Vaginal Davis on representing ‘like a black diva’

The Queen of Berlin talks drag, diversity and why she would never even dream of driving

Arts+Culture Q+A
Vaginal Davis
Vaginal Davis wears dress by Rick Owens; earrings and necklaces by Iosselliani; bracelets (worn on hands) by Prada Photography by Matt Lambert, Hair and make up by Servullo, Styling by Sebastiano Ragusa

Taken from the spring/summer issue of Dazed:

Queercore pioneer Vaginal Davis appeared in Bruce LaBruce and Rick Castro’s cult classic Hustler White, made headlines kissing Gwyneth Paltrow at a Fluxus-inspired happening and babysat for Rick Owens. She’s also run notorious riot grrrl and neo-burlesque LA club nights and championed outsider art through zines and home-run galleries. We met the underground drag icon at the Berlin opening of her pal John Waters’ exhibition Bad Director’s Chair to discuss her punk roots and why Germany’s capital is one of the few bastions left for the creative non-moneyed.

What inspired your move from LA to Berlin?

Vaginal Davis: I’d never live in a boutique city like London or Paris, which are only about the rich. I already had an infrastructure here from 2001 when I did the first Cheap Collective project, a salute to Carmen Miranda. LA was traditionally the most inexpensive of all the international cities. Not any more! 

Skyrocketing costs pushed you out?

Vaginal Davis: I lived in Koreatown in this beautiful 1920s apartment building. The owner only rented this building out to artists and she liked queens. She kept the rents way below market value. Then her husband got Alzheimer’s and she sold it to a carpetbagger. I even had a garage. But I never learnt how to drive a car, even though LA’s the city of cars. I used my bicycle. That’s why I feel so at home in Berlin. Even when I’m on a bicycle, if I see a cute boy I turn towards him and stare. Can you imagine if I had a car? Horrors! You could take a person’s life in a car.

You came out of the LA punk scene. How did that influence your take on drag?

Vaginal Davis: My form of drag doesn’t placate mainstream sensibilities. I’ve always had this unease with the wealthy and privileged and do digs at them in my work. Now drag’s on television. RuPaul has a regular mainstream show, but she came out of the same underground scene I did. My cousin Karla Duplantier got me into punk. She was the black lesbian drummer of one of the earliest LA punk bands, The Controllers. It was the only scene that allowed me to get on to stages. 

The gay scene didn’t?

Vaginal Davis: If you were a black drag queen you had to represent like a black diva and sing the songs of a black diva, but I was writing original songs and my persona was a sexualising of political activist Angela Davis. The original punk scene was very female-centred and art-driven. But by the advent of hardcore it had became all suburban testosterone and conventional. Punk lost its drive, and that’s when people like me and Bruce LaBruce and GB Jones in Toronto were doing our own little things that later became known as the queercore scene. We became close through these 15-page letters with photos, drawings, ephemera.

“My mother was doing underwear as outerwear before Madonna and Gaultier”

Do you still have all that stuff?

Vaginal Davis: I use some in installations. I believe in giving personal art that people can touch. I don’t like conceptual art that’s cold and gives you nothing. Our scenes were initially very small but we just pretended they were on everyone’s lips, and because we envisioned them as a bigger movement they became that. I still write letters as part of my art practice. I have my wax seal. 

Tell us about your scandalously funny 80s/90s zine, Fertile LaToya Jackson.

Vaginal Davis: I consider myself intersex – not really gay or straight, male or female. No one was into me sexually. I put my excess frustration into writing. When the mainstream discovered zines I got a call from Condé Nast’s art director, who asked what kind of font I use. I’m like, ‘Font?’ It was just some headline I typed on a portable 1920s typewriter and enlarged on a Xerox machine. I’d do the Xeroxing at my day job at UCLA’s printing centre, then have stapling parties.

Are your exhibitions, like 2012’s HAG – small, contemporary, haggard in New York, updates and remixes?

Vaginal Davis: Oh, HAG was fun. That was all my work. But I did my own gallery out of my apartment in the 80s. I featured friends who didn’t consider themselves artists but made interesting things. The main thrust with the gallery was, ‘Maybe I’ll get a boyfriend.’ But I’m just not meant to be coupled. Yearning keeps my art on edge. Some people can’t even go to the bathroom without checking in with their significant other, and they become boring. Like John Waters says: ‘People should give librarians mercy fucks.’

What inspires your drag personae?

Vaginal Davis: It always goes back to my mother, a black Creole woman from Louisiana. I grew up in the inner-city projects very, very poor. If I hadn’t become an artist I’d be like almost all the other kids in my neighbourhood – in prison or dead. Basically, we grew up in an installation. My mother made me toys out of trash, strange creature-like dolls. My house now is all collage. My mother looked pretty normative. Everyone thought she had a strange sense of fashion design for that time – she was doing underwear as outerwear before Madonna and Gaultier. But the way she did it, you couldn’t tell it was underwear. She made it look really conservative. 

Find out more about Vaginal Davis

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