My Favourite Painting: Habda Rashid

Habda Rashid, senior curator at Kettle’s Yard and the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, chooses an image full of 'tension and intimacy'.

Habda Rashid on The Casting Call by Noah Davis

‘I have an interest in artists that create dialogues with historical art traditions within a contemporary setting and, in this work, I feel as if there is a conversation with Degas and his ballerinas. Davis’s claustrophobic composition creates both tension and intimacy; the low-ceilinged room is crowded and, as with all of his works, his subjects’ faces are obscured, so eye contact with the viewer is mainly denied.

‘There is a nod to abstraction with the prominence of a grid-like floor, which I feel is deliberate and aimed to interrupt any straight or representational reading of this scene, so you sense it’s not a real place. Davis deliberately made his work accessible for a wide audience, it was important to him to do so, as well as engaging with art history and the language of painting, thereby also attracting art-world nerds like me.’

Habda Rashid is senior curator of modern and contemporary art at Kettle’s Yard and the Fitzwilliam Museum, University of Cambridge. The ‘Paint Like the Swallow Sings Calypso’ exhibition at Kettle’s Yard runs until February 19, 2023.

Charlotte Mullins comments on The Casting Call

Black women pose in white swimwear and strappy sandals, hands stretched over their heads, legs bent to add alluring contrapposto, as if they were classical statues. One woman falters and looks down, hands awkwardly by her sides. It is only then that we notice the guarded eyes of the front woman and the closed red doors. The ceiling presses down and the walls close in. The painting’s title suggests these women are competing for a job, but a job doing what?

Noah Davis’s paintings often have a disquieting atmosphere, something we can’t quite put our finger on. At times, fantastical elements, such as portals and unicorns, creep in and his works have an otherworldly feel, as if we remember them from a dream. Most are scenes from everyday life, a man reading a newspaper by a chainlink fence or kids hanging out on an elevated walkway. Davis wanted to reinstate black bodies into the artistic canon, much as the generation of African-American artists who preceded him did, including Kerry James Marshall. But Davis’s spare, muted style owes more to the European tradition of Marlene Dumas and Luc Tuymans.

Davis was winning international attention before his untimely death aged 32 from cancer. Three years before he died, he established the Underground Museum with his wife, brother and sister-in-law. It was an ambitious project to bring museum-quality art to Arlington Heights in Los Angeles, US, supported by the LA Museum of Contemporary Arts. It ran until spring 2022.

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