How Artist Dana Davenport’s Braided Hair Sculptures Look to Reframe Narratives Around Black-Asian Relationships
Whenever Brooklyn-based artist Dana Davenport goes to a Korean beauty store, it feels like an adventure.
She often thinks about what it might have been like if she told the shop owner that she was Korean, despite having, in her own words, “invisible Asian traits in the Black body.” When she first went to a Korean beauty store in the U.S., she said shop owners would follow her around. “At first, they’d check my bag, but after I finally tell them that I’m Korean, they give me tons of free samples and don’t follow me around anymore,” Davenport said in a recent interview.
Born in Virginia, Davenport moved to Korea with her family when she was 5 years old. (She moved back Stateside when she was 17.) Her mother is Korean, and her father is a Black American, who was working for the U.S. government in South Korea. Throughout her life she has experienced microaggressions regarding her family, such as “Oh, you are such a good mix,” she recalled.
Davenport’s lived experiences, in particular those at Korean beauty stores, have inspired the 28-year-old artist to create art that looks to merge her identities as a Black woman and an Asian woman. Using synthetic hair and welded-steel bases, Davenport forms braid chandeliers to which she adds Korean characters as adornments.
Based on a recent study that over 70 percent of beauty stores that sell Black hair care products are owned by Korean Americans, and that many Black hair products are produced in Korea, Davenport has created artwork that explores Black-Asian relations in the U.S. “As a product overwhelmingly sold by Koreans to Black Americans, Black hair care and beauty supply stores have often served as both the site and object of tensions between Black and Korean communities and a marker of the white supremacist agenda to divide us,” she said.
It takes Davenport between three and four months to create one of her braid chandeliers, which she works on one at a time. She first sketches out the chandelier design and then creates the steel skeleton. Due to the scarcity of the pre-braided synthetic hair, she often uses what’s readily available on the market in her sculptures. Davenport said most people go to hair salons to get their crochet braids done directly onto their scalps, so there aren’t many suppliers currently offering pre-braided synthetic hair in a wide range of colors. In one braid chandelier piece, titled 여름 훈녀 (yeoleum hunnyeo), which translates to “hot girl summer,” she dyed blond braids into a brown tone to reflect her skin color.
Though color choice is not a priority in Davenport’s chandelier sculptures, she is always looking for ways to express her understanding of the color red. For the third chandelier piece created as part of the series, she deliberately used black and red synthetic hair; hanging below are clay characters for 블랙파워 (beullaegpawo), which translates to “Black Power.” She says the color red holds varying meanings among different cultures, so she wanted to create a tension in this piece.
“Red is a powerful color,” Davenport said. “Professors usually grade exams in red. Red also has a negative connotation in Asian superstition, in which when you write your names in red, it will bring bad luck. To me, red is a color that demands attention. While the hot girl summer piece is playful, this piece carries a heavier feeling where it discusses the power structure in Asian and Black cultures.”
When it comes to texts, Davenport says that she chose the text based on English to Korean translations that she either finds interesting or humorous in some ways. There are some words in Korean that are difficult to express in English. In a recent piece, she used blue and black synthetic hair and silver beads to create a lantern-shaped chandelier. Hanging below is the character 한 (han), which directly translates to “Han river that goes through Seoul” but refers to the collective grief and resentment Koreans carry toward inequality in social classes. Davenport says there is no English expression reflecting the nuanced meaning of “han.”
Davenport’s inspiration for Box Braid Chandelier #5 came from her fascination with lighting stores, as there aren’t many spaces where chandeliers and other fixtures hang from the ceiling in abundance. “When I think about hanging chandeliers in spaces,” she said, “I think about the way that they command a room and set the tone for what that room is. There’s a level of protection that I feel when they’re hanging above me. Because of the messaging in the materials that I used, I want to find a material that can serve as a proxy for my Black body, and so that’s how I landed on synthetic hair.”
She continued, “I’ve been thinking about the tensions between Black and Asian people in terms of my art career for the whole time. I think why these tensions live on so easily is that American society [has] branded Asian people and Black people as opposites. My artwork became an outlet for me to express these hard feelings.”
Last fall, Davenport showcased her box braid chandelier artwork in a pop-up Black-hair care beauty supply shop located at Recess, a residency program and exhibition space in Brooklyn.
“Watching the gallery space transform into a Black-owned beauty supply shop proved to be more emotional than I had anticipated,” said Alexa Smithwrick, Recess’s communications coordinator who worked with Davenport to help realize the project. “Dana’s Beauty Supply somehow captures and bottles all of the Black magic, intimacy, and self-actualization that takes place in Beauty supply shops all across America.”
Growing up in South Korea, Davenport spent her childhood figuring out her racial identity in a country where many people didn’t perceive her as Korean because of her dark skin complexion. She remembered her mom always reminding her to “dress well and put makeup on.”
“When I was in Korea, my mom made my sister and I dress nicely to lessen the amount of discrimination we would face,” she said. “She said if Korean kids are outside wearing sweatpants, people think they’re just kids and they just want to be comfortable. But if you’re Black and you dress comfortably outside, people think you are poor and can’t afford nice clothes.”
When Davenport was in high school in Korea, her prom date’s mom said they should not go to prom together because Davenport is Black. “It was crazy that he even told me that,” she said. “If my family had said something like that, I would be so ashamed of it, and I would never tell anybody. But he told me in a way that was just a joke, and that’s so racist.”
Davenport said that anti-Black sentiments in Asian communities are still severe in both countries. As a child, she believed that America would be a “dreamland,” but when she moved back at 17, she soon realized that that fantasy did not match the reality she found. “Being perceived as Black in Korea is different from being perceived as Black in the States,” she said. “In Korea, I was hyper-visible and people were always looking at me. I just felt like I stuck out a lot. In the States, no one cares. I was invisible in some ways, but also hyper-visible in terms of policing.”
In her work, Davenport looks to examine the tensions that continue to exist between Black American and Asian American communities. She drew a connection between the 1991 killing of 15-year-old African American girl Latasha Harlins by a Korean American convenience store owner and how the news media has perpetuated the idea that anti-Asian attacks, especially those since the onset of the pandemic, are committed mostly by Black people.
One work that Davenport said is of particular importance to her is her 2016 performance, 200 Pounds of Rice. Staged at Korean-owned gallery K&P in Chelsea, the artist, who was naked, picked up a bag of rice that had the Korean characters 흑인 (black person) written in red and carried it around the gallery, until she finally poured its contents out in a corner. All the while audio of Davenport’s mother speaking about the racism she faced in Korea played. Davenport spent her childhood figuring out her racial identity in a country where many people didn’t perceive her as Korean because of her dark skin complexion. She remembered her mom always reminding her to “dress well and put makeup on.”
While Davenport was playing her mom’s audio for me during a studio visit, she sat there in silence. She clenched her hands whenever her mom would sigh.
“As I was doing this piece, I was more focused on what my mom’s experience was like,” she said. “Something I didn’t really think too intimately about when I was a kid. Although she’s not Black, being a mother to Black kids and wanting to shield us as much as she can is the weight I want to share with her.”
Davenport says creating chandelier sculptures is a way for her to take a break from art performance that involves using her body. In the past, she said she felt that she was not protecting her own body during her performance work, so she turned to synthetic hair, a material that she resonated with for comfort.
But looking to the future, Davenport said she will return to creating performance art, while also exploring new ways to create more braid sculptures that will become more complex as she continues to add different beauty supply objects to them. They’ll likely feature in future live performances.
Davenport wants to use her art to engage in more conversation about the ways in which white supremacy benefits from the minority conflict between Blacks and Asians. Over the summer, she launched a scholarship to support people in the Black community that are pursuing an education in cosmetology. She added, “There are still so many things that need to be done.”