East City Art Reviews: NOMAD: The Art of Alonzo Davis

By Claudia Rousseau, Ph.D. on April 15, 2019

A remarkable two-part exhibition of recent work by Washington DC artist Alonzo Davis is currently in the art galleries of the Rachel Schlesinger Concert Hall and Arts Center of the Northern Virginia Community College Alexandria campus.  Comprised of Davis’ Navigation and Migrant series, the underlying and unifying theme of the exhibition is travel, of “finding one’s way in unfamiliar territory,”[1] whether that territory is in the vastness of the sea, the fearful emptiness of the desert, or in the changes in one’s life.

Alonzo Davis’ career spans more than four decades.  His work has been inspired by his extensive travels.  The colorful and richly decorative art he has made over the years has been informed by worldwide artistic traditions.  Life patterns, and the ways that indigenous peoples from regions as far apart as the Southwest United States, West Africa, Brazil and Haiti have expressed themselves in material culture have had their influence on his work.  He has written that his thirty-year history in Southern California has also had “an impact [while] the colors and rhythms of the Pacific Rim continue to infiltrate” their way into his work. [2]

Navigation Chart (rebbelib) probably 19th century.  Marshall Islands, Micronesia. Wood, shell, approximately 1 meter wide.  British Museum, London. ©Trustees of the British Museum.

The Navigation Series was inspired by the seafaring culture in the Marshall Islands of eastern Micronesia in the South Pacific, a region of more than one thousand islands and islets spread out over an area of several hundred miles.   From time immemorial, the people of these islands, whose survival depended on being able to navigate the vast Pacific Ocean in sea-worthy canoes, needed to know the sea that they ventured into; its swells, its currents, the locations of tiny islands and the sea’s interaction with them.  To do this they created a kind of navigation chart made of bent and straight cane and coconut fibers tied at critical points and dotted with shells that represented the islands/islets.  The horizontal and vertical sticks were basically supports, while the diagonal and curved ones represented wave swells.  It appears that the sailors memorized these charts, rather than taking them along and consulting them as Western navigators would maps.  Thus, they were conceptual in character, and amazingly accurate as recent experiments by the Smithsonian Institution have recently proved. [3]

Alonzo Davis, Navigation Series #7, bamboo, encaustic, mixed media with light.  Photo: John Woo.

Taking these remarkable objects as both a formal and conceptual starting point, Davis used bamboo and curved wire to create sculptures (or, “paintings in the round” as he has sometimes called his constructions) arranged in patterns that recall the “old tech” of the Micronesian charts.  These he combines with the “new tech” of LED lighting which is also a significant element of these works.  Seen on the wall, particularly from a distance, the patterns of the light manifest another form, like an illuminated shadow, adding what feels like a spiritual dimension to the sculptural constructions.  In Navigation Series #7 the light is a bright white, but in the rest of the series they are various colors.  In #2, the light changes color in a prismatic shift from blue to purple, green, magenta and yellow.  The supporting light behind the projecting bamboo lines helps to create a sense of pictorial depth in these works, and a feeling of movement that underlines their allusion to water travel.

Alonzo Davis, Navigation Series #2, bamboo, encaustic, mixed media with light.  Photo: John Woo.

Davis began using bamboo extensively in his exploration of three-dimensional form about fifteen years ago, and this pliant material is well suited to his use of it here and in many other series.  In working with the bamboo, Davis uses a hand-torch to burnish the surface with repeating patterns that also add visual movement to the intersecting lines of the structures.    He also adds color to the surfaces using encaustic and other media, and tying the bamboo strips at critical junctures with pieces of rawhide.  The Micronesian charts were unpainted, and tend to be approximately a meter wide, the square ones, called mattangs, being simpler in form than the more complex rebbelibs.

Alonzo Davis, Navigating Climate Change, bamboo, encaustic, mixed media with light.  Photo: John Woo.

Davis’ work recalls both types, his #5 with its squarish form reminiscent of the former, while most of the others recalling the latter type.  His constructions average a bit larger than the ancient reference, with some exceptions.  Navigating Climate Change, emphasizing the conceptual adaptation of these forms, measures 78” x 84” x 5” and is the largest work in the exhibit, although the artist is working on similarly large and referential pieces for this series not included here.  Behind the two squarish frames that hold diagonal and curved strips of bamboo is a collage of a brightly colored used sail as well as a blue LED light element.  This work has a very different feeling from the others in this part of the show.  Boat-like itself, it prepares the viewer for the extraordinary boat forms featured in the exhibit located on the second floor.

Alonzo Davis, Boat – Immigration #111,  bamboo with mixed media and light. Photo: John Woo.

The work exhibited in this low-ceilinged gallery is exemplary of the Migrant Series which is also still in progress.  The artist has written that the series was inspired by Pope Francis’ statement to the effect that “a person’s dignity does not depend on whether he is a citizen, a migrant or a refugee.  Saving the life of someone fleeing war and poverty is an act of humanity”[4]   The titles of the three large boat forms here allude to this theme and the urgency of the immigration crisis.

Alonzo Davis, Homage to Immigrants,  mixed media, installation photo by John Woo.

Homage to Immigrants is a stunning boat form made of burnished bamboo with a circular white light that looks like a halo.  Perhaps I am so used to looking at paintings showing figures with glowing halos that this idea would occur to me.  Nevertheless, there could be a suggestion here of a kind of sanctification of the people who might try to make a sea crossing in such a vessel.  Or, as bright white light, it might symbolize or invoke divine protection.  At over nine and a half feet in length, and projecting about a foot from the wall, it is a compelling work; however a viewer may interpret its meaning.  The two other boat forms From Here to There and Boat-Immigration 111# both are bathed in blue light which seems to connote water.  The latter has another circular LED light.

Alonzo Davis, Migrant Series #’s 4, 1, 3, 2, mixed media, installation photo by John Woo.

There are six small pieces from the Migrant Series, each featuring a rectangular base crossed by bamboo strips and lightly constructed boat forms suspended across them.  Various media are used in these works, with subtle color changes and the occasional metallic surface.  Surprisingly moving, they are like icons of travel; again, a kind of travel that can cross oceans or the one that happens in the interior of the soul.

Alonzo Davis with his assistant Kayla Beyler at the installation of the exhibit.  Photo: John Woo.

NOMAD: The Art of Alonzo Davis,  is on view at Rachel Schlesinger Concert Hall and Arts Center, NOVA, 4915 East Campus Drive, Alexandria, VA 22311 through Sunday, April 21.  Hours: M-F 10AM – 4PM.  For more information, email gallery director Mary Higgins (mhiggins@nvcc.edu).

[1] Kay S. Lindsey, Alonzo Davis, The Navigation Series, booklet produced by alonzodavisstudios.com

[2] Artist’s statement to the exhibition.

[3] https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/how-sticks-and-shell-charts-became-sophisticated-system-navigation-180954018/.  These experiments compared the “stick charts” to modern technological methods for identifying wave swells and currents and for determining navigation around the islands.

[4]  Quoted in the artist’s statement to the exhibit.