Are You Listening?

By Marc Covert / May / June 2003
June 22nd, 2007
For multimedia artist Damali Ayo ’94, issues of identity are front and center. She describes herself as a “junk artist” in the same breath as “conceptual artist,” and her installations have focused on issues of gender, class, and especially race. To create a project called “Skinned,” exhibited this winter at Seattle’s Center on Contemporary Art (CoCA), ayo (who is lowercase by choice) presented herself at hardware stores around her adopted hometown of Portland and asked employees to color-match various parts of her body—forearm, belly, face, breast. Then she asked them to mix latex paint in each of those tones, all the while recording the employees’ reactions. She applied the paint to recycled cabinet doors and wooden blocks, framed them, and accompanied the show with recordings of the hardware-store employees’ responses.

“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:

Mark Covert is associate editor of Portland magazine and managing editor of the Webzine Smokebox (
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May / June 2003