At a quick and casual glance, a Nastassia Davis photograph can appear to be a light and happy image, filled with color and quirkiness, embedded with charm and panache.
But linger a bit, and you’ll notice something else — that somewhat lighthearted image is telling a story and making a serious statement.
Whether on a hot trending topic, race or even college debt, the means by which Davis — whose work can be seen in a Black History Month exhibit at Holtzman Gallery in Margate through March 4 — achieves the final outcome is akin to stage work. Davis fully sets a scene — sometimes by morphing together multiple photos to create one setting — for which the end result is both striking and dramatic.
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“I wanted to be an actress, so I have this theatrical element in my work — my theatrical instincts come through,” says Davis, who performed in plays during her high school and college years. “And I’ve always been an artist — my background is in fine arts. I have a strong connection to visuals. (I wouldn’t) write about my feelings on a topic, I would make a visual statement.”
How she creates that visual statement is often as interesting as the statement itself, starting at times with just a simple word or two and growing it from there.
“I liked the phrase ‘fork in the road’ and wanted to make a picture out of it. But where would I do it?” she remembers asking herself, ultimately choosing a spot outside of the iconic Knife & Fork Inn.
“I loved the look of it — I like things that look like they’re out of a storybook or from another time.”
To then construct the scene for her photo “Forks in the Road,” a universal story on the many obstacles that anyone goes through in life, Davis was obviously not able to shut down the street. So she snapped a picture of the restaurant and then created a photo composite — essentially layering together photos taken at various locations — using elements found in her home. The forks were taken straight from her kitchen drawer. In order to make them appear as if they are emerging from the ground, she had to think of what she could use that would have the same texture, more or less, of a street. Cookie crumbs came to mind.
“I don’t have a lot of resources. I don’t have a set designer friend. A lot of this is doing it myself and figuring it out.”
This particular photo is like a metaphor for Davis’ own life, as well as her photography work. Each of her photos has a unique story on how it came to fruition. She works on a “picture-by-picture” basis, overcoming obstacles to get the finished product.
Sometimes, though, the response to her work is different from what she anticipated, but she welcomes it nonetheless.
In “Colorism,” she took a self-portrait — Davis is frequently her own model — and used cosmetics to make half of her face a lighter skin tone and the other half darker to craft a very personal statement.
“When I originally created it ... I just wanted to take a picture of myself. My dad is lighter skinned, my mother is darker skinned. I wanted to take the light skin of my father and the darker skin of my mother … to take an autobiographical picture of myself. Once I put it online it went viral … it really resonated with people.
“I can’t speak for all black women ... my work is very personal ... (But this) is something that all African Americans can deal with — light skinned vs. dark skinned people of color. Anyone who has a spectrum of color in their race can identify with the struggles and discrimination that go with having dark skin within their own community.
Other hot topics for Davis include conformity, as illustrated in her photo titled “Assimilation,” which is the very definition of trying to fit in, as well as sexuality, shown in her series “Boys Don’t Cry”.
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“In society, black men are depicted in a certain way: overly aggressive, having little to no emotions, never crying, hyper-masculine. I wanted to do something (on this topic). I like doing things that are educational and challenge the stereotypical idea of the way things are. I want to raise questions. If I can do that I’ll feel successful in my fine art photography work.
“‘Black Man in Bloom’ (one in the series) is about masculinity. I used sunflowers (in the photo) because flowers are delicate and I wanted to represent men as soft and delicate. These qualities in men make them softer — make them more human.
“I’m doing (this series) to raise questions and challenge thoughts on how we should be as men and women.”
As an artist who is always on the cutting edge of trends, Davis says that the #MeToo movement is most likely next on her list.
“It’s an important movement,” she states plainly. “I hate when I’m dismissed … when I’m not looked to as an equal. People talk to me in a certain way because I’m a woman. Even when I’m trying to do business with them, they don’t talk to me like a human being. They think that I’m the girlfriend or the assistant (not the artist). They can’t see that I’m somebody of importance to a project, so I may not be acknowledged.
“It’s really traumatizing and it’s disappointing and frustrating. And it’s something I hope we can eventually overcome.”