After experiencing David Gumbs’ immersive installations and drawings on view at Telfair Museums—all featured as part of the artist’s first U.S. solo exhibition, David Gumbs: From Dust to Gold (on view at the Jepson Center until July 18, 2021)—I became intrigued by his work and wanted to know more about his background, sources of inspiration, and experience making art during the pandemic. I reached out to Gumbs over Zoom one morning while he was visiting family in Saint Martin, the island in the Caribbean where he grew up. The following was condensed and edited for clarity.
Anne-Solène Bayan (ASB): When did you realize you were interested in art and wanted to pursue it?
David Gumbs (DB): I realized pretty early on, as a kid. I was quite introverted and didn’t have that many friends. I often kept to myself and just started to draw. Once, my mom discovered a whole city of drawings behind the bed. When she wasn’t there, I used to move the bed and draw on the wall. I was sure she would want to erase it or paint over it so I would make sure to hide it. When she found it, it triggered this realization for her that this wasn’t just a kid misbehaving – she saw that I needed to draw. And then later, when I was 14, there was a drawing teacher, Nadine Ducrocq, who saw something unexpected in my art. I was quite turbulent in class until she would ask us to do a drawing.
ASB: You attended a French high school, right?
DB: Saint Martin is half Dutch and half French. But yes, I went into the French school system. I think that’s what allowed me to gain all the experience that I have now in the arts and digital arts. (…) At first, I thought I wanted to be an architect because there is this vision that there are only a few trades worth considering like doctor or architect. So, I pursued the science track at the French school. Looking back, I think it helped me to broadly understand the logic behind the digital aspects of my pieces and the methodology behind coding.
ASB: Do you ever feel inspired by that aspect of your work—the formulas and equations?
DB: Really, all the works I do come from a feeling, an intuition. Someone says something in the street, or I feel drawn to a certain pattern or color. That is basically where the inspiration comes from. And then, when I’m making the work, I see if I can get as close as possible to the original idea and inspiration that I had. Oftentimes, I have to work with programmers and coders to get there. And it’s been a constant learning experience; there hasn’t been a day where I think, “OK, I know how to do this now, and I am going to just focus on doing that.” I keep challenging myself.
ASB: In your opening lecture, you mentioned automatic drawing, and it made me wonder if you had looked to the Surrealist art movement for inspiration?
DB: There are works from the Surrealist movement that touched me, like Max Ernst’s prints and collages. Early on, I was triggered by the way he used prints of patterns to create rock-like relief in the background of his work. (…) I had an emotional response when I saw the texture in his pieces. There was also the Surrealist artist André Masson and in particular his painting called Antilles. It’s an abstract painting, but when you move away from it, you can see a woman’s figure made from microscopic cells. Masson filled the outlines with things that look like human cells. What was also interesting to me is that he painted it with black sand. He painted it after visiting Martinique and meeting with the Caribbean poet Aimé Césaire, who was working on a Surrealist journal, and the Cuban artist Wifredo Lam. (…) This work by Masson made me realize the full possibilities of painting. In the French Caribbean world, there is still a tendency to be either quite figurative or quite abstract. And abstraction is often explored through references to Taíno and pre-Columbian art.
ASB: You also mentioned in your opening lecture that you felt conflicted at the beginning of your career about making art that had no overt political commentary. Has that changed? Do you feel compelled to make art with political undertones?
DB: The pieces called Ecorché (Flayed) and Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité (Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity), which are both self-portraits, are the only two works that I have made recently that have really “in your face” themes or aesthetics. They make you question topics like identity, slavery, postcolonial issues, Black Lives Matter, and the racism that we have in France but also elsewhere around the world. Those works came organically, though. I didn’t set out to make art about these topics. With Ecorché, it came from a really eruptive feeling that I was experiencing as a Black person in society. (…). I see those works as part of a larger series that will take a long time to complete because I am not the kind of artist who can sit down in the studio with a set topic. I need a trigger, like watching the news, talking to my mother, or a clear emotion. I need to also be in a space where I am no longer worried about “am I going to make it?” or “can I make work and will it sell?” When I get away from all those issues, that’s when inspiration comes. It’s often when I am drawing. I can get into a trance of sorts and can really be myself. That’s why it’s important for me to strike a balance by drawing and not only focusing on the digital work.
ASB: You often refer to Créolité and Négritude when discussing your work, and those terms are somewhat political—at least in the way I understand them. Can you tell me more about how these concepts play into your practice?
DB: Créolité comes into play for me through Édouard Glissant and Aimé Césaire’s work and specifically their exploration of topics like identity. These authors were arguing that Créole people are constantly seeking to define themselves and that their identity will forever be in flux. The idea is that identity, which isn’t fixed, has to be built, reasserted every day, at every moment, and that we are constituted by a variety of influences. That’s why I love the mangrove tree in Glissant’s work because the roots are a variety of cultures —Indian, Chinese, French, African, etc. The roots go in so many directions. There’s a certain madness and fluidity. I think of our people [in the Caribbean], in a way, as free electrons. (…) I also looked to Créolité and Négritude as a way to accept doubts and uncertainties. Who am I? What’s my purpose? Can I accept not knowing? When I lived in France, I was finally faced with the understanding that I am considered both French but also not French. I can be accepted as French but if something negative happens around me, then I will be considered “from Saint Martin.”
ASB: Does the multiplicity of influences, languages, and cultures that you describe as part of life in the Caribbean come into play in your work?
DB: Yes, more and more. I realized that when I use a lot of colors—it’s obviously colors and patterns from the leaves and flowers on the island, that’s the base of it—but the way they’re animated and the way they are constantly repeating themselves like fractals through endless interactive loops also represent our cultural heritage. You mix the patterns together and you see this constantly self-evolving mass that renews itself and triggers itself into new combinations. I think that was also why I was attracted to interactive art; I was drawn to the idea of inputting “ingredients” of sorts and letting the computer randomly generate combinations that we may never see again. (…) I don’t think I was conscious of it at first, but the more I talked about the work, the more it became clear to me.
ASB: What has it been like for you as an artist during the pandemic?
DB: It’s been pretty tough. The first lockdown was an opportunity for me to be in the studio and build more work. At the same time, I think I am one of those artists who feels my surroundings quite deeply; when the environment is unstable and there is pressure, I can feel it and it can affect my output. I can feel motivated, but then I’ll also feel some external pressure that I can’t control and that I have difficulty separating myself from. Once I got past that, I was able to make a few pieces. Mostly, a piece called Creation en Confinement (Creation in Lockdown) which was the result of my wanting to make new work outside of my typical practice. I was observing that after the two first weeks of lockdown, the intensity of traffic was basically back to normal. So, I created a generative program that erased the cars and their movements. I would say that COVID has allowed me to go further in my experimentations in the studio and has actually opened my work to new forms. (…)