Provoking conversations: damali ayo on the Power of Participatory Art
Every year since 2003, Portland-based artist damali ayo has organized the National Day of Panhandling for Reparations, a street performance that raises awareness about issues of race, class and social justice.
Performers stand on street corners, stopping people with their plea to help fund reparations for black Americans who are descendants of slaves. Monies donated by whites are immediately given to black passers-by. ayo’s primary motivation for the performance is to leave everyone with an experience, raise awareness and inspire conversations about race relations across the country.
ayo’s 2005 book “How To Rent a Negro” is a satirical commentary on casual, everyday racism. Directed at “well-intentioned” white people, she writes about blatant tokenism and the hypocrisy of color-blindness. The beauty of the work is that it also applies to experiences of people of color and other so-called “minorities.”
One thing is certain: she always succeeds in drawing attention to the need for an honest dialogue about issues surrounding race and racism. ayo shares her perspective about the pieces in a recent interview with Colors of Influence
What do you enjoy about the work you do?
I feel like I’m the people’s artist. I’m not the artist for the wealthy, the gallery scene, or the art world. I deal with social issues, and I don’t toe the party line when it comes to blackness. There’s a real way of being black in the art world, and I’m not black that way. Some fall into this narrow definition of blackness and into this archetype that has nothing to do with blackness and nothing to do with who they are. All of our communities have issues with authenticity. We don’t let ourselves be who we are and reach beyond the narrow definition of black identity.
I’m making art for regular people who may not be able to name six living black artists, but they know me. That matters a lot.
What prompted the idea to create the National Day of Panhandling for Reparations performance work?
I was thinking a lot about panhandling and panhandlers in Oregon. How people have such judgment about what they do for work. I wanted to do a piece that validates panhandling as work. Oregon law states that for every four hours of work, 15 minute break. My original plan was to give panhandlers a coffee break, bring a thermos of coffee – substitute-panhandle for them and give them whatever I made.
When I started to investigate that process, it wasn’t going to work. Most people don’t work four hours at a time, because panhandling is really exhausting. People are also very protective of their corners.
In 2002, there was a reparations debate on the House floor. I thought of taking the debate to the streets, and bring panhandling and the reparations discussion together.
What are some of the most extreme reactions?
The strongest reactions I’ve gotten have been in Portland. Somebody yelled at me, telling me I was uneducated. She was really verbally violent. Another man very angrily asked: ‘How much do you want? This is so stupid. Why don’t you live in reality?’
The more I do the work, the more I am fascinated by the fact that we would never speak to Jewish people that way about their suffering. I don’t like to compare oppressions, but the history of slavery is quantitatively larger and longer, and we dismiss it. We treat people who bring up slavery like a kid crying over spilt milk.
It shocks me when people say: “You’re just making something out of nothing.”
The national day came up because I can’t be everywhere at once. I learned so much from the experience, and thought it would be great to allow others to have the same experience.
What are some of the more surprising reactions?
The most beautiful reactions are small gestures, and these go a long way with people of color. At the College of Wooster in Ohio, a group of mostly black kids did the piece on campus. They were fired up, and came back with all these stories about how impressed they were with their white classmates. One white kid listened to the panhandlers, and promised to come back with money. He did. Those kids opened their arms to the white kids, and were generous about sharing their experiences and helping others understand how people of color experience racism everyday.
Something transforms you when you experience oppression. Anybody who deals with oppression is amazingly generous. Being in touch with reality grows out of experiences of oppression.
Black people love the piece. It’s fair to say that black people walk through this world with a little more tension than other people. We always have to be ready for some kind of ignorance or racism. Because we tend to be at the bottom of barrel, at the lower rung of the ladder, we get racism from nearly anywhere. With the piece, black people walk up to a panhandler with a bit of suspicion and tension. When we explain what we’re doing, you see them relax, laugh, and have a conversation about reparations.
What aspect of the piece are you most proud of?
I’m most proud of the performers. They blow me away. We have 70 people who aren’t performers in their day-to-day lives who trusted me to do something really stupid. (Laughs) As an artist, that’s what I do: my job is to do weird things, take risks, and put my life on the line. The fact that they chose to do this for one day is great. They had fun.
We shared a lot of communications before performance day. I asked people not to do the performance alone. I’ve done it alone but it’s not something I would choose for others. You want someone to share the experience with you, and also feel safer. I don’t know many people who do street performances alone. The ones that do are white men, and typically, people know them in the community. It’s different when you’re sitting on a sidewalk, knowing that people already hate panhandlers and probably hate reparations.
Why do you think this piece is effective in getting conversations started?
The reason it works is that everybody has an experience with the piece. Even if you walk by and say nothing, do nothing and pay nothing. The magic of the piece is when people go home and talk about what they saw on the street, whether it’s outrage or curiosity.
If you’re walking with a friend then pass and pay a panhandler, you and your friend will have a conversation about it. Some of my favorite moments involve interracial couples, when I refuse to take money from a person of color. The piece presents an opportunity for people to talk about race.
What did you set out to accomplish with writing the book “How to Rent a Negro”?
Part of me wanted to get it all out. It was very cathartic, to put in things I had never been able to say to people.
I did the website, because so many black people have written to me, saying “I want to work for this. I had been doing this all my life.” I got a lot of resumes. I’ve also been wanting to do a piece of art that is easily purchased, franchised and cheap. A $15 book is perfect.
Why is it important for people of color to get these issues out in the open?
We’ve been talking about these issues for so long, and white people need to join the conversation. It’s funny when white people tell us to live in the present, when most people are oblivious to what’s really going on. A lot of my work addresses white people directly, and sometimes I get criticized for that. I wanted a space for white people to catch up and for offensive and appalling behavior to be called out.
There’s no need for me to tell people of color what we already know. What I try to share with people of color is the importance of sharing each other’s history. We don’t see how closely connected we are, all races among people of color.
The first half of the book is a little more biting, while the second half provides more of a kickback laugh for people of color reading it. For people of color, I see the book as a gift: if we have to live with all this ignorance everyday, might as well have fun with it.
I also wanted to show people of color that we have to stop working for free. We’re valuable. We can’t just continue serving white folks as we have for generations. We have to stop doing as we’re told. We have to start doing what we know is right.
What factors shaped your views as an artist?
I grew up in D.C., where my Mom is the president of a nonprofit. I grew up around social issues. My parents are both really smart and valued education. Both my parents had to drop out of college when they were younger because they couldn’t afford it. When I was growing up, they both went back to college to get their degrees. I was surrounded by learning all the time. I remember spring breaks when my Mom would take me to school with her.
D.C. public schools were terrible. My sisters were several years older that I am, and they had a tough time in school. My Mom knew she had to put me in private school, which meant she had to put me in a mostly white environment. She prepared me for the racism that I would encounter. I discovered art as the most effective tool for me to use all my talents.
Both my parents are doers – they don’t sit around and wait for someone else to take care of something. If something needs to be done, no matter how big, I personally think that there’s something that I can do about it.
What’s the most misunderstood about you?
Depending on who you ask, black people think I’m whitewashed and white people think I’m racist and really angry. I’m really easy-going, super nice, and pretty darn black. I’m blacker than most people would think. I can school you on some history that some folks
People sometimes paint a picture that has nothing to do with reality. When I started the book tour and doing talks, two strange things came out about me. People decided I was whitewashed, and that I grew up really wealthy. Neither of those is true.
For people of color, there’s a really small margin of time before even our own community starts to hate us. I feel that we’re all on borrowed time. If you reach a certain level of success, it’s only a matter of time before our own folks start to drag us back into that pot of crabs. It’s sad for me to see how quickly we take each other down.
People have written me off for the weirdest things. Somebody printed that I was biracial, because I have light skin. This is not true. Somehow, whiteness was put upon me because of success. It hurts when people think I had this red carpet to success. I’ve been accused of selling out and being wealthy. Heaven forbid that I have a degree from a good school.
What is the singlemost important message of your collective body of work?
Art has to move society forward. If it doesn’t accomplish that, then it’s just decoration, it has no meaning.
I found the gallery scene to be ineffective and overly self-concerned. Artists are showing their art in one room, in one town, in one state, and they think they’ve done something. I changed to doing work that is solely participatory. Everything I do has to have some kind of component that can reach people all over the world. I also do a grant program that supports other artists that also do this kind of work – broad-scale, participatory and immediately accessible.