Artist Ashanti Davis bears his soul to anyone who takes the time to absorb his graphic narratives of a life gone awry. At the moment of our exchange, he was in transition, peddling his art for food and shelter. One gorgeous Saturday afternoon, five summers ago, at an intersection in Oakland, I encountered the self-taught artist.
The corner at Lakeshore and Lake Park Avenue was abuzz with activity as throngs of pedestrians crisscrossed the wide boulevard, making their way to and from the Grand Lake Farmers Market, opposite The Serenader, Quik Way and Bank of America parking lot. As I made my way across the intersection, my intention was to head left toward the colorful market, except my attention was drawn to the right, to two long, neatly arranged rows of black and white drawings spread out on the sidewalk. Secured in plastic sleeves, just outside of stepping range of passersby, lay dozens of oversized illustrations. Super Hero Captain America caught my eye, so I scooted to my right, stopped, and stooped to get a better look, and to read the liner notes. Wearing headgear and a thick scaly skin of armor, Captain America peers through weary eyes as a smoke-plumed cigarillo dangles between his protruding lips.
“Some heros [sic] never die/A hero shall rise from the slums to bring hope/ so dope/ couldn’t denie [sic] my throne/ Had to let go of the past to fly on my own/ My father left me all alone/ I had no choice to be strong/ Felt my mom did me wrong/ I knew God was with me all along/ 2006 was a bitch, but I got my swagger back/ I survive with half pack of Marlboro and a blunt/ My backpack portfolio grew out of my criminal ways/ I think it is time for change, don’t you?/ If I have kids, I want them to know my struggles/ Dad was a screw up/ I grew up rough/ Seems I became a hero when I was locked up/ I heard the community is in need of people that will lead/ Hold on/ I’m on my way with my son and my father watchin’ my back/ Thought of a super hero, Captain America/ Call me that/ A4/ Ashanti.”
It takes about twenty minutes to read the entire body of work and ponder the images – poignant, soul-stirring pages from an uncensored graphic journal. When I stand to acknowledge the artist, whose unobtrusive presence I have felt all the while, my eyes deceive me, or rather my preconceived notions do. For the well-groomed, unassuming, peaceful-looking African American young man standing before me wearing a freshly laundered and pressed plaid button-front, short-sleeve cotton shirt (the type my father used to wear) and blue jeans; his hair and beard neatly trimmed, is not the image of the “defiant ex-convict/artist” I have created in my mind’s eye. My bias is disconcerting. Uncomfortable. Revealing. At the instance our eyes meet, I wonder if he has he made an erroneous assessment of me as well. We are momentarily locked in a prolonged and silent gaze. I am startled by my sudden muteness, since I am rarely at a loss for words. I reflexively do a series of double-takes – from artist to work and back again, repeatedly, all the while thinking – How does one start a conversation with an astute, talented, unmasked, streetwise stranger who seemingly tells his story, not as a device to claim victim status or elicit guilt, nor solely as a vehicle for barter? – until the words emerge.
Davis is as forthright as his artwork is evocative; both speak of struggle, survival, power and hope. His is an open face, one not hardened by the rough life he has led growing up in East Oakland. There have been many sorrows: At age three, the death of his 26-year old father, the first African American fire fighter in San Mateo; struck down by a drunk driver. The misappropriated trust fund left to him that he will never receive. Estrangement from his mother. Drug dealing and incarceration. The death of his unborn son. Homelessness. Rebuilding. . . This is the intersection where we meet: the Ashanti Davis standing before me is in rebuilding mode, determined to reassemble his beleaguered life. Art is his lifeline, his catharsis. He has channeled his pain into a constructive, life-affirming activity – drawing.
I point out the works I will purchase (reproductions of “Super Hero Captain America” and “Hold on/ Never give up/Keep hope”) and as I prepare to depart, I mention that his work reminds me of a graphic novel. Turns out he is working on one. As he bends to pick up his backpack, I take another quick look through his asphalt gallery. “God show me a sign!” the title of a work I have overlooked, jumps out at me. Amazing. How did I initially miss it, I wonder? Davis produces a black sketchbook, which he carefully thumbs through, showing me several characters, and a few pages of his manuscript.
Once more, I go mute. Glancing down at the drawing of “God show me a sign!” I finally tell Ashanti what I have been feeling for the past half hour – that our meeting is “a sign” that I am to assist him on his artistic journey. I share a bit about my background, and promise to be in contact. One last time, we speak through silent gaze, and then I am back in the flow of heavy foot traffic, just another face in the crowd running Saturday errands around Lake Merritt.
Several weeks later, at my insistence we meet at a small gallery around the corner from where we first me. The curator of an upcoming show has agreed to include several of his self-portraits. After the deadline for dropping of work passes, she emails to let me know she has been unable to reach Ashanti at the contact number he left with her. She is still very interested in showing his work. Unfortunately, that was the last time I heard from the young man. Internet searches lead no where. As I study my copy of Super Hero Captain American, I can only hope that its creator is thriving – back on his feet and somehow, someway making his way in the world.