A Negress in Berlin

Queer legend Vaginal Davis speaks on art, race, gentrification, and the sexual pull of natural body odors.

Ernest Hardyby Ernest Hardy

Weary of battling to hold on to her spacious, cheap Koreatown apartment as a new building owner raised rents and waged psychological warfare on older tenants, writer/actress/performance artist/ filmmaker/musician/soothsayer Vaginal Davis moved from Los Angeles to Berlin in 2005. LA, she observed at the time, was already over for struggling artists and the working poor – one and the same, in most cases. Speculators, developers and a City Hall deep in the pockets of businessmen had already set in motion plans that would lead to the displacement and rampant gentrification that have made the city increasingly untenable for a host of its Black/Brown/poor residents.

Tonight, the multiple-personality hyphenate (founder, publisher and chief writer for groundbreaking ‘80s punk ‘zine Fertile La Toyah Jackson; brains and focal point behind such punk-inflected groups as Pedro Muriel and Esther, Cholita! The Female Menudo, the Afro Sisters, and black fag; prolific experimental filmmaker whose influences include Fassbinder, Bergman, and gay porn; frequent collaborator with queer filmmaker Bruce LaBruce; founder of numerous underground clubs, including Club Sucker, and Bricktop – the latter named after the legendary Black chanteuse/entrepreneur) is back in LA to host a poolside benefit for Dirty Looks, the bi-coastal LGBTQ nonprofit for queer film and performance.

She recently carved time from her whirlwind schedule to do an email interview with Crave, where she dropped social and political analysis that shames most official pundits. As usual, she was witty, uncensored, focused and stream-of-consciousness, and utterly Vag.

Crave: What can fans expect from you at the benefit performance – will you revisit a familiar character, introduce a new one, or do something else altogether?

Vaginal Davis: I am not doing a performance at the Dirty Looks fundraiser, unless one considers holding court and stuffing my obese face with food and liquor some kind of performative ritual.  I love dealing in personal mythology, so let’s just say that I will be channeling the SatanLuciferBeelzebub tired death-rock spirit of late greats Saint Audre Lorde, James “Thyroid Eyes/Liverlips” Baldwin, Jackie “Moms” Mabley and Nipsy Russell just to name a few, and keep things whimsical in the process.
Vag 1 Photo by John Vlautin
You’ve lived in Berlin since 2005. What has your experience as an expatriate been like during that time? Why was Berlin the place you chose to put down roots? I’m especially interested in what it’s been like the last several years as the political climate around the world has shifted hardcore right – what does that mean for the Black queer expatriate living in Europe?

I have been living in bleak but beautiful Berlin, Nazi Germania since 2005.  In 2001 I had a residency for six months and that’s when I became a part of the CHEAP Kollektiv with our fearless leader and founder, East German born inter media actress and director Susanne Sachsse, film historian Marcuse Siegelstein, and Jewish Muzlim & translator to the academic shtars Daniel Hendrickson.

Moving to Germany was purely practical as I was gentrified out of my gigantic Korea Town compound where I was paying way below market rates. The original owner only rented to artists and people who she felt were right for the apartment, as opposed to their financial status. This is something unheard of in the current toxic climate of advanced capitalism/danger capitalism.

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I have inherited my late Black Creole witchy woman mother Mary Magdalene Duplantier’s ability to soothsay, and those who regularly read my blog at www.Vaginaldavis.com know that I predicted the financial collapse, housing bubble and the election of the karoten complexioned grande Tetrarch of the corporate industrial principality which was formerly known as the USofKKK down with OPP.

I am not proud of being a modern day Whoracle et Delphi.  It’s just the role that fate has placed upon me. There are no safe places in this world so there really is no sanctuary for anyone. I am sorry to be so Pollyanna-with-a-hatchet, but I always expect the worse from humanity.

Likewise; being Black in America feels like drowning in death right now…

In Europa and Amerika the caucasoids are feeling threatened by their low birth rates. Trying to keep a homogenous population isn’t easy and is actually killing them off when they should copulate with immigrants and those of us of the darker pigments just to guarantee their own survival as the planet’s environment collapses and only people of color will be able to survive this tumult. Leaders like Germany’s Mrs. Merkel realize that she has to accept immigrants into her country but she also has to appeal to her racist/conservative base of support. One must remember that it’s the same ruling class in Nazi Germany now as it was at the end of the Weimar Republic. Nothing has really changed but the surface. Of course this is all the fault of the U.S. and its allies during the end of the second World War because they didn’t clamp down on Nazi-ism because they realized they were part of the problem – selling arms to the Germans in the first place and making profit from war, which is so typical with this kind of evility.

Don’t even let me get started with the British Empire and their creating borders in the Middle East and South East Asia indiscriminately, with no regard to religious tribes, and cultures. No wonder things are so messed up now. It all goes back to rampant greed, colonial fudge-packing – it’s not perky or pretty in any way.

I feel most sorry for young people now. How much time do I really have left in this world, eh?  But the world leaders who are our age and older have really shoved a giant VCR up youths’ sugar walls, and they didn’t do it gently, I might add, with a water-based lubricant or Anal Eaze.

Does being a working artist provide any sort of buffer for the changing social and political clime?

The only buffer I have in all this is I am a privileged artist. Not wealthy, of course, as I am too outsider to ever be allowed into the world of acquiring wealth. I still live very hand-to-mouth like I did when I was based in Los Ang, but I have a higher profile now because my move to Berlin coincided with Berlin gaining popularity and interest as a cultural center. I just happened to be at the right place at the right time. Some people think I strategized it, but I have never been a careerist. When you don’t come from money, a “good family,” or the right class, what do you really know about the world of finance, business and commerce?

I am not as social as people think I am. I just pretend to be because it’s boring to be so anti-everything. But my natural state is one off pessimism, constant eye rolling and quoting Dorian Corey from Paris is Burning by saying “Shoot an arrow in the air… If it goes real far (sic), hurray for you!”

Vaginal Davis as Miss Bricktop at Bricktops at the Parlour Club with lesbian icon Gwen Turner. Photo by Don Spiro

Vaginal Davis as Miss Bricktop at Bricktops at the Parlour Club with lesbian icon Gwen Turner. Photo by Don Spiro

In Europe people feel sorry for us expats, and I can’t tell you how many Americans come through Berlin wanting to pick my brain about living there. All I can say is you waited too late, you are better off staying where you are or moving to some small town someplace where the cost of living is cheaper. My own relatives, like my nephew and niece and their children, had to leave South Central and move to the high desert or mountains to be able to afford a place to live, and since I am the only one in my family somewhat gainfully employed, I work nonstop with no vacations and have to send them money to survive. And believe me I make very little. And even though I have commercial art gallery representation and my work does sell, it takes FOREVER to get paid so I wind up borrowing lots of money from wealthy friends just to stay afloat, and then when I get paid I have to reimburse them and so for every two steps forward I take one backwards.

Thank god that, having been around forever, I know a lot of people who come from the world of enchantment and don’t have to worry about tired things like $moula. Most wealthy people are far from generous but I feel fortunate that I know the ones who ARE very generous and stay devoted to me and my insanity, as I am known to burn bridges. I do have a natural disdain for the wealthy; coming from welfare culture you can’t help it.

I do realize that being poor is a blessing in that no one expects anything from you so you can exist under the radar with very little scrutiny.

I am fortunate that my expenses are minimal, as I never buy anything new and live on the kindness of strangers and devotees alike. I really am one lucky bitch.  Coming from my background I could easily be dead now or in prison. Good thing I never learned how to drive when I lived in LA, or the police would have shot me.  You are ignored by them when you ride a bike or just walk and take public transport, but driving is a different matter and you can’t avoid them if you drive a car. Of course in Berlin it doesn’t make sense to have a car, though more people as a status symbol are buying those huge, ugly, American-style SUVs.  Don’t understand that at all.

Are you looking forward to seeing anything or anyone in LA?

This trip to LA is bittersweet as my only living sibling, my older sister Teresita Ray, is on death’s doorknob. My mother died in 2000 in her 80s, followed by three of my other sisters and a nephew. I really feel like an orphan. Also being a loner with no partner or love interest – not that I really want that at my age – but I just seem to be just a workhorse. I am very motherly, or as I like to call myself Grannyauntiela to a lot of my youthful fans who I mentor as a frequent guest professor at colleges, art schools and universities. Unlike regular academics, I don’t know how to give the students only 22% of myself, so I wind up completely drained from helping them with recommendations and trying to get them work.

All my British ex-students really got the breaks beaten off of them by their uncaring hatchety puss & boots elders with that inane Brexit vote.

Thank goodness I have good insurance in Berlin just for Kunstlers (Artists) and it covers my therapy.  I am trying to not give soooo much of myself to everyone, but it’s just part of my personality to give back. But for my own self-preservation I need to keep something for ME.

I miss my friends in LA – the ones who haven’t been priced out – and that priceless, glorious LA light, the incredible food, especially Mexican and El Salvadorian vittles – pupusas from the Pupusaria, soul food, things of that nature.  German grub is so constipation-riddled and who knows what is in those snausages they love so much. Bratwurst  = yuk.

You are so right about Blacks in America drowning in death. Of course the great race war is inevitable because all us Black Americans – because of slavery and miscegenation – we are all bi-racial and related by blood to our oppressors, and who does one sometimes hate more than family members?

Just an example is that my nephew’s second marriage was to a lower-middle-class white girl from Washington State. He has two kids with her. Her white racist family disowned her when she married my nephew. She’d been indoctrinated so much with hatred for Blacks that she rebelled, went the opposite route, and became obsessed with Blacks through hip hop culture. Marrying my nephew wasn’t a panacea of blackness for her, as he is career military – so very conservative, and no fun at all. Certainly not in the way she imaged being with a Black man would be. Well, her brother and his kids were all killed in a freak accident so now the racist white grandparents have no grandchildren and are now interested in having a relationship with their mixed-race grandkids. Sometimes your own prejudice is only a disservice to yourself. But people have to discover that on their own, and that includes Europe and North America with their shift to the far right, which in actuality never really went away, it was just lying dormant.

When you and your work are written about, the queerness of it – and the way you threw yourself headfirst into exploring and celebrating “otherness” – are written about in detail, but you’ve often been stripped of Blackness. Can you talk about the role that Blackness has played and still plays in your aesthetic, in your arts practice, in your politics? I mean, your name is, in part, a tribute to the great Angela Davis.

Yes, I am glad you noticed how my blackness in some mainstream media sources gets stripped and negated in favor of the “queer/otherness” label and stereotypes associated with that. When I first came on the scene in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, no one knew what to make of me. Mixing punk/post-punk with Blaxploitation long before mining such things was considered cool and retro was tricky at the time. With The Afro Sisters I was commenting on things in this organic way, using idioms that were only known in urban black areas, and the ‘70s black fashions I appropriated were never those that crossed over into the mainstream, so no one in the punk scene had a reference for it except people like [longtime friend, performance artist] Ron Athey who grew up in an all-Black/Latino neighborhood because his racist family were too poor for white flight.

The gay scene was very homo nationalism even back then.

What’s the contemporary gay scene like in Berlin?

 That same homo nationalism is rampant. Certain gay circles in Berlin are bland consumerist gays who reject queerness outright. It’s a complicated issue that I can’t really address in this one interview, but Berlin is just as assimilationist but in a different way. It is also very racist and backward.

What is the Afro/German creative scene like?

 The Afro/German scene didn’t really exist until Audre Lorde lived in Berlin for her final years in the 80s, but it’s growing with all the Afro diaspora and people like Bonaventure (spelling?) from Ghana, who founded SAVVY Contemporary Art Space in Berlin and was the curator at large at this year’s documenta 14 and brought all these amazing African feminist kollektives to the table like !iQhiya and Afro Portoguesa artist Grada Kilomba. There are these exciting new movements taking place with younger new people coming up on the scene, and that does give me some hope.

What is your take on the conversations around trans identity right now?

I’ve always considered myself inter-sexed, but the trans distinction can also apply to me as I am a woman trapped in the body of a woman.

I have no Adams apple and my genitals certainly don’t serve a male function. I do have to piss sitting down. Having ambiguous genitalia did present some problems for me in my younger years as I was trying to find where I fit sexually. But someone who talks about sex as much as I do of course doesn’t really engage in it.  I live in a fantasia of what I suppose sex is. I have never exactly been anyone’s idea of a dream date, though over the many centuries of my existence there have been a few men that liked stinky, smelly cooze. So much sex these days is very antiseptic and I like my insane odors and don’t feel I need to scrub them away.

Not everyone is meant to be partnered, and although it’s rare, some young adventurous kid occasionally takes a shine to me and I get some goodies. I met a handsome, tall, young man when I did a visiting artist gig at Hampshire College a while back and we’ve been corresponding via post. He recently asked me out on an old-fashioned date, which came out of nowhere but thrilled me to no end.

What music are you listening to now?

When it comes to contemporary music, I know nothing about what is going on now. I am such a Luddite. I am fascinated by the work of people like Mykki Blanco and Brontez Purnell, and my comrade in arms Alice Bag getting new attentions with her first solo music project and memoir “Violence Girl.”

I’m curious what you think about the way punk has been co-opted. I’m especially thinking of Afro Punk and the way it’s really now just an outlet for insipid Negro fashionistas and multi-racial/multi-cultural trend gobblers… 

I am not surprised that punk gets referenced and co-opted, so does performance art – which gets sickening, as no one used to be interested in it in the old days. The good thing about being a performance art ancient entity is that the institutions are now having an interest in me. Ron and I always joke that we get re-discovered every 5-7 years. But to answer your question about punk, advanced capitalism likes to get its disgusting paws on everything to milk dry. Well, everything is a grift…

What are you reading these days?

I am always keeping a brood of books on my nightstand. Been rediscovering and re-reading all the Harlem Renaissance canon from the likes of  Claude McKay, Zora Neale Hurston, Richard Bruce Nugent, Jean Toomer, Wallace Thurman, Rudolph Fisher and of course Mr. Looking for Langston himself, Langston Hughes. There is this young Turkish academic and theorist Zülfükar Çetin, and Heinz-Jürgen Voß wrote this book called “Schwule Sichtbarkeit – schwule IdentitätKritische Perspektiven (Gay Visibility-Gay Identity: Critical Perspectives)” that I am reading.

Would you ever consider moving back to LA?

Darling, I have no intention of ever living in LA or the states again.

Photo by John Sanchez

Top photo courtesy Vaginal Davis and Hector.