February 16: damali ayo

Like bell hooks, Pacific Northwest conceptual artist damali ayo prefers her name in lower case. hooks has written that she wrote her name lower case to focus the reader on the content and substance of the work, and less on the person writing. ayo’s daring work can be seen in similar light. The artist puts forth her body and her ideas to scrutiny, sometimes taking on great danger in the name of deep discourse.

I met damali in 2000 through Creative Differences, a group in Portland, Oregon that utilized theater, art, dance and discussion to teach diversity skills for the workplace, allowing employees to open up, discuss how ethnicity and race impact personal lives and the  workplace, and to come together as a diverse team. I video documented a one-day workshop put on by Creative Differences, and ayo’s workshop focused on confronting and addressing ingrained bias.

ayo’s gallery shows and performative works in the early 2000’s addressed the same kind of issues, and some even resulted in safety risk to her life. In 2003 she initiated a website, “Rent-A-Negro.com” which invited viewers to hire her to provide services which people had asked of her during her life – to touch her hair, to compare skin tones, and to provide witness that a particular person wasn’t racist. This daring online performance piece called out Portland, Oregon, a place that likes to position itself as highly liberal and progressive. yao received “rental” requests, but also email after email of hate speech and threats.

As a viewer and acquaintance, ayo’s work stuck with me long after I moved away from Portland. Her work highlights how, although we can have regulation  and legal protections on the books, the discourse and ideas about race in the United States are anything but evolved. ayo’s work continues to earn recognition, and she is an avid speaker and presenter on her work and the topic of diversity. Check out her youtube channel here.

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