Patrick Dougher on Africa, Art, Spirituality and Healing
In this eighth part of our continuing series on artists in the diaspora who promote Black identity and pride through their work, we present Brooklyn-based artist Patrick Dougher. Other artists presented in this series include American painter Jay Parnell, Portuguese painter and designer Mario Henrique, Canadian artist Tim Okamura and African-American painter Dean Mitchell.
Dougher is a self-taught artist, musician, poet, educator, and spiritual activist widely celebrated for his mixed-media collages and paintings. He has taught in NYC public schools and worked as an art therapist for HIV-positive children, and as the director of community arts organisations. Through his work, Dougher seeks to inspire and celebrate people of African descent and to connect urban African-American culture to its roots in sacred African art, spirituality, and ritual. In this interview with Omenka, he discusses his work in detail, his creative process, and his spirituality.
You are a self-taught artist, musician, poet, educator, and spiritual activist, widely celebrated for your mixed-media collages and paintings, which focus on the identities of Black people. How did your love of art begin, and in what ways have these separate disciplines influenced your work?
I don’t think there was an exact moment in which I realised that I had a love for art and the creative process. As the Rastafarians say, I’ve had these feelings “from ever since,” meaning, I think they are intrinsic and integral to who I am. I wasn’t exposed to much formal art growing up, and art wasn’t a thing that was encouraged as a career path for me. I never went to museums or galleries as a child, but I remember being fascinated with album cover art and the one art book that we had in our house.
To me, the creative process is organic and flows fluidly between the different disciplines. I learned to play the drums as I was learning to paint. To this day, I often stop in the middle of creating a painting to play the drums, or during the meditation of painting, I will be inspired to write a poem. All of the creative disciplines are spiritual in nature to me. They are mediums by which I connect to my Higher Power.
What is your creative process like and how are you able to develop relevant new concepts? In what ways do these processes and techniques, specific to collage and painting in acrylics, translate into your representations of Blackness?
The creative process, to me, is a spiritual practice. It is about allowing myself to be inspired and guided by a source that is greater than me. The concepts come from that higher source. I only take credit for allowing myself to be guided and doing the physical work. Some practices help to facilitate this inspiration. Meditation and prayer, reading, listening to and creating music, being in awe of the work of other artists, conversations with friends, and sometimes, even anger and angst are great motivators.
The way my work reflects and represents Blackness comes from the idea that I see Black people as the epitome of beauty and as being divine by nature. I want to focus on and highlight the beauty of our divinity.
In your work, you use found objects to create art. Artists who work in this manner usually have a focus on environmental sustainability. Do you share the same intentions, and where do you source your materials from?
They say, “Necessity is the mother of all invention.” Growing up with an impulse to create art, but with little or no money, I began using ordinary and discarded objects to make art and to see art all around me in things in my urban environment that are often overlooked. At one point in my life, I was homeless. A friend let me stay in his recording studio in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. The studio was next to a metal recycling yard. There was a lot of old, rusted metal and flattened soda/beer cans on the street. It was there that I began making sculptures influenced by traditional African art, using pieces of found rusted metal.
I’ve always done collages using Xerox copies, cutting and rearranging the copies to make new images. This idea for me was similar to what DJs were doing at the time: mixing, cutting, and sampling old records to create new music. I used Xerox copies because I often worked in places where I had access to copy machines and could make copies for free.
Transposing Xeroxed images on the found flattened cans seemed like a logical progression. The cans provided a free “canvas” and also spoke to the idea of repurposing ordinary objects and flipping them to create new work. I was also beginning my journey to become sober at that time, which I call my second chance at life. By repurposing the discarded cans and metal, I was saying that these things are valuable and also deserve “a second life.” It also conveys that “we are not disposable” and that beauty and value can be found even in what is considered worthless.
Your ‘Brooklyn Talisman’ series has gained critical acclaim since you embarked on it almost two decades ago. With this series (fashioned after traditional, sacred African ceremonial sculptures), you “hope to revitalise the energy and power” of the constituent discarded machine parts. Do you find your thrust ironic, considering that the advent of Christianity and advances in technology are largely responsible for the increasing disappearance of these masks from the African continent?
I really appreciate this question and assertion. I have never thought of the “irony” (this in itself is a pun) of using found metal to create the ‘Talisman’ series. When I create a found sculpture that is in the shape of the Christian cross, I am thinking more in terms of the Egyptian ankh or Ethiopian Coptic cross. The revitalisation of energy that I refer to is the idea that each found piece of metal at one time belonged to a “living,” functioning machine that was a conduit for energy. I suppose there is an interesting juxtaposing and symbolism that happens when I use a piece from modern machinery and configure it to take on the shape of a traditional mask or totem, which was also meant to be a “living” conduit for energy and power.
In the same vein, with the use of Byzantine halos as a recurrent motif in many of your works, are you alluding to the spiritual hybridity in contemporary African society, where Christianity is practised alongside indigenous traditions?
I should start by maybe clarifying that I am not a Christian. However, my father was Catholic, and I think going to church with him as a youth was a great influence on me. I was always impressed and moved by the Catholic imagery and how divinity was represented, but even at a young age, I noticed that none of those depicted in painting and sculpture resembled me or the people in my life.
The halos are not strictly a Western Christian construct. When I got older and was exposed to different religions and art, I began to see the halos represented in Buddhist and Hindu art as well as in Ethiopian Coptic icons. For me, the halo is symbolic of divinity and enlightenment. They are visual representations of “Godbody,” as the Five Percenters (a sub-sect of Islam) say, or “Namaste,” as the Hindus say, which really simply means the divinity that we all possess internally.
Your achievement as an educator in such roles as a youth counsellor and teaching artist at Project Reach and Studio, and presently, interim director for BRIC Arts Media is well documented. How have these experiences enriched your practice?
Young people give me life! Particularly Black and brown youth in New York City. I truly believe they are the most innovative, creative, stylish, intelligent, and talented people on the planet. I am inspired by their resilience and strength and the deep joy they have. It has been one of the greatest blessings and honours of my life to have worked with them.
As programme director for Groundswell, you have also enriched local communities with the African/Black experience. How would you evaluate your impact so far?
I started at Groundswell in the midst of what is called the “gentrification” of many traditionally Black and brown neighbourhoods in NYC. What it comes down to is the displacement of those people and their culture. It is literally a whitewashing. This is happening in cities all over the country and all over the world. One important thing Groundswell did was to proudly create huge murals in these communities that depict Black and brown people and culture. The murals act as a lasting legacy and document to the neighbourhood—art as the best kind of propaganda. These murals were also created by youth from those communities. Through the process of creation, the young people were taught art and communication skills and were given a new sense of pride in their history and culture.
It’s difficult to gauge the impact on the communities, but I know that the individual impact of these projects on the youth is something I’m very proud of. Many have gone on to have successful art careers, and many have become outspoken social justice activists in their communities. Again I feel very blessed and honoured to be part of their stories.
Like many accomplished artists, you work in series, or in separate bodies of work. For example, in ‘Ethereal,’ you employ Byzantine halos as a motif while incorporating Bible passages, in ‘Black Bodies,’ you work with collages of Xeroxed dollar bills, in your acclaimed ‘Godbody,’ the halos appear alongside cuttings with conspicuous headlines. Please tell us how these series have evolved and the connecting threads, taking care to mention the significance of each element, for example, the halos and currency notes.
There are certain sourced images that I’ve used repeatedly since my earliest work. The dollar bills, the image of packed Black bodies from slave ships’ manifests, Bible and Quran passages, and so on. These all allude to physical, spiritual, and mental slavery, as well as wage slavery. I often use these symbolically to construct body images or for the background on which the images “live,” because I see this slavery as ever-present in our lives historically and presently. I discussed the significance of the halos in a previous answer, but again I see our divinity as an ever-present aspect of who we are, whether we recognise/acknowledge it or not.
In the ‘Kings of New York’ series, Bodega Saint, and Radiant Flower Child, you manipulate time and space by transporting important personages like paramount chiefs from Africa, as well as iconic artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat, into contemporary urban spaces. What is your underlying philosophy, and what do you hope to achieve?
The ‘Kings of New York’ and ‘Native New Yorkers’ series and Bodega Saint are really about calling attention to a lineage and cultural connection—this idea that we African-Americans can be noble and beautiful in a grimy urban setting, and that our origins, no matter the background, are African and dignified. I was born and raised in Brooklyn and came up during the height of the graffiti movement. Those backdrops are what I’m most familiar with, but by juxtaposing African nobility on them, I see them in a different way—a way that is worthy of celebration.
I also hung around Soho and the East Village as a teen in the 80s. Seeing Basquiat’s and Haring’s graffiti on the streets was a regular thing. I think when I collage him back into a graffitied setting, I am reclaiming him for the streets, as opposed to the multi-million dollar galleries and museums his work hangs in now—places that I feel intimidated to even step foot in.
Found soda cans are also central to your art. Are your thoughts here inclined towards conservation and mass production?
Yes and no. I am deeply concerned about the state of our planet in every aspect, which includes global warming, waste, overconsumption, and pollution, but I think the idea with the can art didn’t come from such a lofty or “woke” place. As I said earlier, the idea of using found discarded cans as a “canvas” really came from the need to create with limited means. One of the activities I always do with young people I work with is to take a walk through our neighbourhood and look with “new eyes” at all the art and possibilities for making art there are all around us in our urban environment. Often what is regarded as trash is incredibly interesting and inspiring.
Are there any new projects you would like to share with us, including perhaps an exhibition of your work on the African continent?
Thank you. I was recently part of a group exhibition in South Africa in June called Art and Lit, which will pair up African-American visual artists with South African writers. The show was first in Johannesburg and will travel to the States. I am very excited about this opportunity, and I hope to have more exposure and also make connections on the continent, so that I can have shows in countries like Nigeria, Ghana, Senegal, and so on. For this reason, I am particularly grateful for this opportunity that you have blessed me with. Give thanks.
October 27, 2020
October 26, 2020