Damali Ayo (Born February 26, 1972) is a conceptual and performance artist. She is known for her work on contemporary race relations. Her work spans the media of painting, web art, performance, sculpture, audio and video. She prefers her name in lower case.
Ayo was born in Washington, DC. She studied Public Policy and American Civilization at Brown University. While at Brown, Ayo was the director of the Women In Prison Project. This community involvement project placed undergraduate women as theatre instructors in the Rhode Island women's correctional facility. Ayo was trained as a leadership and diversity facilitator as a young adult and worked for the National Conference for Community and Justice, Rhode Island Branch where she directed youth programs as well as led workshops for adults on race relations. After working in this field for a while, Ayo began her career as an artist by bringing to fruition a work she saw in a dream. The work was about an experience she had in 7th grade with a particularly racist teacher. When she had created the work she realized that art was the most effective way to reach people with regards to social issues. Her first solo show followed shortly after in 1999.
damali ayo creates dialogue-driven conceptual art that engages contemporary social issues through the media of visual, virtual, written and performance art her work manipulates everyday objects to create a shift in a viewer's perspective on our world and their position within it.
Her most well known work to date is rent-a-negro.com. This satirical web site examined racism in the interactions between black and white people. The site employed parody and satire to engage the viewer in an artificial premise that one could rent a black person for their personal entertainment or to advance their social clout. This work, created in 2003, received over 40,0000 hits per day in its first month. Articles on the web site appeared in Salon.com, Harpers Magazine, The Washington Post, and the Chicago Tribune. This work launched ayo into a national audience.
An excerpt from the site reads:
rent-a-negro.com is a state-of-the-arts service that allows you the chance to promote your connection with a creative, articulate, friendly, attractive, and pleasing African American person. This service comes without the commitment of learning about racism, challenging your own white privilege, or being labeled "radical." In fact, rent-a-negro.com allows you to use your money and status to your advantage! In addition, your dollars go to support the development of African American culture...everyone benefits! Another popular performance work by damali ayo is living flag where she sits on the street and panhandles for reparations. In this street performance ayo collects reparations from passing white people and pays them out on the spot to passing black people. Other notable works from ayo include:
flesh-tone series #1: skinned In this much talked about work, ayo visited several paint stores and asked the paint specialists to mix a custom color to match her skin tone from various parts of her body. The result was 8 different colors matching her left and right arms, thigh, back, belly, breast, face and palm. She painted simple square paintings with these colors. She also can be commissioned to paint these colors in a persons home or on a wall (either full room or again in smaller sections). greetings (the race card) In her talks, ayo introduces this work by saying "I am so sick of that phrase, 'the race card' so I decided to actually make some race cards." This is a series of 10 greeting cards that address issues of race in our society. race-tag An on-site performance where ayo changed the common "hello my name is..." tag to "hello, my race is...". These were filled out with "black," "white," and "other." People who came to her gallery opening (over 200 in one night) were asked to wear the tags. Many white people refused entering arguments such as "I'm not white, I'm Irish." eye-con This framed collage showed black faced minstrel performer Al Jolson in his famous "Mammy" song pose, with a shadow in the shape of Mickey Mouse . ayo has also worked with golliwogs and other racist items in her work.
In 2005 ayo released the book How to Rent a Negro a satirical examination of race relations based on her web site.