Interview with C. Davida Ingram

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Interview with C. Davida Ingram

By Sarah Margolis-Pineo October 31, 2017

In-depth, critical perspectives exploring art and visual culture on the West Coast.


C. Davida Ingram arrived in Seattle a decade ago with many noting that the cultural life of the city has been transformed in her wake. As an artist, she infuses a profound sense of beauty and wonder into everything she makes. As an activist, she engages communities as a social actor, mobilizing individuals who have experienced racial or gender discrimination to collaborate on performances, discussions, and ritual acts, which become celebratory expressions of power. This September, Ingram was named the 2018 Jacob Lawrence Legacy Resident at the University of Washington. In anticipation of this appointment, Ingram discusses what inspires her multifaceted creative work.

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Sarah Margolis-Pineo: At what point did you realize social work—public engagement/collaboration—could be strategies for your creative practice?

C. Davida Ingram: My process has always been to ask: What are the conditions I’m living in? How am I responding to them? And, can I coalesce a group of people around this?

When I was in graduate school, the program I attended was deeply engrained with institutional racism. I’ve never felt more invisible as a woman of color. The way that I was able to contend with that environment was to develop my project, Come Hungry (2006). Come Hungry involved posting ads on Craigslist for white men, subtly provoking conversations about race and gender, without explicitly stating that as the intent. The ad read: Black woman willing to make your favorite meal for white man. You bring the ingredients. I prepare. Come hungry. If I had read that, I would have thought: someone is up to something here. But because of the prevalence and absurdity of racism and sexism in this country, it was actually responded to often and without questioning.

As an artist, I wanted to create space to have a conversation. This particular project was imperfect, but I like to I think of art the way I think of that Parliament [Funkadelic] song “One Nation Under a Groove,” “a way to dance out of your constrictions.” Moving this way gave me space to consider my agency. Since creating Come Hungry, my work has mostly focused on social interactions. I don’t consider myself attached to any particular form. I’m committed to ideas and that is reflected in my more recent works like Lexical Tutor, Procession, and Fanon and Decca.

C. Davida Ingram. Lexical Tutor, 2017.

SMP: What did Come Hungry teach you about participatory art making? How has this knowledge informed subsequent projects?

CDI: I had a conversation with my graduate school mentor with Come Hungry where she questioned the way I was “experimenting” with people. She reminded me that in science, one needs to be considerate toward doing no harm. She wondered if I could claim as much within my project’s framing.

I’m glad she asked me that question because I don’t think it was on my mind. As someone with working class roots who identifies as a Black, queer woman, my understandings of power and agency largely examine the way I factor in to a given environment. In the end, Come Hungry made me realize I want an ethical approach to my subjects. I tried to continue the project in Seattle, but there aren’t enough Black people for it to have the right synergy. Seattle just doesn’t have the Black social landscape that originally moored the work in New York. It was also at this point that I realized if I don’t intentionally make relationships with people of color, especially Black women, I won’t have them in my life. I’ve shifted away from a fixation on the dynamics within primarily white spaces, even though I now inhabit one.

SMP: How did your practice shift coming to Seattle from what you’ve described as the Black space of Chicago and New York? How have you cultivated Black space for yourself? And, do you relate these gestures to the institutionally-defined genre of “social practice” art?

CDI: One critique of social practice is that artists are doing one of two problematic things: they’re either “Tom Sawyering”—getting participants to do something under the guise that it’s for them; or that they’re “Columbusing”—as in: I’m going to “discover” you. These dynamics are also frequently racialized.

The fact I engage the very communities my work is in dialogue with, specifically Black and queer communities, makes a tremendous difference. I hope that I’m able to do work that engages a notion of Blackness not defined by white supremacy, and queerness not defined by the cisgender or heteronormative. I also hope that I succeed at valuing Black womanhood, which has been undervalued in American feminism.

In Seattle, my modes of community building have been around establishing accountability, having vision, and encouraging rigor. Black intellectual thought has contributed a lot to our liberation in America. I’m committed to having spaces to think about the conditions Black people and people of color are living in and what might produce our freedom—spaces for communion, dancing, good music—all the conversational prerequisites for creativity.

C. Davida Ingram. The Deeps, 2015; video performance excerpt featuring Hanna Benn, Rachael Ferguson. Editing: Inye Wokoma.

SMP: Since Come Hungry, you seem more deliberate about selecting your collaborators. How are you selecting artists, musicians, actors, and other creatives you’d like to work with? What makes a great collaboration?

CDI: Fanon and Decca was shot with the actress Amontaine Aurore who inhabited the two roles that I wrote and directed. We talked about Black cadence (she is from Seattle and I am from Chicago). I edited the piece with Inye Wokoma, and my favorite part of teaming up with him was seeing how to frame the scenes where Decca, character is an art critic, is being the foil to Fanon, the artist who is a bit acerbic and ironic in most of her lines.

There’s something about friendships and collaboration that’s really important to me, too. When I worked with composer/singer Hanna Benn on The Deeps (2015, created for Genre Bender), she ended up teaching me so much about music. She’s a fantastic composer and vocalist, and has tremendous emotional intelligence. The Deeps was a performance piece with video installations built into the storytelling. One portion of the narrative was about my seeing a hypnotist to find out why I stopped crying, along the way I look at grieving the death of my grandmother and addressing mother wounds. This is why I think Hanna’s abilities to put emotion to music was an important connection for me to make as her collaborator. If everything works out the way I want we will team up again this winter during my residency at the University of Washington Jacob Lawrence gallery.

C. Davida Ingram. Fanon & Decca,  2015; video performance featuring Amontaine Aurore. Editing: Inye Wokoma.

SMP: I’ve heard you say: “I don’t fight because I want to; I fight because it’s necessary.” What would you say are the most urgent issues confronting us now, and how does your current creative practice address these concerns?

CDI: That’s funny—I don’t remember saying that, but I have a terrible memory. Grace Lee Boggs’s advice to “wage love” makes sense to me as we look at the expansion of white male supremacy. We have enemies that have homicidal intent when it comes to Muslims, undocumented families, Black people, trans folks, and basically anyone who is not white—particularly white and male.

I think this is a time for white women to stop foregrounding themselves in Feminism. I think it is a time for cisgender and transgender women of color to sort out how we belong to one another. And, I think it is a time for us to rethink language and divisive terms where they fracture human experience and lead us to forget what we desire to have in our lives—who we need, and want to stay connected to.

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C. Davida Ingram is a conceptual artist and activist based in Seattle, Washington whose work creates counter-narratives about race and gender via lens-based media, social practice, performance, and installation. She has exhibited at the Frye Art Museum, Northwest African American Museum, Bridge Productions, Intiman Theater, and Town Hall in Seattle, as well as at Evergreen College in Olympia, and her writing has appeared in Arcade, Ms. Magazine blog, The James Franco Review, and The Stranger. In 2014, Ingram received the 2014 Stranger Genius Award in Visual Arts and in 2016, she became a Kennedy Center Citizen Artist Fellow. This year, she was awarded the Jacob Lawrence Legacy Residency at the University of Washington.

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