Jan Term Speaker Looks Race in the Face With Art and Humor

Jan Term speaker damali ayo believes in messing with people to make them think.

A conceptual artist, writer and speaker, ayo (who prefers her name in lower case) took her audience on an entertaining and thought-provoking crash course in messing with people during a Jan Term presentation at the Soda Center on Wednesday.

Her talk, entitled "Creative Rethinking: Make Your History Now," centered on how we look at -- or hide from -- the tricky subject of race relations.

ayo's art is in your face – and funny. She came to fame with a website, rent-a -negro.com, http://rent-a-negro.com/ that gives tongue-in-cheek tips on things like how to "boost your reputation by showing off a black friend" and "learn to smile when people call you homie." Articles on the site appeared in Salon.com, Harpers Magazine and the Washington Post, among others. Then she wrote a companion book, How to Rent a Negro, which a Nation reviewer called "a kind of Miss Manners for the racially isolated yet yearning to connect."

She has used art and satire to confront racism head-on with such whimsical works like "The Race Card" (a business card that lists her as "qualified to identify racial bias, tokenization, ignorance and general indicators of racism") and "Panhandling for Reparations."

Her work grows naturally from her life experience. One example is the piece entitled "White Noise" – a sound track that plays a jabbering string of inane comments that white people make to blacks like "How do you get a tan?" or "Sometimes I wish I was black – it's so boring being white."

"How many of you have heard comments like this?" asked ayo, who's a striking figure, with her waist-length dreadlocks pulled back from her face. Nearly every hand in the audience went up.

Instead of haranguing people to get her point across, ayo creates art. For instance, she invited a crowd to an event and met the people at the door with stick-on name tags that read "Hello, my race is ________ . Then she gave them the choice of white, black or other and stood back to watch the reaction. Whites were reluctant to write the word on the tag, she said, but blacks embraced the idea. "Black people wear that tag every day," she said.

One of her most striking artistic creations is an installation called "Flesh-Tone" -dozens canvasses painted in different shades of brown, from light to dark. What makes it so surprising is that viewers come to the piece expecting it to depict all the shades of the human race – but no! All the shades are taken from damali's own body. She created the artwork by going to the mixing desk at paint stores and asking the mixers to match her skin tones, taken from her arms, back, thigh, belly, breast, face and palm.

In response to a question from the audience, ayo said she doesn't believe that a post-racial society, in which race is irrelevant, is possible. Her latest book, Obamistan! Land Without Racism, offers tongue-in-cheek advice to Americans wondering how to live now that a black man is president and racism and prejudice are a thing of the past.

Instead of ignoring the issue of race, she encourages people to embrace their race, exhorting them to "love it and live it." In her view, "this nation has enormous potential because of the diversity it has."

Although ayo's speech focused on the ways that race divides us, she has also offered some solutions. After an audience member at an earlier talk asked her to come up with some suggestions, she e-mailed 2,000 people in her circle and asked them for five simple ways to fix the race problem. The result is an online book called "I Can Fix It. Volume 1: Racism."

But that doesn't mean she's going to stop challenging people to see the racism in everyday life. She encouraged her audience to take advantage of Jan Term to explore alternative ideas and identities and to think outside the box like she does.

"I want to inspire you to find your own ways of messing with people," she said, "so you can create the world you want."

Teresa Castle
College Communications

Photo by Gabrielle Ortiz '11