Welcome back to the Monument Lab podcast. This episode, we focus on St. Louis. For the past two years, Monument Lab has worked closely with the Pulitzer Arts Foundation, mapping monuments in St. Louis. That includes traditional landmarks and unofficial sites of memory, whether they are existing, potential, or erased. To mark the close of our project together, we wanted to speak with locally-rooted MADAD, a brilliant and thoughtful collective of artists and designers from St. Louis whose work highlights spatial injustice and cultural memory gaps in the region.
MADAD’s Damon Davis, Mallory Rukhsana Nezam, and De Nichols work to reimagine how joy, justice, and interactivity improve public spaces. The group started their collaborations during the making of Mirror Casket, a sculpture, performance, and visual call to action made in the aftermath of the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson in 2014. Mirror Casket is now in the collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Their new project, Black Memory STL: Division, Displacement, and Local Diaspora, is a multi-year series of public art installations and interventions with the Brickline Greenway and the Griot Museum of Black History.
MADAD are also 2020 Monument Lab Fellows, and are featured in the exhibition and book project, Shaping the Past with the Goethe Institut and the German Federal Agency for Civic Education.
Paul Farber: De Nichols, Damon Davis and Mallory Rukhsana Nezam. Welcome to the Monument Lab podcast.
De Nichols: Thanks for having us.
Damon Davis: Yes definitely.
Mallory Ruksana Nezam: Thanks Paul.
Farber: So you're a trio whose work focuses and is based in St. Louis, but you have connections and routes in other places. Just to start, how has your work converged in St. Louis and how is it related to your connections to that place and other places too?
Nichols: Yeah, I can start. So I am not from St. Louis, I grew up in the Mississippi Delta. I grew up in a town called Cleveland Mississippi and, in many ways, Cleveland became in my mind a microcosm of a lot of the things that I learned, witness and experienced in St. Louis from thinking about spacial division and segregation, to seeing the power of black women leadership in a civic space. With being situated in St. Louis, that was by choice. I moved there in 2006 for undergrad and stayed, because I fell in love with the city in many ways the city molded me into the person who I am now, especially as an artist and a speaker and an organizer.
Nezam: I'll hop in, this is Mallory. Place is just so central to me as a person and to definitely to my work and to what I think has brought the three of us together. I'm from St. Louis. I was born on the south side in the city. And then moved to the county then lived on an island in the Caribbean and move back to the county, I've moved around a lot in St. Louis I think that's also kind of given me an interesting perspective on the region, because I was quite mobile around it and as I grew up moved out of St. Louis I went to undergrad in LA I lived abroad in Spain I studied in India. So kind of been moving around a lot, I lived in New York for a little bit. And I think also just kind of growing up in a really multicultural environment, I come from quite a few different backgrounds, through my family line and being able to see St. Louis through those different lenses to growing up, really showed me how many differentlives were being lived in the same place but not quite as shared as, I think I would want. They felt divided, a lot of the different parts of myself and different communities that I grew up and participated in. I didn't plan to move back to St. Louis as an adult I was actually in St. Louis for health reasons, I had come back from Spain. I was living in Spain planning to move back to Europe and was here, healing up. I just fell back in love with St. Louis and didn't think twice about it and stayed for a really long time and that's when I met De and Damon through a few different paths and I think coming back here has totally changed my life and grounded my work and given me a really clear sense of purpose.
Nichols: Mallory and I actually met in, I think 2011, on a road trip from St. Louis to Detroit, I was driving, I had no clue who she was. But we were going to a conference called Rust Belt to Artists Belt, and that was the start of the magic.
Nezam: That was a fun trip.
Davis: Yeah, well, this is Damon, and I'm from St. Louis too, I was born in East St. Louis, Illinois, so across the river. And I go with what Mallory said I think places is hugely important to what I think each and every one of us do, and I personally hold it up in all of the work that I do and not just places, physical, but also a place with the spirit that the people have, that you around, that has shaped a lot of the interest in the things that I've tackled in the work that I do, and I think that's what brought us all together. I met De I think, I don't know, we met on SLU (Saint Louis University) campus where we were meeting for some, I can't remember it was, an interview?
Nichols: Yeah, it was for the Contemporary Art Museum, we wanted to work with Damon for this effort that I used to run with the art bus in St. Louis. It was mainly just to brainstorm about what can we build in public space with a $500 budget, and I think you envisioned, what was it called again, Outdoor Exploratorium, and we ended up building, like dumpster diving, building it in the back of the museum.
Nichols: Yeah, out of cardboard and Christmas lights.
Nichols: But it started on Cherokee Street and people actually participated.
Davis: Yeah, it went, we went over fairly well for a five—modest budget. But I think that was great and I met Mallory through just hanging out with other artists. I think at parties and stuff we started seeing each other.
Nezam: Well then we were in the Community Arts Training Institute together. And so that was probably where we really connected.
Nichols: Yeah, I would say that's a thread, amongst all of us, and a lot of the other collaborators that we've worked with on projects like the Mirror Casket and stuff, all of us who were trained through the Community Arts Training Institute at the Regional Arts Commission.
Nezam: Shout out to CAT.
Davis: Yeah, CAT.
Farber: So as you moved in and out of the city, how have you encountered other people's stories about St. Louis, like what they assume, and how do you react to it?
Davis: It depends on what area of St. Louis we talking about or what context. A lot of times when I go places my accent tells on me and so people don't, sometimes they think I'm from Atlanta, so I'm like, "St. Louis is in the way I speak" so it's usually a good icebreaker before I even say where I'm from people ask me about my accent. So sometimes that's good but then other times I get a certain sort of arrogance, in certain circles, as though we are not as refined and not as intelligent as other people. And as of late, as the last five years—I guess that's not that late before a while now — we've become synonymous with uprising, because of what happened in Ferguson at least in circles and places when I pull up at, that's what's attached to St. Louis as a place either is super polarized is either a place that's fraught with problems and racism or the murder rate or it's just not an appealing place to be at. Or it's like a beacon of hope in a lot of cases with people that they find themselves in a world in the talking about social issues. People that are focused in on that, so I get a myriad of things but it's usually those two reactions when I go, when I leave, when I'm going nationally and internationally. It's usually one of those two things.
Nichols: Yeah, I would agree with that. In my experience its been almost this fascination that people have about St. Louis, as it relates to activism, civil resistance, uprisings, etc. For the last year, I have lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and in the East Coast you don't see a lot of folks who are from the Midwest and down South who are proudly saying here's where I'm from, let's talk about this. And so there's a lot of space in conversation that opens up because people want to know what is it in these areas that aren't always fully represented in these spaces on the coast. And so often, it's that people know about all the bad things about St. Louis. And they know heavily about the uprising in Ferguson. And for me, as a steward, as a person, as someone who likes to celebrate the hell out of St. Louis. I always fuse in. Yes, we have you know all these issues, and we have an arts Renaissance that's happening. We have some of the best food that you will ever get, we have all of these folks who are culture makers and history makers, and there's a richness to the culture here, and don't discount that part. So I always look forward to the conversations that we have, when I'm not in St. Louis, but as always ensure that there's that balance of perspective with it.
Nezam: Everything that they've said, and with De I also feel like I'm always repping St. Louis, not because I feel like I have to but because I genuinely love St. Louis and I don't think people outside of St. Louis understand it, so there's the question of how do people perceive St. Louis from outside of it and then also how does St. Louisians perceive themselves and the city itself, or the region itself. So yeah I agree with both of you, that folks don't really know, outside of St. Louis, don't really know St. Louis and that, I think, in a large sense is the same in most cities, people outside have some skewed perspective on what it's really like but it's harder for smaller cities, to be able to like let people know what's really going on there. But I would say when I hear stories inside of the region from people who live here, or even people who've moved away that grew up here, I find there, maybe a few different kinds of narratives. There's the classic underdog understanding where people are very humble about this place or maybe don't wish it was more than it is or wish it was something else, kind of always striving to be something that people feel like it will never be able to be. I find that narrative really frustrating, personally, because I think I was like dreamers and imaginers and creators it's like, we have to always believe that there's magic here and we have to have a deep sense of love and hope and not feel like we're never going to get to where we want to be. So but that is something I hear a lot of and I think that it's part of the work that we do we have to confront that perspective. And I also find, and I think this is not uncommon to St. Louis, but I definitely feel it's really thick here, that people have a very singular perspective of their cut of life in St. Louis and that's how it is here. And there are a lot of different St. Louis's I think, and I don't think a lot of people see all those different St. Louis's and honestly I live in Oakland right now and it's the same thing there, it's the same thing everywhere I've lived but I think that can be dangerous and that's why the story sharing and the work that creative folks do and especially work in public spaces is so powerful to break out of your little bubble way of seeing the place that you live in.
Farber: Your project, Black Memory STL: Division, Displacement,and Local Diaspora, is really powerfully named but I am curious about the last phrase, "Local Diaspora," it seems to tap into to what, especially what you're saying Mallory about there being many different St. Louis's. What does Local Diaspora mean to you? And what is it framed in response to?
Nichols: Yeah, I think you're spot on in the way of picking up what Mallory was just talking about of the many St. Louis's, and how that relates to a Local Diaspora, in the sense that black folks and folks of color are always being forced to move. When we think about some of the civic history of the city in the built environment. We have countless black neighborhoods that are now areas that are strip malls and shopping malls, from the Galleria to the new NGA to what has happened with Mill Creek Valley. The histories and the communities of folks there have been intentionally forced to relocate, and there's this sense of displacement that happens because of that. But it's not just the physical shifting and moving of people but also of history and culture and community and I think we have to reckon with that in the ways that we start to reimagine what the future of the city looks like.
Davis: Yean I wholeheartedly agree with that. And the fact that black people are always being moved, or people of color always being moved and herded speaks to something as much bigger as St. Louis, it speaks to the spirit of the United States, and how they see people of color, and people of other descents and how we're used as fuel for capitalism or for whatever the people that are in charge at the moment and usually white men seek to demonize us and put us in a place. So St Louis, and one funny thing about being here is you get to see everything turned up to the max. And so when you go to other places in the United States, there's a simple, what's the word I'm looking for, you are much more sensitive to what was overt in your hometown, in regards to racism or whatever isn't, your much more keen and awake when you see it show up in other places and St. Louis has been a historical battleground for the spirit of this country and multiple times over multiple generations. And so when you see something like what happened in Ferguson. That's because those people were moved out of the city, they were herded out to the city and they were designated a space where they could be, and then they were policed, and they were colonized for lack of a better word. And so when you see these flashpoints that make St. Louis famous, people like to think that they just come out of nowhere, they just materialize and why these people so mad and what's wrong with these kids and why they — you looking at generations of harm. Right. You're looking at generations of people being pushed on.
Nichols: Yeah, collective trauma.
Davis: And so, and then you when you see the eruption you shouldn't be surprised by it because its own brand for the United States, and just because you can see it much more clearly here does not mean that that ain't the order of the day everywhere else, they just figured out how to say it better and hide it easier.
Nezam: And I think that history in St. Louis is so physicalized, I feel that I can move through the city, and I can feel that history, so deeply in a way that is I think unique to St. Louis. I know I grew up here so maybe that's part of it but I just feel like that history it's just so blatant and seeping when you move through the spaces of the city.
Davis: Yeah, I agree.
Nichols: And in the fact that the politics of St. Louis is fixed on the exploitation and extraction of resources from black and brown communities like when we think about debtors prisons, and we think about how you can drive through so many of the municipalities across the region, especially in North County and literally get a ticket from town, to town, to town. And that's how they make their money like that, that's exploitation, that is violence that type of hoarding of people's resources for so that you can continue to police them have power over them that is violent and that is, like Damon said, such a quintessential example of what this nation is, so we have to reckon with that, we have to protest that we have to dismantle the pedagogy around the ways in which our government locally and nationally treats our residents, our citizens, our people.
Nezam: I also want to come back to the word "Diaspora," and the historic trauma that we're talking about right now because I feel like in Diasporas and it's really interesting to think of it in relation to just a city, but I feel like there is a practice of historic erasure that happens where you are either meant to forget your roots. And that's part of the practice. And I think that's also a white supremacist practice in general, and how that's applied to St. Louis. Absolutely. And so I'm curious what that means for our work, the historical ratio we talked about a lot in the context of the other projects that we work on and re-examining and lifting back up a hidden history. And what that means, as artists and creators in public space.
Davis: I think it's very important to unearth histories and keep them for the next generation and not for the oppressor either not to make the oppressor a better person. I'm not trying to teach them how to be human beings or how—
Nichols: —or appease their guilt—
Davis: —yeah, or any of that. This is for the people that know their reality, and to give them some vindication and some validation, so that they can remember and not lose those roots. And we're not talking about not growing, or none of that because that could be flipped or not, not evolving any of that it's just, you can't evolve with your know where you come from. When I think of the word Diaspora I think of people being marooned somewhere, or people being completely cut off from what they used to be and then having to have to create a new culture and a new identity. And if that happens to you every generation, it's really hard to get a footing on who you want to be and where you going to go and that is a strategic and systematic tool to keep people in a certain place if they can never get their feet on the ground, then they can never stand up to you. So the thing is that is not by accident, they bet on people getting moved and displaced like this every generation, I think is handed down and is taught. It's taught specifically to keep power by the people in power to their children and to whoever they the descendants is going to get the mantle later because they know if you start to let people believe in themselves right. That's what art does right, its not only a history keeper it give you a reference point that somebody that looks like you, or that comes from, that was born in the same body as you or however you designate the tribe that you from won at some point. And if all you ever see as losses, because they erase all the wins you will never try to stand up to them. But the artists keep those stories, and the artists make those heroes and those myths. So that's why it's so important. That's why when you see people tearing down monuments that isn't just about that one person that was cast in bronze, that's about an idea that those people represent, and if you can beat that idea. Then if you can beat it there then you can beat it in real life, and see that's the that's the most dangerous thing, hugely.
Nichols: Yeah. And I mean, just taking that to another level the fact that within our city we have not just monuments, but we have street names at parks named, buildings and stuff, named after the oppressor and we have to say their name every time we're at the intersection. We have to know their names, each time that we're trying to get directions to a new place, and that type of internalization when it's paired with the fact that when we are on the North side and across black neighborhoods that spaces have been left to look a certain way intentionally. That type of double internalization of who we are being groomed or who the children are being groomed to think that they are or are worth, that is...I bring a lot of things back to violence, it is structurally and systemically violent to have that type of psychological warfare placed upon you, when you are a child and all throughout your life and so all of that relates to monuments, all of that relates to history, all of that relates to culture and why projects like what we're creating start to find, not just relevance, but power in the ways that they can potentially harness and leverage other folks' energy to address these things.
Farber: Every city in America is segregated and has a history of segregation on his physical landscape. Even some of the ways that you're pointing out the story of segregation in St. Louis city and county is often remarked upon, its often talked about whether from the histories of racist covenants to other episodes. And I think about driving and moving through the city and just seeing all kinds of barriers and barricades and one way streets so there's a way in which moving through the city you encounter division profoundly written into the landscape which is violent as you say. Is that what you're thinking about when you also use the words' "division" and "displacement" [in your project title]? Or maybe a better way to say it is like, what is the experience from the ground level to navigate through those spaces that you're inheriting that have violent legacies to them and require resistance?
Nichols: I wonder if another D word on this is the destabilization, not just the division itself but going back to Damon's point of how it disorients you about where your footing is and where you can be grounded.
Davis: Yeah, I agree. I think that's the primary tactic. Other things may just be by proxy effects, but I think the primary type is to keep people off balance, and you can see that in any other play in colonialism, it isn't a huge jump, you could look at what they did to the African continent, you could look at what happened in India, and in Asia, you can look and see what's happened in South America is about destabilizing the people that are there. You start erasing their history. You start messing them up, generation after generation. They going to look to you for guidance. So if people get their own self awareness and self actualization they won't look to you, and that mean you don't have power over them anymore. And I think that's what a lot of, that's what geography plays into power, in the most specific way when we talking about colonialism.
Nezam: I think there are also very explicit policies that keep St. Louis segregated, I just think about the city and county are separate entities, it's actually quite rare. And that feels to me like a way to really keep those two entities divided. And then also, most cities, I don't know how distinct this is to St. Louis, but there are very specific urban planning and design decisions that kept that segregated areas of the city from each other and the region from itself, that have been done and undone and changed over time but they continue. Most of them continue to exist in one way or another and continue to be geographic barriers between neighborhoods, between resources, between access to jobs, mobility, infrastructure, things like that and those decisions can haunt us for decades and a lot of places are trying to work to ameliorate that, and I don't think that St. Louis is. I think there's an opportunity with some of the work that we're doing with the Brickline Greenway to do a little bit of, kind of dialogue building across some of these lines and addressing some of these distinct moments, or geographies of divide and to provoke at that point and to heal at that point. That's big work, that's bigger than just a single art project but I think that's part of, I mean that's part of why I love working with De and Damon is because I think our work is rooted in provocation and healing. And I see that opportunity and the projects we're working on right now.
Farber: Was Mirror Casket one of the first projects that you worked on together?
Nezam: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Nichols: Yes, all three of us? Yes.
Farber: You mentioned Mirror Casket, which was a—as your website says a visual structure performance and call to action for justice in the aftermath of the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson in 2014. And that work is now in the collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. What was the process in making Mirror Casket and — you've talked about these structures of erasure, and destabilization. What did you set out to do by making Mirror Casket?
Nichols: I mean the point was make the police see the violence of this issue, but also make folks see that we are also both complicit and for many of us who are black and brown, that this could also be our people being slain by police. As far as the process, a lot of that was coming from nights of protesting. I started protesting the Wednesday after Mike Brown was shot and a lot of the time I was out there in the daytime. And once I started going out at night and all of this is documented, a lot of what I was experiencing was not the same as what was being reflected back to the mainstream media, and there was a lot of threats, a lot of intimidation that was being provoked by the police out there. And that really just took me into this mental space of having these series of nightmares. I have six brothers, and I'll be damned if any of them are killed by police and so in these series of nightmares one of the nightmares kept being about these men carrying a casket in the middle of the night that was made out of mirrors and I couldn't shake that that visual out of my head so I did some sketches, I wrote an email to as many artists, as I could in St. Louis, and six other artists showed up. We met at a coffee shop, Cafe Ventana, and it was Mallory, Damon, Sophie, Elizabeth, Vega, Derek, Laney and Marcus Curtis.
Nichols: We all played a role in actualizing this vision this idea. Me and Sophie, we sourced all the materials. Damon and Marcus they got to building it. Mallory and Vega and Derrick they lead all of the performative elements of it. After that first night in Ferguson, and I was in the hospital and on that night, I had been rushed to hospital for a few rounds of blood transfusions because people know I've been very sick over the last few years. And on that night, the rest of the team, they actualized that shit and it was beautiful to witness, even from a hospital bed.
Davis: Yeah, that was an intense— that whole time. That weekend was very intense, that was Ferguson October.
Nichols: Ferguson October.
Davis: Yeah, that was a lot, but it was, I don't think I'm ever going to live through anything like that ever again. It was an amazing time to be alive, straight up. And what I remember from — we've been talking a lot about how we've been divided in St. Louis, and how people get divided and what the property lines and the geography and all of that. But in certain moments, those things that was dividing certain people bring other people closer than they ever been before. And that's what I saw, and that's what I like to remember about that Mirror project because I didn't know I didn't know everybody, I knew, Mallory, De, I knew Marcus. But I knew Vega but I didn't know her like that but I knew those people because we kind of ran in the same art circles on the South side, but getting together like it was a time before it wasn't no egos, it wasn't no a lot of ownership, and we were just very young and naive in our hearts around how much change we could do, and I think then we were the people who actually changed the world. And I think that we just weren't afraid and nothing and I remember that and I remember there casket being one of the moments that for me personally on my practice that I felt very self actualized and I felt that I found my purpose, I was being fulfilled, that this was you could be making shit just to be making it and making things cute and making, but this was a moment when we was making stuff that was very, it was for more than just us. It wasn't just entire like most artwork, it ain't all about me and my problems and all of that. It felt as selfless as it could get in that moment, so that was a very special time to be creative and be creating in a moment like that.
Nichols: And, I mean, just to add to that a bit, some of us we were organizing as Artivists STL. And there were a lot of projects that came out of St. Louis from various artists during that time period. I think I stopped counting, like archiving them at 82. And so we know that there's even more than 82 projects or artworks that came out of that. The activeness of it. I think back to the hundred days marker, Damon did this project where he was like, " Yo I just want y'all to come by the studio, I made these posters and I'm going to send you all out in the middle of the night and we going to wheat-paste the whole town just telling them, it's been 100 days and Darren Wilson hasn't been arrested." and that type of stuff where everybody who showed up was just like, " Yo, we're in go mode. Let's do this." and I think that's the energy that I know that I'm sometimes always trying to get back that egoless, just let's just make some stuff, and not be too heady about it. But, put it into the world because one of the things that I think we each learn from projects like the Mirror Casket from Chalked Unarmed from Hands Up is that when you do it the artwork takes a life of its own, that's outside of your control. You got to run with that.
Nezam: Yeah I echo the clarity of purpose and service that crystallized in that time for me to. And that feeling of like this is what I want to do with my life, it all kind of sink together in that moment, and I also think about, what is different about art, what is it that these artworks that we created during that time and something like the Mirror Casket. How did it change the tone of the protest that night? How does it support the movement, how did it support the movement like what, there was something different about having that object there and having the procession and having it at the police line. That was different, and I think art is a language, it is like a way that we express and communicate. And it's kind of hard to capture in language what the impact that it has but there was something else going on that night with the casket and the way that people were engaging with it and in the way that it was engaging with people that was like its own kind of communication and language going on in that space and then the casket moved around to some other sites and now is in collections. It's interesting to think also about how that, we've talked a lot about what do we do with this piece now, when do we archive it, where does it live afterwards, that was a long conversation. And I'm also curious to see what it means for people to engage this object like a decade later, young activists on the front lines, what is this kind of object going to mean in a new context, is kind of interesting to think about.
Farber: You described such an intense time with this work of art that was in many way on front lines of protest that you also described in really moving terms that gave you your sense of purpose. When you found out that the work was going to be collected by the Smithsonian, what was running through your mind and did that heighten for you the meaning of the work, or did it add another layer to it for you that that is kind of outside of the energy that you're describing of focus, of purpose, of intensity?
Nichols: Yeah, when it was collected. It was actually on this like statewide art tour of other artworks from the movement, and it had just been taken to Jeff City. And once we got back from Jeff City it was on exhibit at the Regional Arts Commission with other works. And while it was still there, the Smithsonian brought their team to appraise it and package it all up, and during that time period there is this sense of responsibility that like, okay, because this happened now we have to be, or speaking for myself now I have to be a better, make sure that I'm a better steward of ensuring that this work can continue to be created. And at the same time once September 2016 hit I was actually in a pissed off phase of life because I was working at one of our local museums, and there was a lot of super racist stuff happening regarding one of the shows and I remember there was a town hall about that particular show, the Kelly Walker show and Marcus, Mallory and I hopped into a car that same night to road trip to D.C. for the opening of the Smithsonian, and the sense of irony of that period is something that propelled me to want to do more for our Black History Museum in St. Louis. Because I was getting the questions of, " Well, why did y'all have to take it to D.C. why couldn't you just keep it in St. Louis and have one of the local museums collect it?" And the challenge that there's that it went to a Black History Museum and our black history museum didn't have the capacity or the support to be able to collect it itself. And if it were to go to the Missouri History Museum which at that time was having a lot of xenophobic issues between Jewish leaders and Palestinian leaders, it was hard to find the place. So it was a blessing, and it was something that further emphasized the complexity of all of these issues and inequities that exists within our arts and cultural ecosystem.
Nezam: I'm also I'm wondering, I'm happy about where it is and where it ended up and I also wonder are there these other kinds of spaces that need to exist to archive and collect more protest art, I don't know, maybe something like that exists but at the time we didn't know what that was and, or even a library. I know Aram Han Sifuentes, the protest banner lending library, because I guess protest objects are, I mean it's like art history and history, and protest memorabilia, and I don't know if we quite know the best way to care for those objects, it's a little different perhaps than just caring for art. And what I guess one of the things I thought about at the time and still do with the piece being acquired by the Smithsonian is: What does it mean to formally canonize a work of protest art? Does that change it? Does it not change it? Does the work change based on where it's being presented and cared for? I don't know if I have an answer to that but we talked about it a lot at the time.
Nichols: A lot, yeah.
Nezam: And honestly we haven't revisited that in a while so it's kind of interesting be talking out loud about it because we haven't really come back to this question but it's an important question.
Davis: Yeah. And another question in that same vein is, does that mean the fight is over? Because that's usually when the other side starts praising the work, it means you're not a threat to them no more. That's when you have Martin Luther King Day because you killed him. So he isn't a threat no more so let's act like he was one of our friends. Again, let's erase and let's ignore and just rewrite this history so that the people that's listening know what's coming for them if they try to do something, and its different tactics. And we as artists we always, because of the way, the resources we need to make stuff and the fact that usually people buying art or supporting art are people with disposable incomes and we the ones coming from the situations in the world where people don't have the disposable income to usually support you in that, it's a very weird relationship that we have with power. And I think that it can mean one or two things when the art, like Mallory said gets canonized. It can mean one, like I said that you aren't a threat no more, that that time has passed, and that's an assimilation into the norm. And they'll figure out a way to assimilate you and make you a part of the agenda that they already got or the world actually is changing, and me being from where I'm from, and the people that I grew up around I'm always skeptical of those things. I hope that it's the latter, but I don't know all the time if it is, it's a case by case basis but that's something as always at the front of my mind too, when we go into museums. I think museums are important because we're not going to be here forever and we're not going to be able to tell this story forever but these artifacts that we leave behind will. So I do think that, that's important that these things are kept, but I'm with De and Mallory that its hard when your folks don't got the resources to take care of it, so it gets lost in history anyway, even if it's in the hands of the people that need it. So it's just as a constant navigation is trying to make sure you keep doing what's right, for the right reasons and stuff.
Farber: As MADAD, you're in the role of shaping public spaces in St. Louis. Black Memory STL is part of the partnership with the Brickline Greenway development and the Griot Museum. How do you kind of bring those necessary skepticisms, to erasure, against the notion of assimilation, but as people who are shaping public spaces? In other words, how are you intending to respond to those forces of erasure by building new public spaces?
Davis: Right on. But I think you just answered your own question, Paul.
Nichols: Yeah, same. (Laughs)
Davis: I think you wasted a little bit of your own time with that because you respond by getting up and living. See that's the thing a lot of times people that are so pressed always got to have all these deeper meanings and ideas to put basic human emotion and spirit into some kind of theoretical and logical spreadsheet for people to try to look around for way to not feel bad about the world that they have been benefiting from. The simplest thing for most of us, or for me and my position is to get up and do what I've been doing my whole life is making things and me showing up me getting into this room, or me sitting here talking and us in here talking is protesting itself, its me getting to be able to do what I do for a living. It's something that nobody in the line of people that I come from ever imagined could be done. That in a nutshell, is a pretty big protest, I think so how do we how do we keep these things at the front of our minds? I don't really have a choice. I wake up with it on my mind. And so it come out in everything I do, sometimes wish I could not—
Nichols: —Like shut it off?
Davis: But it's useful and so I think that, yeah you put it pretty frankly, by the way you phrased the question I think its how we move every day is how we keep the stuff in front of our minds and in the work that we do.
Nichols: Yeah, I would echo that. I don't necessarily always consider myself a maker anymore, but as a writer, and as a speaker, and as an organizer. The protest is always happening. Even with being a part of the Brickline, I came into it through protests. Before I joined the team. I was at their dinner with all the finalists teams, saying "hey, this shit ain't right." And that type of ability to continuously hold the truth in the room, and make us look at ourselves, that has to continue, no matter what the art form is. And even with the Griot Museum it's a Black History Museum, but there have been several conversations especially recently of even telling its leader, "look, this ain't right. This portion of what your all trying to do, this isn't right let's tweak this, let's make sure that we're being good stewards of our people in the energy and being respectful of the legacies that we're trying to, on earth celebrate in honor." And having that spirit, I'd rather be holding the truth in the fire to folks, then other means. I think they would prefer if I'm cussing at you, yelling at you directing you sternly talking, whatever. Then, if I'll bring in a whole bunch of people to be like knocking at your door because you're abusing folks. And I think we have to find that sense of balance of— here's the moment when I'm at the table and we know we're planning we're strategizing, and here's the moment where you need to be clear that I will always be on the side of black folks in liberation. And even as a part of this project, if we step out of bounds. One, I'm not going to be at your defense, because I've been speaking out, we've been speaking up. And so I think there's always that tension that we have to wrestle with when being a part of a lot of these larger projects and efforts.
Nezam: I feel like I'm always on fire. De you use the word fire. I'm just always on fire inside. And that fire is really like, it's fueled by love, so it's like this weird mixture of joy and rage, all the time but it's, and the way that love plays out is both lifting up work and people and stories and then equally critiquing and moving through the world with that lens, and that is a form of care and love for me for humanity. And then I also think the fact that we are, we can be in these rooms where decisions are being made and we, for whatever reason, are at the table. I also think of it as, personally, like a really huge responsibility and a privilege to be in these conversations and in these positions and I might critique my own self for having to feel that all the time but that's where I am right now. And so I don't take it lightly, and I always feel like I am constantly in warrior status and again like I may or may not have to go back and critique that internally when I like try to go to sleep tonight but, I honestly I just don't even remember ever in my life not feeling that, not feeling like I have to be in warrior status not feeling like, De said, like that tension moving—when you move through the world. And then it's from that, those points of tension, that mixture of love and critique and that it's from that, that's so much of, for me the creative energy comes out and needing to do something and do something different. And imagine it a different way but it really is, it does feel almost like in my body like this energetically, this fire.
Farber: De, Damon and Mallory thank you so much for this conversation, for your powerful work, and all that you do.
Davis: Thank you.
Nichols: Yeah. Thanks for having us.
You can learn more about MADAD by visiting the Monument Lab website’s Fellows page. Their social handles are up there and we recommend you follow each of them for more insights and developments on their work.
To get a free copy of the Monument Lab St. Louis map, visit our website and look for Public Iconographies project page.
Damon Davis is an award-winning, post-disciplinary artist who works and resides in St. Louis, Missouri. In a practice that is part therapy, part social commentary, his work spans across a spectrum of creative mediums to tell stories exploring how identity is informed by power and mythology. Davis seeks to give voice to the powerless and combat systems of oppression, focusing not only on pain but also on the joy of the Black experience.
Davis is co-director of the critically acclaimed film Whose Streets? documenting the Ferguson Uprising. He is a 2015 Firelight Media Fellow, 2016 Sundance Music and Sound Design Lab Fellow, 2017 TED Fellow, 2017 Root100 Honoree, 2020 Monument Lab Transnational Fellow, and 2020 Kennedy Center Citizen Artist Fellow. Davis is founder and creative director of St. Louis-based music label/ artist collective FarFetched. His work is featured in the permanent collection at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, and he has exhibited at Art Basel Miami, the Museum of Contemporary African Diaspora Arts, and the San Diego Contemporary Museum of Art.
Mallory Rukhsana Nezam is a creative city consultant who loves cities and believes that we have the tools to make them more just and joyful. She specializes in creative placemaking and keeping, cultural equity, and equitable community development. Her cross-sector practice engages government, artists, advocacy groups, elected officials, community members and urban planners to de-silo the way we run cities and build new models of interdisciplinary collaboration. She has helped build inaugural Arts & Culture teams in non-arts organizations at the Metropolitan Area Planning Council of Boston, Transportation for America and PolicyLink. She currently works throughout the U.S. delivering workshops and trainings to non-profits, local government, community organizations and arts institutions about the value of integrating art into non-arts contexts. Raised in St. Louis, MO, she is the founder of St. Louis Improv Anywhere, and co-founder of #ChalkedUnarmed and the St. Louis Artivists. Through her art practice she disarms and disrupts public space norms using play and participatory performance. She holds a Masters of Design from Harvard’s Graduate School of Design and her research focuses on the racial equity impacts of artists residencies in local government. She’s currently a fellow at Arizona State University’s Herberger Institute of Design & the Arts, a 2020 Monument Lab Transnational Fellow.
De Nichols is a designer, activist, social entrepreneur, and lecturer addressing racial inequities within the built environment through the production of interactive art experiences, digital media, and social interventions.
De is a 2020 Transnational Fellow with Monument Lab and serves as the Principal of Design & Social Practice at Civic Creatives studio in St. Louis, MO. Through her work, De has championed the power of design and storytelling to inspire and equip change makers to protest social injustices and design civic solutions for progressive change across American communities. Her efforts as an arts organizer in the 2014 Ferguson Uprising catapulted her to international spotlight as her artworks such as the Mirror Casket (2014) were collected by the Smithsonian Institute. De has been deemed as a national Ideas that Matter recipient, a two-time Clinton Global Initiative innovator, and a St. Louis Visionary recipient for her community impact.
De holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in communications design from Washington University in St. Louis and earned her Master of Social Work specialization in social entrepreneurship from its Brown School of Social Work. She additionally is a 2017/18 Citizen Artist Fellow of the John F. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts and a 2018 Artist Fellow with the Regional Arts Commission in St. Louis, MO.