Our friends at NewHive are currently in the midst of a two-week-long series of commissioned artworks exploring privacy, surveillance and prison reform, and in conjunction, we'll be running a series of accompanying interviews, features and essays by the featured artists. The sixth installment of this series comes in the form of an interview with artist Terrell Davis about his project, Watching Over U.
Terrell Davis is an 18-year old artist and curator. He is the founder of Tensquared Gallery, which he has been running since 2014 (née 100% Net Gallery), and now runs with curator Joygill Moriah. Terrell's work often focuses on the connection of his life from his childhood to who he is now, expressing themes of femininity and fantasy that he couldn't freely express as a young boy.
Terrell's most recent project, "Watching Over U" is a series of 2 pieces focusing the inequity that police surveillance has on justice, inside and out of the prison system.
Says Terrell, "It's become a pattern seeing black people's bodies used as entertainment online, through the constant sharing of their murders caught on camera and the responses made from them. Usually, though these cases have an abundance of video evidence, whether it's a surveillance camera on the corner of a street, someone's phone a couple of feet away from the scene, or a police-ordered bodycam, they never get justice and the brutal killer cops go off free to set their eyes on their next victim. It's interesting to see blatant injustice take place when these cameras were placed or videos filmed solely for evidence, but somehow though we are constantly being watched through these lenses, it's still not enough."
We spoke with Terrell about surveillance, the future, pop culture as healing and bling as a political act.
What inspired you to create these pieces, which are somewhat different than your other work?
For these pieces I was really inspired by the "found image" aesthetic from my past pieces for Newhive, as well as "90s rap tee" aesthetics, which I used heavily in my second piece, which is a tribute to lives lost from brutality from police and beyond, as well as a tribute for those who have had the constant surveillance we're forcibly subjected to fail them. Instead of focusing on pain, however, I wanted to make the piece more calm and lighthearted, hence why all the pictures I've shown of victims were of them smiling, enjoying themselves and the people around them.
Why is it important to you to reclaim or recontextualize surveillance?
Since surveillance in this state is impossible to hide from, I think it's important we at least research the ways in which our private lives are not so private, and work on ways we can start to either reclaim that privacy or embrace surveillance. It's better to be in the know about what's going on in the world in all aspects then sit around and act oblivious, especially to me as a person of color, I can't not be in the know, y'know?
What do you see as the difference between the use of black bodies when caught on surveillance tapes versus the memorial you have created?
Whenever a video of a black person being killed is passed around, mainly on Facebook but all other major social media sites as well, people are either expressing their discontent with the police state or going out of their way to make sure the killing was justifiable. This constant disrespect for the dead, whether with good intentions or bad, feels wrong to me, which is why I no longer engage in it. Seeing black people in pain everyday, especially as a black person myself, is super mentally taxing, and people say, "It's something that needs to be seen!", which in a sense is true, however I live it everyday, I see and know it firsthand, I don't want to be around it everyday. This is why in my pieces, specifically the second one, I chose to go more of a lighthearted, joyous route. Though police brutality is not a happy occasion, I wanted to commemorate the lives of those who've had to lose it in the name of justice, and show them smiling and with their families.
How does bling and sparkle function in your art? Can bling and sparkle be a political act?
My work in general relies heavily on bling, sparkles, jewels, and simply opulence in some form or fashion. I grew up with this fantasy of wanting to be rich and famous, and own a lot of jewelry and diamonds, not knowing how unrealistic that was as a young, jaded gay kid. In a lot of ways, I couldn't properly represent myself the way I wanted due to social norms as well as personal insecurities i'm still learning to confront. Now, I take that bit of courage that I grew over the years and channel it into my art, so yes, I would consider it political. I'm taking away everyone's expectations of me and only worrying about me and what I want in life.
Can pop culture have the ability to heal?
It helps me, surely. I always refer to calm music to help me to heal. It's a Fine Day by Opus III is my go-to for uplifting my spirit. I sing the lyrics in my head almost everyday. "It's gonna be a fine night tonight, It's gonna be a fine day tomorrow…"
I noticed you used an Everything But The Girl track in your second piece. Is there a meaning behind that?
Ah, I used the Jazzy Jeff remix of "Mirrorball" for that one. At first, I didn't put much thought to it, I just thought it was really mellow and liked the melody. But then as I started paying attention to the lyrics I noticed it kind of aligned nicely with the message of the piece.
What made you choose 90s rap tee graphics as an aesthetic choice?
It's actually something I've been wanting to delve into more as an art project, and this was the perfect time to implement it. Rap tees were an essential art form and relic for the black community then and now; we could wear dope t-shirts with our idols on them and look cute at the same time. I've seen it appropriated before in recent times but I wanted to put my own spin on it. The BLM piece I used it specifically as a memorial, as rap tees did when big names like 2Pac, Biggie, and Aaliyah died.
Do you feel excited about the future and the potential for social change?
I am! Even though I get constantly discouraged I can't help but be optimistic for the future. You can only hope right? I don't want to live pessimistic for the future because if that's the case then what's the point of living?
Are there any other pieces you've created that you would consider to be activist art?
I don't think so, usually my work is centered around me and my thoughts and ideas growing up as a young gay kid from New Jersey, seeing all the pop culture around me and growing up on the internet and embracing that, but I would say my work otherwise would be apolitical in an activist sense. I would like to do more activist work, as I really enjoyed making these, but I usually get discouraged in activist spaces because I'm not the best at articulating how I feel as well as others, but maybe it's time to change that.
What are you working on next?
I don't think I can tell specifics, but I'm working with a company I've worked with in the past again that I'm really excited about. Other than that I'm working on getting plans together for the line of programming I hope to show in my gallery next year, and working on personal projects for myself and college. I'm getting used to being in Chicago!