If there’s a word that could be used to describe C. Davida Ingram, “thoughtful” is one of the first to come to mind. Thoughtful in her approach to art — before she begins crafting any piece of work, she’s pondered the concept at length. Thoughtful in how she moves within the Seattle art scene — rather than solely talking about herself in an interview for this profile, she made sure to highlight other artists producing absorbing art. And thoughtful in how she moves through the world — Ingram is the type of person who interacts with others with care and empathy. She describes herself as a free bird, and once you’ve spent time with her, it’s easy to envision the artist soaring above or perched, intensely studying her surroundings.
Ingram is a visual artist and curator who also serves as the community engagement manager at Seattle Public Library. Racial and social justice are consistent themes in her work, and she often focuses on Black women. Her work has been widely shown in Seattle from Frye Art Museum to Intiman Theatre. She curated “Everyday Black” at Northwest African American Museum, and in 2017 was named as one of the Most Influential Seattleites by Seattle Magazine. Ingram is known for saying yes to community projects and partnering with other artists.
“We are so ripe for understanding that people want to come to art and culture because it’s edifying, and we are in such a corrosive political environment,” Ingram said.
Ingram produced work for the show “A Book With No Pages” as part of her residency at University of Washington’s Jacob Lawrence Gallery. Natural light flooding the gallery is the optimum backdrop for the enthralling photographs of people of color posing in nature. In “Aimee and Alfred, the African Augur Buzzard,” Aimee stares directly at the viewer while holding a gray and white buzzard. Her gold lipstick and the blue in her clothing stand out against the sea of green behind her. In “Faisal and Aaron,” Ingram is challenging conventional notions of masculinity. The portrait shows two men standing on the shore of Lake Washington. Faisal wears a long raccoon pelt and tan cowboy hat, with an owl on his arm. Aaron dons an eggplant suit with a feathered collar. He also holds a bouquet of flowers.
“A lot of that imagery looks a little bit otherworldly mostly because of American racism, I would wager. Because we’re just not used to seeing Black bodies in the Pacific Northwest landscape and centered,” Ingram said. “David and Randy dancing in the Olympic Sculpture Park feels mythic not just because that was what I was going for but because we just don’t see those things very often.”
In the video “Procession,” women wearing beekeeper veils walk up a spiral staircase. In another video David and Randy pass a doll back and forth. The doll is a Cuban Ochún, an indigenous goddess of love. Ingram describes “A Book With No Pages” as her having an internal conversation about identity politics. Even as an activist she finds them tiresome right now, but will continue to practice them.
“It’s just simply that I think we are having the conversation in a very stripped-down, lowest-common-denominator way,” Ingram said. “I’m very much interested in what is the role I could play in creating representations that make life more beautiful for people that I care about.”
Ingram said for a long time the central figures in her work were dark-skinned Black women. It’s a way to express her own self love as well as addressing White supremacist culture in White people and among Black people as well. Aimee, Aaron, David and others appearing in her work aren’t random people she hired from an ad. They are all people she knows on a deeper level.
“It’s actually important for me that my models be subjects not objects,” Ingram said. “I really need them to be real people and, more ideally, people that either I’m aware of the work that they’re up to and doing in the community or they absolutely understand the aesthetic project that I’m up to.”
In the UW exhibition Ingram’s vision is displayed through photography and video but Ingram doesn’t limit her work to those mediums. Rather, she described her aesthetic as omnivorous. She used to focus on figure drawing but was pushed to diversify in a college art class. It’s an experience that wasn’t well received at the time but has served her well as her practice evolves. Local artist Kathleen Skeels recently reintroduced her to clay. She likes the tangibility of it, and the practice comes with an added bonus — a break from the screen.
Ingram credits her parents for instilling a love for Blackness in her in different ways. She’s the second-oldest of five children and grew up in Chicago. It’s a city she points out that has five times the amount of Blackness as Seattle.
“We thought about it as a vitamin,” Ingram said. “I was very well nourished.”
Her interest in art began when her father taught her how to draw a face. The love was cemented in grammar school when they held musicals because it gave her the opportunity to celebrate creativity with her community. After attending Catholic schools she went on to receive her bachelor’s in fine arts at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, then a master’s from Bard College’s Center for Curatorial Studies in New York. Both schools have museums attached, which further solidified her love for them. Museums are where she first began taking art classes. She learned about community engagement from her first museum boss and mentor Sandra Jackson-Dumont.
“I think museums can change the world when people of color who care about racial justice and holding impeccable relationships with people of color lead them and shape their vision,” Ingram said.
At Seattle Public Library Ingram works on equity and inclusion. She’s a driving force behind creating strategies to make anti-racist programs a reality rather than wishful thinking. She has a simple way to get White people off to the right start when they want to do a program for communities of color. Ingram appeals to the logic of mathematics.
“If I’m sitting in the room and there’s four of us in here and three of you are White then you’re not doing a program for people of color,” Ingram said. “It’s just like pigment. If you’re trying to make black paint you’re not going to start with three tubes of white paint and one tube of black. You’re just not going to do it because you’re not even going to make grey you’re going to make dark-skinned whiteness.”
Being an activist can be exhausting work. To ensure she doesn’t burn out, Ingram continually invests in her practice. She refuses to be depressed and sorrowful.
“We don’t give the Black woman and Native women in particular who do heavy lifting around racial justice work the type of protections that we give to like, say, someone who is cleaning up asbestos,” Ingram said. “In racial justice work I don’t see that type of spiritual protection.”
As her visibility continues to rise, Ingram makes time for solace. It’s an opportunity to reenergize, focus on her art and read voraciously. Collectively she refers to her work as an archive. As she builds each volume every chapter inspires the viewer to celebrate the vast spectrum of Blackness with her.
WHAT: “A Book With No Pages”
WHEN: Runs until Tues. March 13
WHERE: Jacob Lawrence Gallery, UW Art Building, E Stevens Way NE Room #132, Seattle
Lisa Edge is a Staff Reporter covering arts, culture and equity. Have a story idea? She can be reached at lisae (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Twitter @NewsfromtheEdge, Facebook
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