Still in shock that she won.
Performances, installations, photographs, videos.
Social norms in performances until you barely recognize them.
The morning after C. Davida Ingram won the 2014 Stranger Genius Award in art, her mother texted her, "MAY GOD REVEAL THE PURPOSE OF YOUR ART."
Ingram had thanked her "mama and daddy" back in Chicago from the stage moments after she won. She left home a decade ago, in 2003, searching for somewhere she could be more fully herself. She has many identities—queer, feminist, activist, scholar, writer—and home felt limiting.
"I feel like I've barely scratched the surface of the kind of work I want to do," Ingram says. "What are the origins of my art and activism, and where do I want it to go? I think a lot of us become activists because home is not tenable."
As an artist, Ingram is a social actor. She acts on and with society, reimagining it, searching it, struggling for new forms of agency within it. She does performance art, mostly, but really she'll act on or with any material necessary: a bedsheet from a lost relationship, YouTube footage of rampaging elephants, a comedian's cutting words, the sleeping bonnets that some black women wear to protect their hair overnight, or the grief of heartbroken parents protesting in the street. Her art hopes and trusts and builds; society deserves worse, but she gives it better.
Her earliest performance in Seattle was a 2006 piece called Come Hungry that involved making dinner for strangers from Craigslist. The ad she placed on Craigslist read: "Black woman willing to make your favorite meal. You bring the ingredients. I prepare. Come hungry." These were one-on-one performances for white men done in the privacy of Ingram's home. The interactions were "actually really human," which is saying something, since they started from the inhuman premise of black submission to white desire. Ingram can start in one place in her work and, using only simple materials and forms, travel a long, long way to the other side of a big idea.
While protesting the exoneration of George Zimmerman, killer of Trayvon Martin, Ingram had the idea to create a public performance involving many people, both performers and not, who would envision what they did want rather than having to rise up against what they didn't. It will be called I Wish a Motherfucker Would.
"As much as I like art and activism, I want to flip that around a little," she said. "In my family, there's lots of unexpected deaths. There are health problems, there's gun violence, a lot of preventable diseases. So we always say next time we will get together in the good times instead of waiting for the bad times to happen. How do you make an intentional space for what you want, as opposed to what you don't want?"
I Wish a Motherfucker Would will be a workshop performance and installation to take place on November 23 at a still-to-be-decided location. It will also be installed as part of a larger art event at Washington Hall organized by the Seattle People of Color Salon (which Ingram cofounded with Natasha Marin). The locations matter: I Wish would ideally happen at a place like the former home of artist-activist James Washington Jr. in the Central District, which is now a foundation, or at Yesler Terrace, the housing project about to be demolished.
Ingram learned to believe in the relevance of architecture from Sandra Jackson-Dumont, a mentor she met through Seattle Art Museum. Now Ingram's projects are often about space, not unlike Houston artist Rick Lowe, who recently won that other "Genius" award, the MacArthur Grant, for turning 22 shotgun houses on a derelict block of Houston's predominantly African American Third Ward into a thriving arts and community support center.
Ingram doesn't want to restore buildings. But she wants her work "staked to spaces important to the cultural memory" of how Seattle was formed, and how money and power flow through the city. Her performances have reflected Seattle neighborhoods where the socioeconomics are shifting and the streets are named after city founders. Detour involved posters near Denny and Mercer streets, posters with phone numbers for you to call to learn other layers of history about the place where you were standing.
Of the troubled but unbreakable lines between past and future, Ingram explained, "I balance being pro-black and also ushering in and dreaming other new identities. It makes utter sense to me that the undocumented students are calling themselves dreamers after MLK's dream and in continuation of the black civil rights movement. I really get that. How do we all come together? I think we are asked sometimes to do the work in really janky ways. That lesbian couple who sued after they got a black baby might finally get some people to stop saying gay is the new black, because it's very clear that it's not."
In addition to her collaborators, Ingram's Seattle heroes are women of color like fellow 2014 Genius winner Valerie Curtis-Newton, artist Barbara Earl Thomas, and organizers Karen Toering and Vivian Phillips, who all "help to make space for the next generations," Ingram says, speaking once again in familial terms.
When people who have left home go back to visit, they often sleep a lot. It's a way of going unconscious—of leaving again. But if it's resistance, it's a soft, vulnerable kind. "I love when my mom or sister tucks me in and kisses my forehead," Ingram says. "I find those moments of intimacy meaningful. Probably because at the end of the day I am a home girl."