I entered into emerging artist Davion Alston’s downtown apartment to a flurry of movement. For a second, I thought I was late to the party. The coffee table had been moved to make floor space for 20 or so 11-by-13-inch photos of paper bags, Skittles, and various objects pertaining to Alston’s most recent thoughts on colorism and police violence. I was just beginning to make out the contents of a large black glossy print when Davion offered me strawberries, kiwi, oranges, and watermelon. “Aloe juice?” he asked as I set up shop at his kitchen table.
I was taken aback by such intentional hospitality. Sure, that’s the Southern way, but as a budding art writer on my first real gig, I saw myself as primarily concerned with the artist and my own professional posturing—I didn’t know we’d get to break some bread. “I brought this up in my professional development class,” he explained while clearing up table space, “I just felt like for a studio visit, there should be food!”
Alston’s thoughtfulness is just as sincere and intentional as his question-driven, contemplative artwork—successfully so.
The South Georgia native recently won an Idea Capital Grant for an ongoing project on the Sapelo Islands, for which he’ll honor his connections to Gullah/Geechie bloodlines and grapple with displacement. This summer, he’ll be working at the Anderson Ranch Arts Center in Aspen, and in February 2017, he’ll begin an Elsewhere Museum Residency in North Carolina. Alston is also receiving attention and mentorship from significant voices in contemporary art. Most recently, he received an unexpected request from artist Bethany Collins, whom he met only briefly in the fall when she installed her pieces for the Atlanta Contemporary. Collins later caught wind of his current work and selected him for the 2016 Hambidge Art Auction + Field Experiment Gala later this month. [He’s also one of our Art Crushes in this Saturday’s auction!]
For Hambidge, he plans to show A Display of a One-Way Conversation, a photographic project broadly inspired by Louis Agassiz’s scientific daguerreotypes of slaves and the conditioning of these photographs in service of the system of slavery, and later, stereotypes. In this series, Alston photographs himself holding pieces of Plexiglas to magnify, distort, and obscure certain facial and bodily features—ear, chin, clavicle, hand, groin. Sometimes he gazes back into the camera, sometimes he doesn’t. He includes either his whole upper body or the lower portion. Meditating on the tool of observation, Alston contemplates visuality as a space of reflexive interface, curious about the direction and experience of exploitation. For these images, “I treat myself less as a subject, more so an object,” he states.
In this work, Alston participates as photographer and photographed, not as self-portraiture, but as conflation. How else can we consider exploitation once we complicate the dichotomy of subject and object, and their respective assignments, seeing and seen? What else is possible in visual space when, according to scholar Nicole Fleetwood, “the visible black body is always already troubling in the dominant visual field,” whether affirmed as a dignified Douglassonian subject or critiqued as a phrenologic failure?
Originally influenced by tensions of black being in photography, A Display of a One-Way Conversation exemplifies major themes that drive Alston’s body of work to date: blackness, universality, objecthood, and endurance. These themes are floating back to the forefront of art and thought, but have always been prevalent in Alston’s own life.
Adopted into a military family, Alston became acutely aware of context and what it means to reposition oneself over and over again, remaining the same and also different. “[I try] to find a way to project myself and be vulnerable to an audience,” he explains, “to show vulnerability without shooting myself in a literal way.” To photograph himself as a subject raises interior questions that do not necessarily interest him. For Alston, these interior questions perform on the surface anyway. “Growing up in Bible Belt South GA, my upbringing shaped later on in my life that, ‘Oh, I’m black. Especially black.’ I need to figure out how does one handle that blackness in a way that’s transparent, where everybody looks at it, but at the same time, see that I’m also dealing with ‘too-light-to-be-dark, too-dark-to-be-white.’”
Throughout Alston’s personal history, as adopted and as black, he has constantly had to take into account the complexity of lived black experiences—color, beauty standards, injustices, community, traditions, ritual, and so on. In contrast, objects interest him for their assumed simplicity and tangibility:
“I take all these objects [including himself], shoot them in a very uniform way, shoot them over and over and over and over until my thoughts are wrapped around this object. Then, I get an ‘Aha’ moment. Very banal stuff, I shoot. But most of this stuff stems from metanarratives of the context these things relate to.”
Alston engages physical limitations and transformations of objects in order to re-engage blackness as a thing. As with the work of Carrie Mae Weems and Adrian Piper, the subject and object is the same.
The Food for Thought series “pertains to certain deaths of African American youth by police in their travels to, say, a convenience store or the location where they were killed,” Alston explains. Focused on whatever the youths had in their possession at the time, Alston imagines the objects before and after the killing. In one diptych, a bag of Skittles stands tall in the first frame and toppled over with its contents spilling out in the second frame, as if the bag had been dropped on the ground. Alston also employs an Arizona Fruit Punch, a pack of cigarillos, and a ham & cheese sandwich. He entitles each diptych with the exact distance (in feet) the victim travelled from one place to the area where they were shot. By focusing on objects and their transformation in Food for Thought, without explicitly stating context, he opens up a space of consideration that goes beyond one’s ability to personalize their viewing experience or consume a personal narrative laid out for them. For him, the images aren’t even necessarily about the individual victim’s stories. Rather, he considers the jarring and confusing jolt that the objects in his diptychs can produce, wondering how these disruptive affects constantly play out around other notions of blackness, both lived and considered.
Elephant in the Room, a piece that is locked on his website at the participants’ request, stretches Alston’s conception of form and objecthood. In this video triptych, Alston sits center between two white men. For 10 minutes, he and the two men repeat the word “nigger.” The camera often shifts focus, and the facial expressions change along with both the tone and form of the spoken word. Alston’s face seems to express anger while the focus softens. For the others, “one guy didn’t want to say it, and the other guy was super aggressive, saying it really fast, fast,” he recounts. The word begins to turn into something else as the second guy repeats and speeds up. “It starts to sound like nig-GAR, nig-GAR, nig-GAR,” continuing to transform in texture and tone as the three men’s utterances overlap, bleed into, and repel each other. Both in this video and the larger society, the word “nigger” constantly circulates and transforms, as does its conflicts of meaning, spelling, and ownership. I don’t think I’ve gone a day without hearing this debate over the “N-word” and inhabiting the ambivalent space it takes up in both history and everyday life. The “N-word” is always a thing. In Alston’s work, a literal thing.
Alston uses a variety of methodologies to approach intricate questions and histories, sometimes leaving me with a desire for more consistent follow-through. Yet, I recognize that he has taken full advantage of school as his time to try things out, tamper with some ideas. A couple months away from earning his BFA in photography from Georgia State University, Alston has received many-an-inquiry about his ultimate goals as an artist. When I posed the question, after a bit of hesitation, he said that he would love to eventually be represented by Jack Shainman Gallery. “That is always the goal,” he chuckled.
But, more importantly, he aims to become a critical artistic voice in and of Georgia. “I think we’re starting to be seen more as a serious city with critical analysis of identities,” he says, “we’re going to keep shifting.”
In the iconic words of André 3000, “the South’s got somethin’ to say,” and Davion Alston will undoubtedly reenergize the conversation.
Jovonna Jones received her B.A. from Emory University in 2015, with highest honors in African-American Studies. She is the co-founder of BlacQurl.com, a publication that amplifies black women’s voices in art and media, and is a current participant in the BURNAWAY Art Writers Mentorship Program.