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Vaginal Davis

Studio Museum

Vaginal Davis
Photo: John Vlautin

Legendary performance/visual artist and avant-garde “drag superstar,” Vaginal Davis, has been interrogating notions of theater, performance, Blackness and queer politics since the 1980s. Davis recently performed her critically acclaimed show at P.S. 122, Vaginal Davis Is Speaking from the Diaphragm, which uses a talk-show format and a set design channeling “kindergarten occultism.” Read a brief interview with the artist after the jump.

How did you come up with the talk-show installation for “Vaginal Davis Is Speaking from the Diaphragm”?

In 1970s talk shows, guests would talk to the other guests, and sometimes there would be tensions. The shows had their own live bands, and I wanted to have one, but I had such a miniscule budget that I decided to have a “soundscape” artist. The show is named after my blog, which comes from the title of an article a friend wrote on me in the 1990s. Every performance of Speaking from the Diaphragm takes such a hysterically different tone. I have two very different New York downtown personalities as my co-hostesses—Carmelita Tropicana and Jennifer Miller.

Can you talk a bit about how your artistic and performative practice developed?

When I was first doing drag as a teenager in the late 1970s, I couldn’t perform in many gay clubs because I wasn’t doing a spin on a popular Black singing diva like Donna Summer or Diana Ross. If you were a Black drag queen, you took on a persona like the “Grace Jones drag queen,” and I was writing my own songs and lip-synching. I was basing my persona on Angela Davis, the radical Black feminist. I sexualized her name! The only people who got the outsiderness of it were the people who went to punk rock clubs. I started opening for a lot of punk rock bands in the late 1970s and early 1980s. I didn’t fit in with those scenes either, but I fit in better there than I did with the gay scenes. When punk first started it was urban, art-centered, female-centered and queer-centered. In the late 1970s the gays and lesbians in the punk scene mobilized their own movement—they were too punk for the gays, and too gay for the punks. That’s when my ‘zine Fertile LaToyah Jackson came into play. That was the punk scene I was a part of—when the women ruled, not the men.

By Abbe Schriber, Program Assistant, Curatorial Department