jim’s newfound agency takes centerstage. In one work, an amusing snapshot like scene where a regal Jim poses with a grinning Ronald Reagan in a cowboy hat, the juxtaposition of time periods is uncanny. The image, The End of Infinity (2018), evokes a strange and compelling sense of the absurd and delusional nature of ignorant privilege. A reversal of fortunes seems to be at work, Reagan appears to be the minstrel, not Jim. In the series of 12 works Dunn uses color, texture, lines and shard like shapes to create a superb sense of action and movement. Jim appears indomitable as he moves through the series of work, acting as the master of his own cosmic destiny. The series may also call to mind the stops/scenarios along the fictitiously real underground railroad at the center of Colson Whitehead’s 2017 Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Underground Railroad.
A group of wall sculpture’s made by Davis appear to be in conversation with the work of Dunn through color, form, narrative and a collaging of iconic symbols. However, Davis takes viewers into an experimental space where he explores the systematic structuring of a black visual language. Steeped in familiar symbols such as a silhouetted profile of Nefertiti, a hair pick, a cowrie shell and the power button symbol for a computer among others, Davis digitizes these visual signifiers into vector objects that function somewhat like an alphabet. The pieces on view in In The Future When...are investigations into the intersection of theories laid out in the book Afrofuturism 2.0 by Reynold Anderson and Charles E. Jones, and 9 episodes of Star Trek directed by the actor Avery Brooks, a.k.a. Benjamin Sisko, the first black captain to appear in any of the televised Star Trek iterations. Each work assembles a mix of plexiglass, mirror, and/or birch objects in layers to create a three-dimensional collage held together with steel wing screws. Reading Davis’ work is an open-ended adventure that is balanced effectively with the asymmetrical essence of the formal choices in his pieces. Visually, the works call to mind the gears used in the interior design of mechanical clocks and watches. Fascination Blackamoors Collage #150 (2018), is perhaps the most accessible of the pieces due to its tight two-tone gold color palette and limited vocabulary of 5 symbols. However, despite being compact, trying to decode its non-linear narrative could result in endless options.
In contrast to Davis’ and Dunn’s use of unorthodox narrative techniques and familiar iconography as a form of agency, Smith stays firmly grounded in the moment, inviting people to consider self-reflection as the seed of the future. Through her own photographic self-portraits and a selfie station within her installation (where visitors can take a seat, view themselves in a mirror and take selfies), Smith creates a self-conscious and de-stabilizing environment that calls into question self-perception. The symbolism found in her work references her roots in the Caribbean and the disruption and reconfiguration of identity that transpires in cross cultural contexts; more specifically for Smith, in relation to America and the black American experience. In one sense, the convergence or collision of aspects of black diasporas on a personal level for Smith, echoes the evolving development of a Pan African astro-blackness movement. Smith’s work subtly inserts the vulnerability of exploring, imagining, and imaging one’s own identity in the context of depersonalized conceptual ideas.
The work of Dunn, Davis and Smith as a whole does not provide a sense of resolved intellectual or aesthetic choices, instead it courageously side steps dystopian visions of the future and acknowledges an ambiguous space of transition. The weight of history is deflated to some extent to make way for fresh starts that begin with an eye on the future, an awareness of the past, and an emphasis on the present moment - the seat of invention.
[1] Afrofuturism 2.0: The Rise of Astro-Blackness by Reynold Anderson and Charles E. Jones discusses these concepts and their antecedents, while expanding on 20th century concepts of Afrofuturism.
[2] Sun Ra’s 1973 film Space is the Place offers a cinematic visualization of what could be considered “astro-blackness” and his musicality lives on, despite his passing, through the still active Sun Ra Arkestra.