A roving installation by artist Azikiwe Mohammed stops at the Contemporary African Art Fair in Brooklyn to offer a “safe space” for black bodies.
A park blooms on the concrete floor: green carpets, a bench painted in warm hues, a wooden chair with a squat, vibrant pillow. Plush green cushions sit atop milk crates like inviting toadstools. The park is a part of New Davonhaime, the conceptual city created by artist Azikiwe Mohammed.
New Davonhaime’s moniker was stitched together using names of some of the American cities with the highest density of African-American residents: New Orleans, Louisiana; Detroit, Michigan; Jackson, Mississippi; Birmingham, Alabama; and Savannah, Georgia. Different versions of the installation have popped up across the country, but from May 4 to 6, New Davonhaime will be in New York City as a representation of an outdoor space at the 154 Contemporary African Art Fair, a showcase of art from Africa and its diaspora.
“America is great for a lot of people,” said Mohammed. However, he continued, given his identity as a black man, “I just happen to not be one of them. So I made a different place.” He aimed to create a space where black Americans could feel both safe and acknowledged.
Five different cities give New Davonhaime its name, but don’t expect to find a miniature version of New Orleans’ French Quarter or Detroit’s Ambassador Bridge in sight. Mohammed purposely wanted to create a sense of spatial ambiguity, so visitors could settle in and project their own memories and needs onto the installation. The point, he said, was to “leave it open—make it just black enough that black people can be like yup, got it.”
As he developed the project, Mohammed distributed postcards across the country and asked people to mail them back to him, requesting that they write—in the form of a memory—about something they were not getting in their own cities and would like to get elsewhere. He sorted through the memories to decide the needs and feel of New Davonhaime, seeing it as a place that could stitch together what worked in other cities and fill the gaps that they left behind.
“New Davonhaime is a town,” he said, “and towns aren’t defined by any one story. If I made a place that was just based on my own ideas and concerns, people would visit—but it wouldn’t turn a personal corner for them.”
One person mailed a postcard saying they wanted their dad back. That, Mohammed said, “points to me that he was taken by an entity—that you feel like you could retrieve [him], likely [from] some kind of governmental intervention. That speaks to you not having agency to prevent giant losses in your life. You don’t have the means, the opportunity, the time.” So he decided to create photo albums, where visitors could come in and leave photos of their relatives. “If your family isn’t as robust as you would wish it to be for a variety of reasons, we have black community family albums,” he said. “Here’s a loaner family.”
New Davonhaime’s emphasis on black community, safety, and belonging, might bring to mind Wakanda: Black Panther’s thriving African nation untouched by colonialism, which was created by weaving together different cultural threads from across the continent. But Mohammed shies away from calling New Davonhaime a utopia, and wants viewers to draw their comparisons to other, real-life examples.
“Wakanda is amazing—the idea of it, the way it was visualized. But it’s not realistic for a million reasons,” he said. “To find a self-sustaining black magic land you don’t have to look too far. Haiti has a lot of issues, but they won their slave rebellion and then made a country. That’s insane. The entire history of Egypt: there are examples of these things that have worked. A utopia is something that can’t exist and never really intended to exist. And, because of this lack of intention, you put all your hopes and wishes there—but not any of your goals. You don’t work towards making that happen. You just keep it as a mental safeguard against the horrible realities we have to deal with on a day-to-day basis.”
One of those realities is the way black bodies are treated in public spaces, he said. Black boys cannot play with toys in parks; black men cannot sit patiently at a table in Starbucks; young black women cannot go to a neighborhood pool party, without the fear of violence.
So while previous versions of New Davonhaime have focused on interiors, this new iteration provided Mohammed the chance to play with public space. The installation at 154 doesn’t have many of the pieces previously seen in Mohammed’s other renditions of New Davonhaime: photo albums, painted mirrors, bright neon signs. Instead, it focuses on rest and relaxation rather than remembrance.
The park has allowances for the three different levels of what Mohammed termed “bodily activation”—walking, short-term resting, and longer-term leisure (like having a picnic). “If you can design a space that encourages those three options, then you’ve designed a good, functioning public space,” he said.
There is a neon cooler in the corner to symbolize picnicking, and the way food goes hand in hand with leisure and outdoor space. A floral tapestry hangs on a wall to be used later in the show as a photo backdrop where Mohammed will photograph visitors. This, he said, is “a way to have yourself seen—to include yourself in the circumstances at a ground level.” He plans to subtly alter the show throughout the weekend, observing visitors’ traffic patterns and seeing how best to arrange the environment he has created.
“If you’re comfortable and physically relaxed, you can take in the ideas that are around the place and spend more time with it,” Mohammed said. “If I could make the space comfortable enough for you to spend the time you want to spend, it starts to become yours. And if something is yours, you’re safe there.”