“Wanna Taste? Brown Sugar #1,” which was part of a show at Portland’s trendy Mark Woolley Gallery, comprised 186 handcrafted sugar packets, each printed with lyrics from the Rolling Stones’s party song “Brown Sugar.” The packets were pinned to a three-by-six-foot plywood board in a surprisingly delicate arrangement. Accompanying the collage was a recording of ayo reciting the song’s lyrics as it plays in the background: “Gold coast slave ship bound for cotton fields / Sold in the market down in New Orleans / Scarred old slaver knows he’s doing alright/ Hear him whip the women just around midnight …” The lyrics took many listeners by surprise, ayo says. “My question to them is, ‘Aren’t you listening?’ ”
At Brown, ayo concentrated in American civilization and public policy. Self-taught as an artist, she says her art comes out of her life: “When I said race in public-policy classes, people told me I was invoking jargon. This frustrated me, as it invalidated my lifelong daily experiences of race and racism.”
Ayo’s “boot-to-the-head bluntness,” as one reviewer put it, has quickly earned her a reputation in Portland, where she has lived for the past six years. The Oregonian named her “one of twelve emerging arts players you don’t know but should.” An upcoming show is scheduled next September at the Mark Woolley Gallery, and ayo will be among the artists in a group show in New York City at Gallery M in Harlem this summer. For specifics, see her Web site: damaliayo.com.
Mark Covert is associate editor of Portland magazine and managing editor of the Webzine Smokebox (smokebox.net).