Noah Davis, Bad Boy for Life, 2007. Courtesy of David Zwirner Gallery
Such profusion, such furious energy, in the most mundane of layouts. It is a commonplace scene capturing a point of slippage, when a black mother is about to inflict pain on her son, to give him something to cry about; a boy, grown enough to arch on his mother’s laps, legs and hands dangling, about to get spanked. Restrained, the mother raises her right palm, her fingers regular like a comb. With a blank face and pouted mouth, the boy’s countenance is impenetrable. Dazed, he registers no sign of regret, only an unflagging detachment. The mother’s face, unearthly in its expression, registers anguish. In place of a mouth, there is a bulge. No shadows.
From the first encounter with Bad Boy for Life, and with Noah Davis’s other paintings, this absence of shadow has assailed my consciousness. Nearly a year has lapsed now, the gap between filled by decadence of isolation, of time decomposing. Light intrudes into the canvas, illuminating the figures, but it casts no shadows. It is, in my eyes, an unnatural light. Instead, a foggy dark tint envelops the subjects. The figure of a mother and her ostensibly wayward son are flat on the canvas. All lines run uncannily parallel. The mother’s shoulder and the floor and the top of the cabinet are parallel lines superimposed on vertical pastel stripes that is the wall. This muted impression of depth, embedded within a shadowless universe, enhances a reality shift conceivable as time and space outside of the objective reality, and yet articulates the ethnographic reality of black populations in the global north.
I return to this image because it projects an imagined state in which there is great suffering and injustice, and because it gripped my attention in the aftermath of global anti racism protests. While attention has been cast on lives snapped, on victims of lynching and police brutality, I judged the pain of black mothers as overlooked. The mother’s intervention might denote a mild form of violence, but it is a gesture of care, extending the conviction that pain, when offered as medicine, in doses by loved ones, is a deliberate recalibration of attitudes. Here, through magical realism, by inserting the figures in a charmless and subjective plane of reality, Davis unravels a burden of black mothers—especially those in the global north, who are perpetually tormented by the possibility that their sons will grow into objects of suspicion, and that perhaps they might barely survive early adulthood. Posing for an invisible eye, towards which she glares, she prepares her son, who will grow into a young black man, for a society that will demand proof from him, constant proof that he is not a social menace.