Kenturah Davis

The artist discusses the fundamental role the language has in shaping how we understand ourselves.
Illustration by Ojima Abalaka

Every city has more than one story to tell and one face to show. Regardless of the artistic background, each place is full of inspiring individuals making its own culture and story. In Plus’s online initiative, ‘City Talks,’ we feature 10 creatives representing the designated city per season, asking contributors to share personal relatedness and building an engaging community that gives a sense of belonging. 

The second season takes place in Los Angeles, and this week, we discuss with Kenturah Davis. Davis is an artist whose work oscillates between various facets of portraiture and design. Using text as a point of departure, she explores the fundamental role that language has in shaping how we understand ourselves and the world around us. This manifests in a variety of forms including drawings, textiles, and objects.

What is the first thing you do when you wake up?

I try not to look at my phone.


Where is your favorite (go-to) restaurant in LA? Why?

Azla Vegan! My dear friend Nesanet Abegaze co-founded this amazing Ethiopian Eatery with her mother Azla. Located in Leimert park, the special little spot greets you with the scent of warm incense, spices, and friendly staff. Recently she transformed the menu to offer tribute to the 100-year-old historical connection between Ethiopia and Mexico. My favs are the Abajale and Soy Africano tacos.


What are your ways of recharging/ taking breaks?

I listen to music often when I’m working, so the occasional dance break is a great reset. I’m also not too far from the Huntington Library and Botanical Gardens. I try to go at least once a week for a nice long walk and/or find a nice shaded bench to read.


What song(s) are you into these days?

Tierra Wack has an amazing song and video for her song “Heaven” which is a haunting lamentation for the loss of loved ones. Kadhja Bonet has this jam, “Delphine” that is just so enchanting too. I also thought the soundtrack to the film “The Harder They Fall” was super fresh, including reggae (which I love) and “Wednesday’s Child” by my fav Alice Smith.


Your work explores the fundamental role the language has in shaping how we understand ourselves and curious to know how your creative process begins and the use of language in your medium (textile, photography, washi) as well as the colors and shadows. 

My process usually starts with a question or fascination about perception and the particular way we use language to deal with those perceptions. Those questions usually determine what manner the text takes shape in the work. Lately, I’ve been reading about the physics of time, so making images that record the passing of time and are embedded with texts that describe our perception of time is one example. Another example are the weavings, where I write a text on paper, then process that paper into threads that I can weave with. This results in a cloth that is encoded with information, merging the etymological connection between text and textile.


You mentioned your goal is to set up a framework, a structure where students and yourself can learn from each other, share our interests, and develop expertise. Can you elaborate on this?

Teaching at a liberal arts college (Occidental College) is interesting because most of my students’ primary interests lie across many academic disciplines outside of art. I’ve made it my responsibility to show them the ways that contemporary artists are also working across disciplines. I encourage them to integrate their own growing expertise into their projects, so we can see and talk about the ways multi-faceted ways that artistic practices can address the contemporary issues and possibilities of our time. I think this helps to make art seem way more accessible and relevant. It’s also an opportunity for me to learn something from them about their own research.


Your subjects are faded and show a strong sense of movement, which reminds me of long exposure with the camera. What does this blurriness imply to you?

Actually, most of the drawings from the past few years have all come out of experimenting with long-exposure photography. The drawings translate the blur and movement in those images into information/text. They translate the durational aspect of the time I spent with a sitter. These blurry figures also affirm the questions that the texts in the image raise. Language is blurry and shifts in meaning from one context to another. It can succinctly describe our experience, but it can also fail us. These drawings grapple with the limits and possibilities of language.

Is there a quote or a phrase you always resonate with? 

“Blur in the interest of precision” is a phrase I picked up from a Fred Moten text. It’s a phrase that I think about all the time that guides my practice.


If you could have any artwork in your house, what would it be?

I’ve been thinking about Sarah Sze’s “Split Stone” which reminds me of this Zora Neale Hurston quote: “Like the dead-seeming, cold rocks, I have memories within that came out of the material that went to make me. Time and place have had their say. So you will have to know something about the time and place where I came from, in order that you may interpret the incidents and directions of my life.” It is a boulder that’s been precisely sliced into two parts. Its interior reveals this pixelated sunset sky, transforming its terrestrial exterior with this ephemeral interior.


How would you describe the art scene in Los Angeles?

It’s pretty multi-faceted. It also seems a little less hierarchical than other art centers…or at least the hierarchies maybe aren’t as obvious.

Which three qualities in yourself are you most thankful for?

I wouldn’t be the artist I am today without patience…The intricate nature of the drawings I make demands it. If I’m being generous to myself, I’d describe myself as cerebral. I like seeking knowledge and being curious about the nature of our existence. I also have an affinity for analog technologies. I love making things with my hands and continuing old traditions like weaving, hand-writing, and book-making.



Listen to all the favorite songs picked by our City Talks contributors HERE.

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