Influenced by hip-hop, history, and science fiction, Donté K. Hayes explores memories of the past to project possible futures. The ceramic vessels in his “Welcoming” series use the pineapple as a surrogate for the Black body, tapping into its dual significance as a symbol of welcome and hospitality for some groups and a symbol of racist exclusion and agricultural colonization for others. In the Southern U.S., particularly in South Carolina and Hayes’s home state of Georgia, dock foremen once placed pineapples on spikes to signal the arrival of ships carrying enslaved Africans. Hayes’s inquiry, which draws on visual traditions from the American South, the Caribbean, South America, and the African continent, blends personal experience with broader social issues; clay serves as a bridge, integrating disparate objects and concepts to create new understandings and connections.
Lenore Metrick-Chen: What do you see as art’s role in the larger discussion of race?
Donté Hayes: My work really speaks to what is happening now. The texture that I use is welcoming at a time when we can’t even touch one another unless we live in the same house. We all know what it feels like not to be welcome. And we also know it takes work: I had to change and be more welcoming myself. In making this series, I wondered, “How are we going to be welcoming now? How do we go about protecting each other if we have some people who feel like they shouldn’t even wear masks?” What looks welcoming? Things that are soft. I wanted to make something that would be huggable, but I also wanted to make something hard to open appear welcoming: all of the pieces in this series resemble a pineapple, and the first is called Welcome (2018).
LM-C: Why did you choose a pineapple as the basis for the series?
DH: Pineapples are not from Hawaii. They never even heard of a pineapple until the 1800s. Pineapples originated in South America. Charles II used the pineapple as a symbol of power and wealth. And in the United States, pineapples were used to signal the arrival of slave ships.
My work changes the meaning of the pineapple as a symbol of power. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if, when you saw someone you had never seen before, you didn’t think, “They shouldn’t be there”? When I see people of color, they are there. We are here. We are a part of the culture, just like everyone else. We were always here. Treat me just like any other person who comes into the place. Some people have begun to realize what I have been talking about and ask, “Would I want to be treated that way?” “Why do I think that it’s ok for a person of color to be treated that way?”
That is the reason I chose to make this series. The objects are not scary or monumental, they are sized just like you and me. When I made Handle (2019), I was thinking, “How do you handle diversity?” You take all those things, and you have to internalize them. You breathe in, breathe out. When I was making those undulations, I thought how it looks like it is breathing in and breathing out. The piece has its own handle because sometimes you have to “handle” it.
LM-C: Your use of the pineapple as a surrogate for the Black body exposes both meanings of the pineapple: historically welcoming white people, while treating Black people as not equal. Each vessel creates a chain of images, fusing the pineapple, the body, and also functional objects like a basket or a head covering. This raises the idea of colonialism, which treats certain people as commodities, and then flips it.
DH: I love what you just said because it is a way to see these vessels as an abstract form of a Black body in space, which is what I intend. The vessels are often placed in a white space, and I notice that, the further you go up the ladder, the less you see people of color. In any institution, in Iowa or even in Georgia, I still might be the only Black person in a meeting, so if I see another Black person, it feels inviting.
That’s when I decided to make the clay body turn into the content. People ask, “What kind of clay body do you use?” When they say “porcelain,” they are most likely thinking “white.” So, I thought, “Wouldn’t it be powerful if I used the clay, the material itself as content?” I chose a clay that is brown before firing, but turns black at a certain heat. I take it all the way to its blackness. Most ceramicists want to glaze their work, but a glaze puts a veil over something. I felt that if I put something on top, I would take away content, like I’m hiding something. My vessels are black without glaze.
LM-C: Your works are striking for their tactile quality. They seem to say, “Touch me, but don’t touch me.” It’s yes and no, sharp but also fragile. Are you setting up a power play through your work?
DH: I want to make art that speaks and that asks, “Who has the power to say what is ok for my body?” The Black person’s body is never his own—like what happened in Georgia. The men who murdered Ahmaud Arbery claimed that he wasn’t just jogging, that he was stealing, when he was just looking at a construction site. It’s ok for anyone else to walk and run and look at a neighborhood. Why are you saying I can’t do what I want with my body?
This is why I use clay. The texture is welcoming: it’s like hair. But I want to change the materiality from soft to something that, if it did touch you, would feel hard and vulnerable. Human beings are vulnerable. Especially if you are a person of color.
LM-C: I was surprised when you related the texture of the work to hair. It made me think about the difference between most Black and white people’s experiences with hair textures. In touching each other’s hair, we are aware of a taboo, and we give each other permission to cross the line. Is that something you think about?
DH: Yes, Black people know never to touch a Black person’s hair without permission. And a lot of people, including Black people, may feel that Black hair isn’t beautiful. They might have a Eurocentric idea that hair should feel smooth and slick. I wanted to change this idea through how I work in clay.
I felt that my previous work was too colorful: it got at the aesthetic of beauty instead of the aesthetic of what feels welcoming. I love color, but I thought that the content of this work needed to focus on texture—that was the most important thing. Headdress (2019) looks like a protection or a covering, a garment for ceremony; and the shape and texture remind me of hair. We leave strands of ourselves everywhere we go. Your DNA is always being touched by someone else, it is always being discarded. Exploited, annihilated, unwelcome, your DNA is still there. Even if you are excluded from things, part of you is still present because we all have bodies that shed. This also speaks to how I grew up, seeing my mom pulling her hair out—it would be throughout the house, in the car, and it always felt welcoming to me to know that she was there.
LM-C: Didn’t that alarm you?
DH: I didn’t know that it was supposed to be negative. I was a kid: no one told me that this was something you weren’t supposed to do.
LM-C: To go beyond representation, getting to a complex subjectivity in aesthetics, is powerful. Your work speaks to inner struggles and defiance, your awareness of the type of welcome you receive within a public place—and it pushes the viewer to confront that.
DH: When people look at the work, they are able to see themselves in it. It’s an abstract form that lends itself to understanding what it feels like to be vulnerable—the only one like that in the room. We all have to withstand things that we don’t want to; we just have to do them. It also lends itself to feeling and thinking, “I am proud of myself, warts and all. I’m ok with myself, and I can be in a space like that, too.” This is not just about me in a Black body, it is about me as a human being.
LM-C: Did you grow up with stories that affected your work?
DH: In the summer, we were the family that went to every single historical place. We’d be about the only Black family there. My grandma was born in Appomattox, Virginia, and we would go to the court house where the Civil War was ended, so we knew our history. But I always wanted to know more.
When you asked about my mom pulling her hair out—that speaks to the idea of trauma. My grandma’s father was born in 1865. He was an enslaved African American, born two months before the Civil War ended. He lived to be over 100 years old. So, look how close slavery is to me. My grandmother could pass for white, and the family was treated better because she looked white. My grandfather’s mother’s mother was raped by some white guy in Raleigh, North Carolina—actually, the master of the house. We talked openly about my family history, and I think about it.
LM-C: Many of your titles allude to fortitude and endurance. Are they related to your family and personal history?
DH: I want my work to allude to something in the past, be relevant to what is right now, and then give us hope about the future. That’s how I see my work when I am making it. Withstand (2019), for instance, looks like a body: hips and then legs. Legs are your foundation. At the bottom of each leg, there is a cuff—similar to Nigerian ceremonial garb. So, I’m saying that this is an initiation, “I’m withstanding something, I’m standing tall.” It also looks like an arch, a triumphal arch. The body can be architectural. If you’re standing in that pose, you are the triumphant one, aren’t you? But do we see people of color in that way? I don’t think so. That’s why I made it, to show the Black body triumphant.
LM-C: How does your two-dimensional work relate to your three-dimensional work? It seems to me that there are many parallels between sculpture and printmaking.
DH: I feel the same way. My background is in printmaking, and intaglio is my favorite process—it involves scratching on a metal plate. It’s very similar to getting a slab of clay, taking a tool, and carving away. That’s what I do in my ceramic work; I see this series as being like etchings. Other than my hands, my eyes, and my brain, the only tool I use is the etching needle. I want to carve and scratch; I’m not applying any clay, I am drawing.
LM-C: Your sculpture has a kind of visual stream of consciousness connecting ideas and visual imagery. You talk about rhythm and music—do you consider your work improvisational?
DH: I don’t draw these pieces out beforehand—I’m vibing off of the knowledge I already have. There is an energy that comes from listening to music. I pick up the energy of that beat, and it transforms how I make my next move. I’m going places through making the work. It’s like a ripple effect. I remember a little creek by our house when I was growing up; we’d get crawfish and see how many times we could skip rocks, and I think about that when I am working. The ripple of skipping rocks is like the movement of energy in my work: the ripple reminds me of how you have a cowlick in your hair and how it “does the swirl” and has a little center spot, and it kind of looks like a wormhole, which brings in my idea of futurism. So, I am thinking about all those things in one, and about music, science fiction—and then all those things come together, all at one moment in time.
When I make a piece, I get into a trance—I don’t even know that people are there. Dalek (2018) took 16 hours to texture, and I did it in one sitting. Listening to music, I get a rhythm—I’m listening to the beat, I start moving my hand quickly. I’m in the past, I’m in the present, I’m in the future—I go places. I don’t even realize I’m hungry when I’m making art. But as soon as I’m finished, I get out of the trance and I need to eat. I’m so tired. But I’m never tired when I’m working. The finished work looks ritualistic—it has a pattern, it has repetition, it has a rhythm.
LM-C: What kind of music do you listen to?
DH: A lot of rap: old school, new school. I listen to OutKast, Lil Wayne, Common. Most importantly, it’s about the bravado, that strength that you get when you are listening to that beat. It has a feeling like, “You can’t do nothing to me no matter what.” Charles II used the pineapple to create bravado—a way to say how great he was. And in hip-hop, that is mostly what the MC does—he or she is rhyming about “Look how good I can do this”: it’s a way to show your excellence.
LM-C: As your work becomes known, do you feel that it can help alleviate and change some of the historic segregation within the art world?
DH: I’m not making it for them. I’m making it for everyone. But I’m coming from a place as a person of color. When we look at any Western artist, someone like Jackson Pollock, no one thinks that he is making white art. What they say is, “He’s speaking the universal feelings of a human being.” But when the artist is a person of color, or trans, or a woman, labels are put on the work: “feminist art.” Generally, they are not looking at artists who don’t look like them. And that’s weird, because growing up, I knew a lot about artists who don’t look like me.
Another thing that’s been coming up is the question of whether Black artists should be in shows that are all Black—“We’ll have some Black artists now.” We should have all shows. Of course, I’m going to be speaking to the African American community, because ain’t I authentically Black? But it’s art, it’s universal. Withstand clearly speaks to more than just being in my space, in this body. Whether it’s in a white-wall gallery or a museum, my work is there to be seen; it belongs there. It doesn’t belong only in a Black show—it can be shown anytime, anywhere. We have always had great artists of all races, that was never the issue. But who was curating them? Curating now includes women and people of color and LGBTQ people. And when that started changing, we started seeing artists of color getting major returns at art auctions.
LM-C: You’re saying, “We are already the future”—just as your sculptures condense temporal relationships. Each vessel leads from a violent past to the suggestion of a more just future, all in one object. This seems to tap into Afrofuturism.
DH: I don’t even have to tell people it’s about Afrofuturism; you can see it on your own. I say that I am from the future because in the future we are going to notice more people of color in the art world. We are living in an age where we have clapback—the retort to seeing that the empire is not as it should be.
LM-C: Do you think this will contribute to lasting change?
DH: I’m getting the opportunity to be in the room so I can speak up and do things to help other people. It’s not like, “I’m doing well, so that’s excellent,” without a thought to what’s happening to people behind me. And it’s not only Black people and people of color: there are a lot of voices that aren’t being heard because their work opposes white supremacy. We need all of us to speak and to be bold—not only do you have to be in the room, you have to have the bravado.
You’ve been involved in the work for equality for a long time, but some people are getting involved only now because this type of work has become “cool.” Let’s see what happens in a year from now. When Trayvon Martin died wearing a hoodie, people said, “Change is going to happen now,” and nothing happened. So, let’s not believe the hype. Going back to Headdress—it’s a protective covering, but others see it in a different way, as if it’s trying to hide something. We need to always be diligent about how we see things and be aware of how others tap into it. We have one step forward, two steps back; we are still in flux.
LM-C: The dualism in your sculptures—the simultaneous “yes” and “no”—exposes the deceit that can lurk in welcoming and creates a more complex message. Yet your work is visually alluring, engaging tactilely and emotionally.
DH: I am doing it in love. I’m not doing it in anger. There is no bitterness in this. I don’t need to prove something, nor do I desire revenge. That is another reason why it is engaging. You know that it’s love; you see it aesthetically, but you don’t say it.
LM-C: How long does it take you to make one of the “Welcome” vessels?
DH: All my life. The ideas in these pieces come from experience with mark-making. I’m thinking about past things, present things, things that I want to see in the future. All my experiences up until now go into making this work. As a high school kid, I was the one standing up and saying, “How come we never talk about the empires of these great people on these slave ships?”And then I would get pushback. This work comes out of all those times when I was younger, asking questions, learning. My love of comic books and science fiction, my family history, all have become part of my work. I wouldn’t be able to make this work if I didn’t have all those other things before.
Donté K. Hayes’s work is currently featured in the group exhibition “Magic Touch,” on view at New York’s Dinner Gallery, formerly VICTORI + MO, through May 1st.