Shotgun Reviews

Kenturah Davis: Narratives and Meditations at Papillion

Shotgun Reviews are an open forum where we invite the international art community to contribute timely, short-format responses to an exhibition or event. If you are interested in submitting a Shotgun Review, please click this link for more information. In this Shotgun Review, Anna Martine Whitehead reviews Kenturah Davis: Narratives and Meditations at Papillion in Los Angeles.

Kenturah Davis. Narrative IV, 2014; grease pencil on paper, Wenge wood box; 75 x 54 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Papillion, Los Angeles.

Kenturah Davis. Narrative IV, 2014; grease pencil on paper, Wenge wood box; 75 x 54 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Papillion, Los Angeles.

As an artist playing with the limits of realism, Kenturah Davis points to the construction and materiality of the portrait, while also emphasizing the internal and social nature of language in her solo show Narratives and Meditations at Papillion in Los Angeles.

Through an impressive mastery of her subjects’ image, Davis creates portraits of brown-skinned, kinky-haired, vocal subjects. Installed in a grid-like pattern on the wall, the series Narratives comprises two graphite murals, each formed by numerous sheets of archival paper. Within these two murals, four portraits anoint the gallery lounge. The faces emerge from lines of Davis’ poetry, scrawled in densely layered cursive script that reads: “There’s something about dignity/And something about shame/There’s something about honesty/And something about blame…” Covering each sheet, the text creates a wide range of value gradation, punctuated with highlights of negative space. In the next room,nine framed portraits (graphite, 42 x 38 in. each) from the series Meditations command the viewer’s gaze. Similar to those in the Narrative series, these images are also constructed from layers of text; however, they read as mantras, or vocalizations of the self. Whether it’s Davis’ own writing, scripture, song lyrics, or a quote from Audre Lorde, a sentiment of personal resilience is conveyed. The text constitutes each subject, but it also activates a dialogue between subjects, as well as the subjects and viewers, that works to intercept culturally constructed notions of otherness made apparent by their deftly captured features.

While Davis does not make portraits only of black women, black women are her primary focus of study. Her reverence for black women, and the legacies of black feminism (the privileging of self-definition, the articulation of a visual beauty that is inherently coupled with blackness, the assertion of a powerful femininity), are apparent in the number of women she draws and her decision to situate them equally within the context of Audre Lorde and the Bible. Even though the texts convey sentiments of prideful endurance, and though the absence of color renders the faces as almost iconic, Davis’ treatment of her subjects also reveals an interest in vulnerability. From the soft lines and dark contours of their faces, to the unruly kinks of their hair, her portraits are full of complexity. Davis maintains an attention to detail that simultaneously complicates the images’ minimal arrangement and the internal strength conveyed through the text. There is no lack of confidence in Narratives and Meditations, but these beautiful people are more than prideful. Their gazes reveal reflexivity, timidity, joy, and exhaustion, and in this way, the portraits reflect what it means to be utterly human.

Kenturah Davis: Narratives and Meditations will be on view at Papillion in Los Angeles through October 26, 2014.

Anna Martine Whitehead is an artist and writer based in Chicago and the Bay Area. Her work interrogates race, gender, and loss at the limits of performance, and can be explored at