31 Days 31 Trans Voices | Day 8: Vaginal Davis, The White to be Angry

Vaginal Creme Davis, transgender activist, the goddess of queer punk, and a founding member of the sub-culture Homocore movement, in a career spanning five decades has played a significant role in critiquing politics, white supremacy, identity, and sexuality. A pioneer performance artist, musician, and activist, Davis burst onto the Los Angeles performance scene in the late 1970s, first as the front woman of the band Afro Sisters. She became a matriarch of drag and performance artists.

Davis was born intersex during a time when doctors performed medical interventions in order to assign gender, her mother refused medical treatment. Although her birth certificate stated male, her family used she/her pronouns. She created multi-racial and maxi-gendered characters.

Davis was closely tied to the Queercore zine movement, where she published Fertile La Toyah Jackson from 1982 to 1991, which she turned into a video performance project. At Homocore events, Davis would share zines, present lo-fi films, and perform poetry.

In her 1999 video piece shot on a Hi8 camcorder with virtually no budget, The White to be Angry, Davis is particularly focused on these themes. This 19-minute compilation of found footage, 90s commercials, and montages of televangelist Robert Tilton, co-curated by Nelson and Art Institute of Chicago Modern and Contemporary Art Curator Hendrik Folkerts—can be viewed at the Art Institute of Chicago through April 26. 

Vaginal Davis | Photo by Rick Castro

The video is set to a soundtrack by Davis’s band Pedro, Muriel & Esther (PME), which recorded their first full-length album, also titled The White to be Angry, in the mid-90s in Chicago.

Davis had her first solo exhibit 2012 and commercial gallery representation didn’t open up for the artist until 2013. The Art Institute of Chicago is the first museum to collect Davis’s video work in a permanent collection. Davis told Dazed  in a recent interview, “For someone who’s sort of an outsider artist . . . well, it’s a big deal for somebody like me. A funky, funky person like me!”

Viewers of The White to be Angry, Davis’ best-known work, are meant to feel discomfort.. Images with Confederate flags, discussions using intolerant racist language, and crimes against the LGBTQ community are pushed onto the viewer.

Davis’ voice, presence, and raw art have remained relevant for nearly five decades. Born in the underground clubs of Los Angeles and traversing esteemed museums across the globe, she proves that being your authentic self is still the most punk rock thing you can do. 

Still Image of Vaginal Davis, The Whitetobe Angry,1999

An exhibition of her work—”Vaginal Davis: The White to Be Angry,” co-curated by Nelson and Art Institute of Chicago Modern and Contemporary Art Curator Hendrik Folkerts—can be viewed at the Art Institute through April 26, Sun-Tue and Sat 10:30 AM-5 PM, Wed-Fri 10:30 AM-8 PM, the Art Institute of Chicago, 111 S. Michigan, artic.edu, $25, $22 for Illinois residents, $20 for Chicago residents, $14-$19 for seniors and students, members and children 13 and under are free.

Davis, who has resided in Berlin, Germany since 2006, is available for public appearances. You can keep up with her at her website.

To book Vaginal Davis for a performance or for other information, contact Gleeson Breevard at Gleebrevard@aol.com.

Terry Willits

Trans Speak's Editor-in-Chief is an international mixed media artist, writer, LGBTQ advocate, coffee snob, dog dad, and FTM transgender - but not necessarily in that order, who practices what he posts. A native of Cedar Rapids, Iowa; he now does the writing thing from St. Louis, Missouri. You should check out his work - it's recommended by 4 out of 5 people that recommend stuff.

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