Many of Portland's young artists want to show you their traumatic experiences with fashion, their exciting times with nature or their theories on art. Not damali ayo. For the past three months, the 29-year-old artist has pounded out assemblages on a topic rarely touched in Portland's art world: racism. Her installation Shift: we are not yet done, opening at Mark Woolley Gallery on Thursday, breaks with local trends and explores color divisions in every day society.
Ayo's studio, at the back of the Carleton-Hart Architecture Firm, is as wonderfully messy as her art, which often reveals the hot glue and nails that bind it. When I visited, two glass mugs stood on a table, ready for ayo's 3 o'clock tea time, next to recently completed "inventions," everyday objects redesigned with explicit racial overtones (a nametag reads "Hello, My Race is...").
The self-taught artist, who creates sets for defunkt theater and has participated in small group exhibitions, sprinted around the space between found and artist-produced objects in bare feet, a hammer slung through a belt loop and a green handkerchief in her pocket. She talked eagerly about a piece inspired by the actress Lisa Bonet, whom people say she resembles.
As with most things in life--from Mickey Mouse to her last name of Patterson (which she dropped; ayo is a middle name)--damali sees this comparison in terms of race. For Shift, she combined text with photos of Bonet and other celebrities she supposedly looks like, namely Alice Walker and Whoopi Goldberg. Oh, and Meg Ryan. "It'll make people think," says the artist. Ayo was born, she says, of a Malcolm X mother and an MLK father, and is not someone likely to be cast to give Tom Hanks bunny love. "It's more interesting to me when people say I look like Meg Ryan. It tells me they're looking at my face and features, not just my skin color."
If ayo is not the Princess of Subtlety, then she is the Diana of Fierce Intelligence. Her rough and raw work, which often includes poetry, is one part bluntness, one part argumentation, and one part passion. It persuades more than evokes. "She's challenging, invigorating, exploratory," says architect Bill Hart, who helped damali procure the temporary studio. "She presents a lot of different ideas and thoughts. Some of her ideas are easy to digest. Others are a little rougher." Says ayo, "People ask me what I do, and then they say, 'Why do you make this uncomfortable stuff?'"
As for her work, ayo uses anything she can get her hands on. In Shift, salt shakers, coffee-can lamps and ripped-up sheets hang together like the booty from a construction-yard raid. A Brown University graduate with degrees in Public Policy and American Civilization, this analytical soul became an artist by near-epiphany two years ago, after a short career leading diversity workshops (although ayo had tinkered with art ever since building a model of the White House in fourth grade). "When I was in college, I did a lot of critical race theory writing, but realized quickly that I'd said all I wanted to with words," she states. "After I moved here I was dealing with such ignorance, I had a dream about a piece of artwork that told a story about racism in the educational system. I woke up in the morning and created the work and just never stopped doing it."
Shift includes a series of blindfolds, one of which is labeled "I don't see it that way." "People always say that to me, as if I were stating an opinion," she says. "I'm revealing the truth of systemic racism, and I'm telling stories from my life." Past exhibitions have told more personal stories. A graphic photo nailed to a slip last year caused some audience members at Artists Repertory Theatre's gallery to wonder if she'd been raped. Shift, ayo jokes, is the first exhibition that doesn't have a picture of her naked.
Along with her ambition, ayo is building her career with savvy and honesty. "Her approach was thoughtful and direct when she came in to meet me," says Mark Woolley. "She said, 'I've seen every gallery in town. This one suits my work. Tell me how I can show here.' I appreciated that honesty." While I perused the studio, ayo installed lighting in an old cable spool turned table. In the finished project, people will sit at different place settings and listen to a conversation on headphones. "I want that people won't look at the world the same way again," she says. "It has to make a strong statement in the gallery and then diffuse in the world to subtle effect. I want to defy convention. I want Shift to be something people share and describe to each other. If I can do that, I'll feel like I've succeeded."
Shift: we are not yet done
Mark Woolley Gallery, 120 NW 9th Ave., #210, 224-5475. 11 am-6 pm Tuesdays-Saturdays. Opens First Thursday, Sept. 6. Preview party 6 pm Wednesday, Sept. 5.
Conceptual artist Julia A. Fenton's newest installation, Trench, will also be on show at the gallery.