David-Jeremiah wants you to know what he’s making is just art. The rising multi-disciplinary artist from Oak Cliff, Dallas, is well on his way to becoming a necessary voice in the art world and beyond. Last year he received a grant from the Nasher Sculpture Center, a prominent museum in downtown Dallas, and had a breakthrough show at anonymous gallery in New York this past April, “G’ordiavonte Fold.”
Jeremiah’s work examines the violent past and present that black bodies have endured, particularly within America. These conceptual artworks made from a mix of paintings, inverted-installations, sculpture, and mixed media, recall the power of Felix González-Torres and the urgency of Carolee Schneemann. Jeremiah’s work heralds an urgency to address systemic racism and the institutions that uphold it. It also extends beyond those grounds to consider larger questions about the human condition and identity through his investigations into what he describes as ritualistic violence.
It hasn’t been an easy ride on the way up. At the age of eighteen, Jeremiah robbed a 7-11 at gun point. No one was hurt. The incident followed him until he found himself in a Texas prison for four years. It was there that Jeremiah took up conceptual art. He hasn’t looked back since. His creations invoke a different way to deliver his message without being co-opted by the same forces that silence him. Rain magazine sat down with David-Jeremiah to better understand not only his artistic practice but also his reflections.
Mark Benjamin: How did you get into art?
David-Jeremiah: I’ve always been a creative. I had to go on a little staycation for four years in prison. I had a lot of revelations in there. That’s what I consider to be the catalyst to turn myself into a bonafide conceptual artist.
The biggest piece of art I could physically make in there is the size of a poster board. That was the largest piece of art I could make and obviously my ideas were way bigger than that. I have nine to ten composition notebooks full of concepts I fleshed out while I was sitting down, getting my mind right. Getting a lot of other things right.
MB: Were you exposed to art history or other work of artists at that time?
DJ: I have a mentor, Thomas Riccio. He’s over at the arts & humanities department at UT Dallas. He has been taking an interest in my development for a long time.
A lot of my art populated and marinated while I had to sit down. That’s why a lot of people are like, what the? Who is this? He came the out of nowhere. 99.9% of what I’ve made since, I know exactly what to do and what not to do to execute it.
“America loves to everything black culture: love it, mimic it, support it, judge it and condemn it all at the same time and that extends to how it engages black art.”David-Jeremiah
MB: What were people’s perceptions in prison as you’re making art? What were the reactions of other people?
DJ: I wasn’t making art in prison. Like I said, I was writing it down, fleshing it out. I was fleshing out the concepts. I needed that time though to learn the lessons that I needed to learn. I hadn’t read a book cover to cover until I hit prison. I was 28 years old. I needed that.
“What you make art about today will never be the thing that you’ll make art about tomorrow.”
MB: What was this first book that you read in prison?
DJ: It was a book on curating by Hans Ulrich Obrist.
MB: No way. Maybe one day he’ll interview you and it’ll all come full circle. How have you found navigating the art world coming from that?
DJ: So, case in point, a lot of people lazily try to classify me as the angry black man, an angry artist. I said this in an interview before. I’m a 230 pound nigga. I promise…me being angry isn’t me cutting out pieces of wood and pouring paint on them hoes. It’s really disrespectful that people say that.
The art world, the fine art world, is arguably one of the finest versions of what America is. It’s luxurious, fancy, sexy. You’re trying to get your piece of the pie, except it’s a devil’s food cake. It ain’t chocolate though, it’s white. It’s what this country is. I’m realizing how different hood dynamics are opposed to the real world, white world, however you want to classify it. America loves to everything black culture: love it, mimic it, support it, judge it and condemn it all at the same time and that extends to how it engages black art.
There are a lot of dead bodies hanging up on their walls. A lot of black bodies trapped in victim stance staring defiantly at you, like a look really mean and do shit. It’s not challenging in a realer way, in my opinion. I don’t even feel like my art is as challenging as I want it to be yet. I honestly feel like my art is more clever and conceptual and playful and mysterious than merely just violent and angry! Come on, it’s just art. It’s not a negative thing. What you make art about today will never be the thing that you’ll make art about tomorrow.
It’s a representation, but my art definitely asks questions and it’s confrontational. It has an assertive energy. It’s emboldened within. It’s victimhood that has turned into a lesson and not a Scarlet Letter. It’s battle-tested.
“You’re not going to sit here and make my art about you. Like you’re a part of the actual problem, whether or not it’s in a literal way.”David-Jeremiah
MB: Your work is great. It reminds me a lot of Felix González-Torres in its depth, installation, meaning and message. There are a lot of layers to it. As hard as it is to experience the pain, I enjoy it a lot, actually. It’s very thought provoking.
One of the things you talked about in previous interviews is this message that the conversation has been going on for 400 years. The question that comes to my mind is how do we go forward from here? How does your art bring up, what I think is a very uncomfortable conversation for America, in a different way?
DJ: Take my inverted-performance installations, for example. What I tend to do is I try to include every aspect and syllable of the conversation that can be had, could be had, will be had, within a moment, within the parameters of the installation itself, and excluding your input.
For example, I did this inverted-performance installation titled “The Lookout” where I built a pseudo prison cell slash hyperbolic time chamber from Dragon Ball Z. You could only come and interact with me on the weekends, but I was locked in this cell for three weeks straight. I lived in that for three weeks straight. There were 10 minute blocks. It was mimicking prison visitation rules. What you would do is come in and there were instructions on the wall. There were four pedestals. The first had a handmade KKK hood. The next pedestal had toothpaste caps full of white tattoo ink and the third had handmade prison tattoo picks. The fourth had a jag. That’s what we call phones in prison.
You pick up the phone and it had a tutorial on how you’re supposed to come in and interact with me. The meat and potatoes of the interaction was that you’re to put on a KKK hood. You take the tooth paste cap full of white ink and the tattoo pick and come in and tattoo this KKK hood that I have permanently tattooed as an outline on the side of my left rib cage. You’re supposed to try to attempt to fill it in with white ink.
Here’s the thing. Some people let they nuts hang and just went for it. Other people, it got to the point to where I basically had to kick them out. You’re not going to sit here and make my art about you. Like you’re a part of the actual problem, whether or not it’s in a literal way.
Simple mathematics, a negative times a negative is a what?
MB: A positive.
DJ: If I could get you to come in here and put on this KKK hood and tattoo the inside of a KKK hood outline that I have on my body, you’re uncomfortable, right? The human body equates anything uncomfortable as a negative.
I’m definitely uncomfortable having a KKK hood tattooed on my black body. That’s two negatives right there that we’re amplifying in this context of art, heightened. Like multiplication, it’s heightened. It’s more dramatic than additions and subtractions. So, I thought we would cancel ourselves out and something positive would happen.
So, to answer your question, with my art, I don’t try to bully you into the corner. I consider myself to be generous with my art, but there are no excuses and there is no love. There’s no pity. There’s none of that. This is art. I’m not making you become a clansman by having you put on a KKK hood. This is art. This is not real life.
As I said in the 032c interview, I don’t know anybody who is interesting enough to sit down and have a conversation for 400 years straight about the same thing. There’s so much time and dynamic already in this conversation that the conversation could have itself. I’m starting to feel that one of the reasons it keeps being had is because we keep getting in the way and making it about ourselves. Or, the other person is having their side of it, leveraging bullshit as an excuse to not hear the other person because they’re being disrespectful, or because they’re angry, or they’re making them uncomfortable.
I was talking to a white dude. He’s like, ‘you’re angry. See, look at you.’ I was moving my hands. I wasn’t screaming. But I raised my voice because when I get into it, I speak passionately.
He’s like, ‘look at you, you’re angry. You’re raising your voice, you’re moving your hands.’ I’m like, ‘that’s on you.’ I said, ‘if you sit up here and started using your hands and talking loud and shit like that, I wouldn’t care. I’m not soft like that. If you got passionate about something while talking to me, I wouldn’t give a fuck.
As long as you don’t disrespect me or put your hands on me, I wouldn’t care about that. I’m not that insecure. Why can’t it be me being passionate? That’s just an example of how people make the conversation about themselves. What I try to do is trick two people into the equation of canceling themselves out so that simple mathematics prevail. I feel like with my art, I try to get these people out of the way.
If you’re the type of person to tell me my art is angry, you just exposed yourself. I didn’t have to do it. You did. There are truths. Black people aren’t just making this up about white America. We can prove it, but people just wash it a certain way. It’s always the same. A lot of white people like gangsta rap lyrics. A lot of white America wants to mimic the energy, enjoy, judge, and condemn black culture all at the same time. My art is like, no, you’re going to do it the way it wants you to do it.
“We are determined to keep treating each other like sport – somebody has to fight for their life.”David-Jeremiah
You’re not going to be the person who makes the most money off of my culture and enjoys it and gets to say, ‘oh no, this is too much, or that’s not cool, or cancel that.’ And then by condemning it make more money off of it another way. It’s awful. It’s a complex. I call my work, my art, noble. It’s functioning on a lot of levels. That’s why my concepts are pure and thought out.
I put things at risk when I make art. White America is cashing out on niggas. If anyone should be making money off niggas, it’s niggas, since that hustle won’t stop. At this point, 400 plus years of the same conversation, that conversation can’t just be a conversation now. What is it? Is it a business? Okay. If it’s a business, it shouldn’t just be white people making the most money off of it. My art is not nihilistic.
“That essence is the human body seeing how we can’t seem to treat each other right, or we are determined to treat each other like sport. All of the ways that we do that: traditions of the game or straight up slavery.”David-Jeremiah
MB: Do you know of the artist, Nick Cave?
DJ: He’s a black artist, right?
MB: He does dance performances and he also does these sound suits. He was describing in an interview about how the brutal beating of Rodney King impacted him to create those sound suits as a way for protection – to feel safe – and as a way to redefine identity.
I went to one of his show openings here in the city. It was a show called “If A Tree Falls.” It was sculpture mostly; a memorial to gun violence and the black community, but it was also about many of things we’ve talked about here such as the crimes of America’s past and present. The craziest thing was Nick actually was at the gallery talking to people the night of the opening. He came out for a little bit and a white lady spotted him and came up to him to ask, ‘are you the artist?’
She must have had a look around and I could already see the look of disgust in her face. She wasn’t happy with what she was seeing. He replied, ‘yes,’ and she said something like, ‘great show,’ but the way she said it was extremely dismissive and charged. It was so blatantly racist and he knew it. She knew it, but he held it together and smiled. I was shocked that even at an opening for one of the most celebrated artists that could happen. People get triggered by art because it moves things deep inside of you. In her case, it was something quite ugly which to me says it’s important to show more of it. Maybe, it can be healing.
DJ: Niggas been uncomfortable in this country for hundreds of years.
MB: I also wanted to talk about your Lamborghini body of work because this is a big theme for you.
DJ: I’ve been a fan of them forever. Object, car, machine, however you want to classify it, they’re the most aesthetically pleasing thing I’ve ever seen. I’ve always been infatuated with them. Symbolically, conceptually, what a lot of people don’t realize is that once they got past their numerical names, they started coining them after formidable fighting bulls. So, now you have this perfect beautiful thing built for performance whose essence is trapped in the realm of ritualistic violence. That’s one way you could describe bull fighting. And if there’s another perfect beautiful thing built for performance that is trapped in this ritualistic violence: it’s the human body.
We can’t seem to treat each other right, or we are determined to treat each other like sport. All of the ways that we do that: traditions of the game or straight up slavery. Oh, we can’t do that anymore. So, prison industrial complex, but they get on us about that. We are determined to keep treating each other like sport – somebody has to fight for their life. Anytime I use like a Lamborghini reference – a shape, color scheme, it’s just me trying to connect the object, the body of work, or the concept, to humanity, but in a very visceral flesh and blood way, kind of like a fashionable gore.
Going back to this conversation and my question of, what is it now? It can’t be the same thing; it’s evolved, it’s matured or whatever. Is it a business? Is it just sport? The quality of life, the standard of life, ain’t that bad. We have the world at our fingertips. You could get whatever you want working at Walmart and save up to take a trip to Vegas. You can have your fantasy fulfilled at least once. Life can be good.
Are we at the point to where we’re running out of shit to fight for and fight against? Niggas can go to the moon now, apparently.
MB: Are there projects or certain things that you’re thinking about or dreaming of executing on or things on the horizon that you’re really inspired by?
I’m really excited about next year. I’m juggling two painting series in my studio right now. I don’t know who the fuck I think I am making these big ass works. That’s just what I’m on right now. A few big galleries have their eye on me, so we’ll see. My hopes are always up, but at the same time, I’m focused on grinding. I have nine composition notebooks full of real shit.
MB: Was there ever a moment where you were worried your art wouldn’t be embraced?
DJ: That was always a worry. I promised myself I was either going to end up under a bridge or go back to prison for something that I won’t have to worry about getting out. There were a lot of times where I felt that would happen.
I really want all of my milestones to happen here in the city. Dallas is all I know. Oak Cliff, Dallas. That’s literally all I know. The first time I ever left the state wasn’t until I was thirty-two. I’m thirty-six now. My mom told me that we went to Cali when I was a little kid, but I don’t remember that shit.
Dallas is literally all I know. I wanted my first commercial show to happen here. I wanted my first museum acquisition to happen here. Everybody that I worked with to get the ball rolling locally with my art and my voice, everybody recommended that I work from the outside in. I was starving. I was on the hunt for a whole year. Finally, the last shot in the dark just panned out. People have been loving my art in New York and out of state, but you know, people are still skeptical. What I think that people out of state realize, like New York and D.C., these out-of-state places, especially New York, is that they’re the tastemakers. They put their stamp on shit.
A lot of Dallas collectors look for the validation of New York or L.A. They don’t do it themselves which is one of my big problems. Why am I going to these different museums across the country and basically seeing the same show? Don’t get me wrong, I love seeing Mark Bradford. But I see a Mark Bradford at every museum I go to.
If you’re in Baltimore, like where the Baltimore big dogs at? Where the Dallas big dogs at? But New York is doing what they’re supposed to do. There’s definitely more interest in my work for people that remember what good art is. People are still kind of hesitant. That could be because I came out of nowhere. I’m self-taught but I ain’t got no quit. That’s not an option. I’m just focusing on making the work and crossing off these concepts from my checklist that I’ve been sitting on.
MB: Yeah, you’re not a typical art student. What you’re doing is real and for some, radical art, which is how it used to be.
DJ: Everybody, whether they mean it or not, people feel a certain type of way when a nigga does it. I’m not trying to take away from any other disenfranchised groups, but you know, people definitely feel a certain type of way. The essence of this country definitely feels a certain type of way when a straight nigga, an aggressive, assertive nigga does it. It hits a very particular kind of nerve when a very particular type of nigga does the type of shit that I’m doing.
That’s what apartheid was basically about: keeping the black men away from the white women. Breaking down the stud and the assertive black man has always been one of the main focuses of this country.
I’ve got a lot of energy. I think it stirs up a lot, but I’m not finna to beat you up. I’m not going to crash out. I’m not finna go back to prison. I got the most legit two year old little man. A little homie – he’s about to be two. My art is definitely my therapy, but at the same time the fact that it strikes such a nerve bro, where people try to classify it as me being angry. Or like ‘oh my God,’ this is radical. It’s really not. When Micah Xavier popped those five cops in downtown Dallas; that’s “radical.” Don’t get it twisted. I just make art. Chill.