by David Akanji
Davis’s work, which was exhibited at the David Zwirner around this time last year, is still especially ground-breaking today. Davis prematurely died in 2015 at the age of 32, but his work focused on the reframing of what it means to be black. His piece The Year of the Coxswain captures the artful blend of generational, cultural and personal ‘black experience’. He draws many parallels to African mythology and spirituality while capturing more contemporary black experiences with which he is more familiar.
This piece by Davis was a direct translation from Egyptian mythology, inspired by the god Osiris; parallels are drawn from the exploration of the ‘concept of rebirth and the judgement of the dead’. Osiris brought civilisation to humanity but was drowned and dismembered by his brother. His wife Isis revived him temporarily to conceive their son Horus. Unable to survive, Osiris became the first mummy and king of the underworld. An exciting relationship is created between Osiris’s fate and the ‘contemporary black experience’. Similar to Osiris, part of the modern black experience is the navigation of self and community after a betrayal and dismembering (of a race); it also explores a ‘happier’ love relationship between Osiris and Isis, mirroring the rise of confidence and camaraderie, and affection present in various black communities. Davis successfully achieves his goal of ‘painting black people in normal scenarios’ outside the motifs of guns and drugs. His work creates a moody, emotionally rich atmosphere. More contemporarily, the Year of the Coxswain can be viewed as a procession, with this idea being backed up by its palettes of blues, greens, and purples. Davis took inspiration from ancient Egyptian art, much of which was painted or etched on the exterior of wooden coffins.
In his painting, a contrast is developed through his use of perspective. Ancient Egyptian art (like much of ancient narrative art) disregards perspective, creating flat, linear images. Davis begins by changing this; he modernises the story of Osiris by introducing an angled leading line throughout the painting – the coffin. This creates a dynamic in the painting and presents an area that the audience can view. With the ancient sarcophagus creating a theatrical performance, Davis’s painting starts an interactive performance, allowing the viewer to look in from below. His use of ‘dry paint application’ creates delicate, sensual figures that create a magical, surreal environment in which these everyday scenarios exist. Davis’s works present different approaches to paint and surface, but a thematic, conceptual link can be made through all of them.
Noah Davis was an amazing painter and storyteller. I urge you to explore his works and collaborations with the likes of Kahlil Joseph.
Editor’s note: You can view Davis’s painting The Year of the Coxswain and find out more here: https://studiomuseum.org/collection-item/year-coxswain
Image: Noah Davis