Vaginal Davis is an artist with varied artistic faculties, who is nonetheless best-known for her “terrorist drag” performances (termed thusly by academic José Esteban Muñoz). Davis’ performances are giddy, satirical stabs at the old-world order, levelling criticism at white privilege and the patriarchy with nuanced wit and game-show-style camp. The Vaginal Davis persona is a complex mixture of queercore punk antics and MGM studio glamour, reflecting Davis’ socially engaged and aesthetically consistent interests.
Davis spent many years in Los Angeles but now resides in Berlin. We met in her Schoeneberg apartment and the stories/insights she shared were predictably enthralling. In short: Vaginal Davis has lived quite a life. Davis’s stories, like her writing and performances, are rich explorations of language hierarchies, using words like “humpy” and “heteronormative” in the same sentence. She claims to have a gift for naming people, citing Ron Athey’s designated nickname “Daddy.” She has written for L.A. Weekly and Artforum, and still maintains her widely-read blog, wherein one can find a signature writing style that makes good use of the word “bubble-butt.”
A short history: Davis first gained recognition in the late seventies as part of the band the Afro Sisters, which opened for The Smiths. Later Davis began publishing a literary tabloid/zine called Fertile LaToyah Jackson, which featured glamour and life tips from a skateboarding, impregnated LaToyah. Adam Block stated in The Advocate that “Fertile LaToyah Jackson” was “A veritable John Waters film of a skinny ‘zine.”
Davis has been in a number of bands since The Afro Sisters, and in 2012 debuted her new band Tenderloin at the Hau extravaganza, Camp Anti-Camp, A Queer Guide to Life. At Camp Anti-Camp, she presented her “game show as art-installation,” first seen as part of Vaginal Davis Is Speaking from the Diaphragm at P.S. 122 in 2010. Here Davis sought to recreate the atmosphere of ‘70s game show fervor, acting as a more confrontational, less conventional Dinah Shore to her various downtown “guest-stars.”
Fall 2012 marked a new chapter in Davis’s career as she opened her first solo visual art show at Participant Inc. Called HAG – small, contemporary, haggard, the title refers both to a reclaiming of the term “hag” and a gallery of the same name that Davis ran out of her Los Angeles home for seven years. In HAG, Davis showed portraits on paper and cardboard, women resembling generic flaxen totems, made with cheap makeup and glycerine. She also exhibited her Lesbian Domesticity Wallpaper and large shellacked bread sculptures that projected a bodily frankness.
In May, she showed these mixed-media drawings often “fixed” with Afro Sheen hairspray at Adams and Ollman Gallery in Portland. Davis is increasingly interested in establishing a physical presence distinct from her performances, one that echoes a stated interest in the symbolic intimacy of the physical act/object. An interest that is apparent in her Berlin apartment, which is lit by candles, with a typewriter-corner where one might find a laptop. As a visiting artist Davis often holds “letter-writing salons,” which impart the pleasures of a well-written and perfumed letter to students who sometimes view this as quaint retrogression. Davis responds to every letter received, often in airports and on planes, and shared with me a recent letter from an art student who was struggling with the perceived financial entitlement of his grad-school colleagues. In Davis he saw an artistic and gender deviant not beholden to capitalist artistic systems, an idea that Davis herself embraces.
At the moment Davis is busier than ever, having recently spoken at the summit Black Europe Body Politics/Decolonizing the Cold War, and currently hosting a series of film nights in June for the Living Archive, which celebrates fifty years of the experimental theatre institute the Kino Arsenal. Davis hosts regular film nights for the Kino Arsenal in a series called, Rising Stars, Falling Stars, often exposing the audience to glamorous actresses from long ago, an act of generosity in keeping with a practice mostly concerned with sharing.