Kenturah Davis: (a)Float, (a)Fall, (a)Dance, (a)Death
On ViewJeffrey Deitch
May 8 – June 26, 2021
Kenturah Davis divides her time between Los Angeles and Accra—but this spring, her work takes center-stage in a solo exhibition at Jeffrey Deitch. Entitled (a)Float, (a)Fall, (a)Dance, (a)Death, the show offers a compelling take on language, playing on the very notion of choreography; a word, as noted in the press release, whose Greek roots translate to “dance writing.” The exhibition, which includes a powerful combination of monochromatic carbon pencil drawings, video installation, and an artist book, centers on motion above all else—stemming from an open-ended question on the apparatus of words, and how communication guides, or perhaps structures, the way human beings exist in the world.
Says Davis of her first solo New York exhibition: “In the way that architecture can guide how one moves through space, or the placement of a handle on a cup suggests how to pick it up, language that constructs the fabric of a given society similarly tries to choreograph as our activities.” At the core of our shared choreography, however, is negotiation—and embedded in each of the artist’s works is a sense of resisting or improving to pursue an overarching sense of freedom. Uniform in tone but unique in composition, Davis’s large-scale mounted debossed paper drawings comprise multiple panels, including a subtle backdrop of text embedded in the paper itself, and feature subjects in motion who shape their experiences in the world, shifting and drifting across the page, arms extended, legs mid-sprint so as to blur the bounds of what is acceptable in society. Consider Contending with Contingency I (2021), the first piece of an eight-part series, depicting a female subject seemingly dancing across the page, head and hands blurred, the latter protectively blocking the face: a dynamic protest conveyed through the body. Contending with Contingency II (2021), meanwhile, showcases two pairs of legs and feet mid-run, arched and activated, metaphorically pushing past the structures that limit people—and more specifically the Black community—in society. From there, the series’ third piece, Contending with Contingency III (2021), reveals a modicum of stillness, yet the female subject’s hands are again in motion, fingers on one side by her head, protective. Her other hand is at waist level, the woman maneuvering her way through the world. It’s as though these female subjects are bounding from place to place. No subject makes eye contact with the camera; all are falling, or flying, hands and feet adrift yet seemingly in control.
The same sense of motion is visible in the portrait-style “Excerpt of Contingency” series, blurred close-ups of women’s faces in full view yet fragmented, once again in motion. The final piece in this series, entitled Excerpt of Contingency – The Vote (2021), reveals a set of open hands: beckoning, offering, pleading. The embedded text, it stands to be mentioned, includes transcripts of the Senate debates that occurred during the passage of the US Constitution’s 13th Amendment, the words revealed only to those who stand in close range before the images. “The amendment itself, in just a few lines, purports a concept of freedom by virtue of abolishing slavery on the condition that one is not a criminal,” says Davis. “The debate exemplifies a framework that, on the one hand facilitates freedom, and simultaneously facilitates confinement.” Contradictory systems fuse motion and language, asking observers what it means to reconfigure the world around us, our existence in space, and our very conception of freedom in a world that far too often feels restrictive—or, in Davis’s words, confined.
In the final series on display, “Fall and Recover (Dunham),” female subjects reconcile presence and possibility. The 10-piece series and accompanying video installation depict—again as carbon pencil rubbings—female subjects mid-movement, heads blurred and tilted, limbs scattered across the page, dancing, or merely existing, in their environment: composing conditions of freedom. Through these drawings, Davis reveals that we can in fact maneuver our way around the world, leveraging a blend of language and the body to seek the freedom we desire. Finally, Study of Entanglements (2019), a 100 by 200-inch standalone, features Kozo paper and ink, china marker, and aerosol paint, honing in on a more vivid yet still subject: a stunning Black woman, eyes closed and hands in motion (yet captured at a standstill, marked with the written word), forcing the viewer to pause, to take a step back and consider what it means to speak, communicate, or merely exist.