Abigail DeVille creates part-Afrofuturist sculptures and installations in public art commissions that commemorate marginalized people whose voices were lost in the formation of this country. For her immersive site-specific installations she uses collected objects and salvaged materials to address themes obscured in American history. She brings attention to forgotten people and their stories as she especially evokes the overlooked histories of Black Americans. One such installation was the sculpture she built on the site of a former African American burial ground on 126th Street in Harlem.
DeVille received her B.F.A. from the Fashion Institute of Technology in 2007 and her M.F.A. from Yale University in 2011. She had residencies at the International Studio and Curatorial Program in Brooklyn in 2012 and at the Studio Museum in Harlem from 2013-2014.
In 2016, DeVille with her friend, photographer Latoya Ruby Frazier, undertook a pilgrimage to the Desert Art Museum of artist Noah Purifoy (1917-2004). Purifoy is known for works constructed out of materials found after the Watts Riots. He left Los Angeles and moved to Joshua Tree in the late 1980s and over a fifteen year period created an outdoor museum of dada sculptures, cobbled together from found objects. Like Purifoy, DeVille makes work from discarded materials and was photographed by Frazier draped in a large poncho, carrying a diamond-shaped mirrored construction as though influenced by Purifoy himself.
Her “The New Migration” performance art takes place in the streets of Harlem and different cities It is a street procession of unannounced performances by musicians, dancers, bands, and community members of all ages, adorned with her costumes or wearing her sculptures. Some of the people are barefoot, and some are carrying weights to show the weight of history holding them down. Yet the performers show fearless optimism and the African American propensity for joy and endurance.
DeVille’s latest public art commission, “Light of Freedom,” 2020, is placed in New York City’s Madison Square Park. The artist saw an antique photograph taken in this park more than a hundred years ago. The photo showed a sculpture of a hand holding a torch. This sculpture was part of the iconic Statue of Liberty and had to remain in the park from 1876-1882 while funds were raised for the statue’s pedestal. DeVille’s work references this photograph in her large sculpture of a scaffolded torch whose flames are composed of numerous mannequin arms. The arms are colored blue because blue fire is the hottest fire there is. And they are intertwined just like the arms of people, who lined up together to march and assert that Black Lives Matter. This work was her commemoration of the Black Lives Matter marches in the summer of 2020 and to be mindful of the fact that Black people have been on this continent for over four centuries.
DeVille’s work will be shown in “Brand New Heavies,” a three-artist exhibition at Pioneer Works in Brooklyn, which includes her work and that of artists Xaviera Simmons and Rosa-Johan Uddoh. At the center of DeVille’s multipart installation will be a 20-foot-tall metal and chicken-wire structure inspired by the U.S. Capitol dome, which had been built largely by Black slaves. Mounted in DeVille’s completed structure, “The Observatory,” are screens showing images of “embattled sites in American history.” Above the dome is a dark disc suggestive of a black hole. Onscreen are period maps of the Fresh Water Pond area in Manhattan, where free Black people lived until they were displaced, and the area became the Irish Five Points. Other footage was shot during her travels in Carolina and on the coast of Georgia. She has incorporated into her work her video of the Combahee River, the site where Harriet Tubman led a raid that freed 700 slaves.
In 2013, she received an award from the Joan Mitchell Foundation. She won a 2014-2015 fellowship at The Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard and was a Rome Prize Fellow at the American Academy in Rome in 2017-2018. She was nominated for The Future Generation Art Prize in 55th Biennale di Venezia.
Her work is in the permanent collections of The Bronx Museum of the Arts, The Studio Museum in Harlem, Centre National des Arts Plastiques in Paris, among others.