Kenturah Davis is an artist based in Los Angeles and Accra, who explores the poetics and politics of language in text drawings and paper thread weavings. She creates portraits – including self-portraits – that emerge from pencil rubbings on papers that have been embossed with hand-written texts. Her use of language and text, often illegible, complicates meaning and representation which finds a way into her portraits by the strategies of blurring the portrait or doubling the figurative object.
Born in Glendale and raised in Altadena, California, Davis received her B.A. from Occidental College. In 2013, she went to Ghana to be a manager for a clothing company and stayed nearly two years. “Everything was just so vivid . . . I was hypersensitive to all the sensory experiences: the smells, the sights, the sounds, everything.” Intricate, patterned West African textiles influenced her work, and she began to incorporate more color into her predominantly black and white art. She received her M.F.A. from Yale School of Art in 2018 and became an instructor at Occidental College.
Davis literally merges text and paper. She references photographs for the making of her text drawings. The texts that she includes in her paintings often come from African writings and the African diaspora. The words deal with varied subjects including time travel and philosophy. Her writings often overlap her portraits. “I realized that the quality of the written line was no different than the quality of a drawing line . . .” She paints pictures with these words, using stamp letters, rubbed in black oil paint, to form the sayings or complete sentences. In her portraits each line is imbued with deeper meaning as the form becomes intertwined with content.
Having learned how to quilt and to sew from her mother, her work also plays with the link between ‘text’ and ‘textile’ as she transforms hand-written script and paper text drawings into thin thread, using a Japanese weaving technique called ‘shifu’. She weaves them in a slow and meditative process, and her words again are virtually illegible.
In 2020, her work was featured in a L.A. metro station as part of the Crenshaw/LAX Transit Project. For this station, she created portraits of people who were associated with Inglewood, one of the areas that the project will serve. She incorporated the word ‘sonder’ (“the profound feeling of realizing that everyone . . . has a life as complex as one’s own”) into her drawings as it “poetically describes the experience of noticing a stranger and being curious about what their lives are like.” She took this strange word and its definition and stamped it all over the background of the paper onto which she would draw her portraits and people, using photographs taken earlier as her guide. For the metro station she painted her figures joining and interacting with one other.
She has had numerous solo exhibitions in galleries in Los Angeles, Accra, Paris, China, Japan, and Australia. Her first museum solo show, “Everything That Cannot Be Known,” is on view at the Savanna College of Art and Design in Georgia. Her work is also included in “Black American Portraits” at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
Her work is in the permanent collections of the Blanton Museum of Art in Austin, the Bunker in West Palm Beach, Florida, the Hammer Museum, and others.