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Atlanta artist creates work about race in America, social injustice

Atlanta-based artist and MOCA GA Working Artist Project winner Davion Alston.
Courtesy of Davion Alston
Atlanta-based artist and MOCA GA Working Artist Project winner Davion Alston. Courtesy of Davion Alston

Winner of a Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia Working Artist Project fellowship makes the personal political in his art.

For Zoom, Nintendo and Chlorox, the coronavirus has been a windfall.

For some others? Not so much.

But one thing quarantine has done for some in Atlanta’s creative class is allow them to quickly go deep. Stuck at home, with exhibitions canceled and jobs evaporated, artists like Georgia State University BFA grad Davion Alston, 28, have had the time and the mental space to develop their art-making.

And it has continued a professional momentum for Alston whose work examining race and identity often through photography, has already been exhibited at Hathaway Gallery and Day & Night Projects, and who is the inaugural Warner Media Creative Resident at the artist advocacy nonprofit C4 Atlanta.

Davion Alston's "Edge 3."
Courtesy of Davion Alston
Davion Alston's "Edge 3." Courtesy of Davion Alston

And recently announced: Alston is one of three artists awarded a prestigious Working Artist Project fellowship by the Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia which culminates in a solo exhibition at the space in 2021.

“It has been so beautiful,” says Alston of the time to think that quarantine has granted him.

“It has helped me tremendously, because there is so much low-hanging fruit,” he says of the financial support for artists and the grants — along with the time to apply for them — he has found in the midst of the pandemic.

"Edge 9" by Davion Alston.
Courtesy of Davion Alston
"Edge 9" by Davion Alston. Courtesy of Davion Alston

Slender, with searching, gentle brown eyes, Alston can seem too fragile for this world. “I’m a Pisces and an empath,” he explains. But his work is passionate, rigorous and often laced with a subtle dark humor. Alston can pivot in an instant from an almost silly, infectious energy, and then plunge you into the cold water of profundity, as he talks. His conversation dips into his own complicated family history as an adopted child who grew up never knowing his biological father and who struggled to escape some of the limitations of small-town Southern life growing up in Brunswick, Georgia and then attending Valdosta State University before decamping to Atlanta. Conversations with Alston touch on America’s troubled 400-year long history of racism and the ongoing judgment of and concern with blackness in America.

“It’s a history that we cannot seem to get rid of until we can touch on it and understand what we actually did,” he notes.

"Food for Thought" by Davion Alston.
Courtesy of Davion Alston
"Food for Thought" by Davion Alston. Courtesy of Davion Alston

In the visceral photo series “Food for Thought,” Alston created glossy, advertising-evocative images — a bag of Skittles candy, a spilled Arizona iced tea, a sandwich — placed against a white backdrop. Those images depict the last meal — in a sense — for young black men like Trayvon Martin, and Michael Brown before they were murdered. In other works, Alston often draws from his personal life in installations that combine photographs of the artist with references to his own family history: lottery tickets — referencing a grandfather’s obsession — lace doilies and church fans as mementos of a grandmother.

Atlanta artist Davion Alston's "A Display of a One Way Conversation."
Courtesy of Davion Alston
Atlanta artist Davion Alston's "A Display of a One Way Conversation." Courtesy of Davion Alston

Credit: HANDOUT

Credit: HANDOUT

Lately, Alston has moved into the realm of documentary. In his “State of Georgia” black and white photo series, Alston focuses on the current protest movement surrounding the killing of black men like George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery, who hailed from the same south Georgia area as Alston.

But like so much of Alston’s work, an complex topic, becomes more complicated in his hands. Look closely at the photos of government buildings, barricades and protestors and you notice the images are not traditional photojournalism. No faces are visible, only backs and profiles and identities obscured by face masks. “I’m working in a way that’s trying to obscure identity within the photographs due to the need for surveillance to identify who is a part of these gatherings,” says Alston, purposefully hiding demonstrators’ faces so they can’t be targeted for their activism.

Artist Davion Alston was recently selected as one of three Atlanta artists to receive a Working Artist Project Fellowship grant from the Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia. A solo exhibition of his work will appear at the museum in 2021. "Edge 7" is a work by the artist.
Courtesy of Davion Alston
Artist Davion Alston was recently selected as one of three Atlanta artists to receive a Working Artist Project Fellowship grant from the Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia. A solo exhibition of his work will appear at the museum in 2021. "Edge 7" is a work by the artist. Courtesy of Davion Alston

“I think there is a great legacy of black artists here in Atlanta who inform my work,” he admits. “When I think about inspiration, I immediately think about Paul Stephen Benjamin, Krista Clark, Cosmo Whyte, Yanique Norman… I think about Radcliffe Bailey, Masud Olufani,” all of whom in one way or another, address race.

“That’s the history that’s tied to here,” he says of his adopted city of Atlanta, but of America as a whole.

You can find more of Davion Alston’s work at davionalston.com.