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How did you ever survive before you discovered Vaginal Davis? Now she has become the sole focus of your life, and you have become yet another zombie in the army of obsessed stalkers.

I unwittingly became an avid fan of the famed artist after reading Cyrus Grace Dunham’s 2015 New Yorker profile The “Terrorist Drag” of Vaginal Davis. Uploaded by her “army of obsessed stalkers,” hundreds of clips of her videos and performances can be found on YouTube, which is where I first watched her film That Fertile Feeling. During the eight-minute video, Davis coaches Fertile Latoya Jackson, a trans woman, through giving birth to eleven-tuplets at her boyfriend’s apartment after a hospital turns her away. At the end of the video, Fertile rides away on a skateboard with Davis shouting after her:

“Fertile! You’re so fertile! You’re the first woman in the world to give birth to eleven-tuplets!”

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Vaginal Davis, 2018. Photo Courtesy of Wolfgang Tillmans and Document Journal.

As an angst-filled and acne prone teenager coming into my own queerness, I was obsessed with the in-your-face vulgarity of her work. It felt as illicitly novel as the first time someone blows a salty load of cum across your gleeful, expectant face.

A California native, Davis describes growing up with her four older sisters and mother in South Central Los Angeles as a ”Druid Wiccan witches’ coven” where her identity as a daughter was wholeheartedly affirmed. Davis was born intersex and her mother refused to allow doctors to surgically assign Davis with a gender of “male” or “female.” Davis grew up with the word “male” on her birth certificate but her mother and sisters referred to her using female pronouns.

Her mother Mary Magdalene Duplantier was a revolutionary feminist, community activist, and Louisiana-transplant who planted food on vacant lots for the whole community, hoarded weapons—including hand grenades—in her apartment closet, and is rumored to have helped hide Angela Davis shortly before her arrest in 1970. She slept with Davis’s father, a Mexican-American Jewish man, just once at a Ray Charles concert in the 1960s. Describing the impact of her mother on her life, Davis says,

“I’m so intertwined with my mother. My whole career as an artist, and all of my visual art, is basically co-opting my mother. My mother didn’t consider herself an artist, she just made stuff. Looking back to the things that she did, they were installations, assemblages– things in the art world that have proper names to them– she was doing this way back then. If I get any notice for any of my art works or any of my performances, it’s because I just copied my mother.”

Mary Magdalene Duplantier would have been an indomitable force in the art world if Davis’s 40 years of prolific artistic production across performance, music, and film are any indication.

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Image from Communist Bigamist. Two Love Stories by Susanne Sachsse (2011). Courtesy of CHEAP.

Vaginal Davis is finally receiving her long overdue acclaim from the mainstream art world. She recently kicked off the New Museum’s watershed exhibition Trigger: Gender as a Tool and a Weapon with the one-night performance Blick und Begehren (Gaze and Desire). Mixing song, poetry, lecture, and more, Davis handed audience members envelopes containing her scripts for the evening. She recited an investigative report that discovered sperm in a sex club that could conceive human life months after being ejaculated and mixed with the club’s chemical residue, all with her tits brazenly revealed by her sheer Rick Owens top.

Referencing Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities, Davis reassures her audience that toxic masculinity, despite permeating our culture, is nearing its end: “Do not despair—there are lesbian warriors among us who are busy and they are going to take it all down by the fist of Diana, those Madame Defarges.”

Davis’s work defies restraint. Instead, she embraces a crassness that appears limitless, barreling forward like a bullish hound that has broken free of its leash without a concern for respectability or authority.

An originator of the homo-core punk movement, Davis developed multiple personas during live performances of her “multiracial, maxigendered” art concepts bands such as Pedro Muriel and Esther (PME), Cholita! The Female Menudo, black fag, and the Afro Sisters. Borrowing the title of PME’s 1998 album The White to be Angry, she worked with producer, cinematographer, and editor Lawrence Elwert to create a visual album comprised of multiple songs as chapters, each mimicking a different film director—Woody Allen, Clive Barker, and Bruce La Bruce—and separated by appropriated TV footage.

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Vaginal Davis. Still from The White to be Angry, 1999. Photo Courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Angeleno skinhead Edward Ghillemhuire plays a disaffected white supremacist named Rockford who both cruises and terrorizes the transgender, non-white, and Jewish people that his relatives condemn with their caustic hate speech. In the chapter titled “Homosexual is Criminal,” Glen Meadmore, one of PME’s band members, appears as a gay serial killer who seduces men and women and butchers them during acts of BDSM alongside his lesbian partner. After washing blood off their knives, the idyllic pair drops two trash bags, presumably filled with human remains, on a sidewalk and continues to stroll down the street.

Davis herself appears in the video as Canadian artist G.B. Jones from the homocore band Fifth Column during “Beggars of Live,” wielding a Super8 film camera. She is resplendent; all the men in the video understandably pine after her.

Playfully toying with one of the men, Davis says, “Honey, do you love me? You’re always in my movies.”

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Vaginal Davis as G.B. Jones in Beggars of Life segment of The White to be Angry, 1999. Photo by John AES Nihil of Aesthetic Nihilism Pictorial.

She commands people’s attention with ease, a skill she likely refined during her years performing in Los Angeles’s queer and punk underground scene, experimenting with personas such as a black revolutionary drag queen, a teen-age Chicana pop star, and a white-supremacist militiaman, often interchangeably.

At the beginning of her recent lecture “No One Leaves Delilah” at the Art Institute of Chicago, David Egeland, President of the Society for Contemporary Art, and Solveig Nelson, Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Curatorial Fellow in Time Based Media formally introduce Davis. She does not come on stage until 6:30pm, leaving the audience, myself included, to sit attentively for at least ten minutes after introductions. A series of images rotate onscreen as music plays. One of the images reads, “WHITEYS BEWARE! RADICAL BLACKS FIGHT BACK.z."

I turn to my friend and whisper, “imagine if she doesn’t come out at all and we all just sit here for an hour waiting.” I was partly joking, but would not have been shocked if she hoodwinked us into sitting there like the dumb-eyed pigeons that mill about the museum’s gardens during the summer, waiting for some clumsy child to drop their plastic bag of goldfish.

When she emerges onto the stage of the museum’s historic Fullerton Hall, she is wearing a somber, cinnamon-colored, cotton dress that drags stiffly behind her. She is characteristically barefoot. She is toting a shopping bag that she later confides is decorated with photos taken by her friend Hector Martinez. “All these boys with big cocks are always letting Hector take their photos,” she says towards someone in the audience—presumably Hector—and then laughs.

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Image from Communist Bigamist. Two Love Stories by Susanne Sachsse (2011). Courtesy of CHEAP.

We all watch her raptly. Even sipping a Boxed Water, she looks beautiful, gulping near enough to the microphone that we are all forced to confront the wet sound of her consumption. She tosses back her head. A fan beside the podium tousles her hair, making her look radiant and divine, but failing to keep her cool: I later notice a thick sheen of sweat breaking out on her brow.

During her lecture, Davis bounces back and forth between topics. She lists prominent women activists and thinkers, both real and fictional, including Adrienne Rich, Angela Davis, Octavia Butler, Madame Defarges, Ida B. Wells, etc. She argues that Freud and Lacan got it wrong about penis envy, suggesting that the penis is a replacement for the dildo and an ugly one at that. Calling on her Creole “feminist lesbian seperatist” mother, she admonishes the audience, “beware taking the positions of power that you once fought against.”

Davis reads out a list of credits for the lecture at the end of her speech, saying each name in a singsong, mocking tone. She thanks Society for Contemporary Art President David Egeland, inflecting his title with the same breathless pronunciation as Marilyn Monroe’s 1962 performance of “Happy Birthday, Mr. President” for John F. Kennedy’s 45th birthday celebration. Eyeing down the crowd with the look of a mother daring one of her children to contradict her authority, Davis invites questions from the audience.

“Stay alive,” she suggests, responding to someone’s question about how young people can organize successfully. She muses that the reason she has a career and influence in the art world is the simple fact she has not died yet. “I’ve had a long life. Though, I haven’t had as much sex as I would have liked,” she laments with a wistful sigh and adds, “no one was really into me sexually. The reason I’ve been just devoted to doing art is because I’ve always been so sexually frustrated!” 

Davis also shares that she never learned how to drive, despite living in the automotive city of Los Angeles, and prefers to ride her bike. “Can you imagine if I had a car? Horrors! You could take a person’s life in a car,” she says and wonders if not driving is part of the reason she has survived so long. 

However, her disgust of violence is reserved only for the undeserving. After a particularly bold audience member asks a question about the future of institutions like the Art Institute, Davis responds bluntly:

 “You have to get rid of us old people. Old people have fucked up a lot of shit, like with climate change. If someone wants to get rid of me, I say go ahead.” 

The two older women seated to my right lean all the way back in their chairs. They exchange terse whispers and promptly exit the auditorium.

“What is it that we’re doing tomorrow?” She shouts to Dittmer Curator of Contemporary Art Hendrik Folkerts who is seated near the stage. He politely responds. She invites everyone to a screening of her old work the next evening, presented by the Gene Siskel Film Center as part of Conversations at the Edge, a weekly series of screenings, performances, and talks by groundbreaking media artists. I had frantically reserved my tickets two weeks prior out of fear that the event would sell out, which it did. Davis exits the stage to a resounding round of applause.

I wonder if the only way we can collectively free ourselves from her transfixing grasp is to take her up on her selfless offer of senicide. Almost immediately, I laugh at the idea. It is too late now; Vaginal Davis has become the sole focus of my life.

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Catherine Opie. Vaginal Davis, 1994. Photo Courtesy of Regen Projects.

"The White to be Angry" Info

The White to be Angry is the first work by Davis to enter the Art Institute’s collection and is shockingly the first acquisition of her work by a museum in the United States.The acquisition of her work was made possible by Chicago-based couple Eric Ceputis and David Williams.

An interior designer and graphic designer respectively, they have amassed an exemplary collection of art over the past 32 years and have donated work to institutions such as the Fogg Museum, the High Museum of Art, and the DePaul Art Museum. During the past 10 years, their support has enabled the Art Institute of Chicago to acquire works by David Wojnarowicz, Evelyn Taocheng Wang, D’Angelo Lovell Williams, Tom Burr, and Carlos Motta, expanding the representation of work by LGBTQIA+ artists in the museum’s collection.

This exhibition is co-curated by Hendrik Folkerts, Dittmer Curator of Contemporary Art, and Solveig Nelson, Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Curatorial Fellow in Time Based Media, at the Art Institute of Chicago.

TitleVaginal Davis: "The White to be Angry"
DateFebruary 1 – April 26, 2020
VenueArt Institute of Chicago
Address111 S Michigan Ave, Chicago, IL 60603
HoursThe museum is open daily 10:30–5:00 and Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday until 8:00.
URLVaginal Davis: The White to be Angry