Close-up: An Interview With Howard J. Davis

Close-up Culture are proud to welcome multi-disciplinary artist Haui aka Howard J. Davis to talk about his upcoming documentary and the forces that drive his work.

Q: You are currently developing a personal documentary titled ‘MixedUp’. It will explore your mixed European and Black heritage. What do you think yourself and viewers will gain from this journey?

A: Mixed↑ (pronounced Mixed Up) is the amalgamation of many years of self discovery as an artist of colour. It finally bridges a correlation between my personal lived experience and my progression in my film work with a specific point of view around race politics. 

Being of mixed cultures is not uncommon. Our society is no longer homogenous and yet there is still discrimination expressed towards people who are multi-racial. Belonging to both but existing as neither. I want to break the stigma around mixed people being “diluted, and mixed-up” and instead, focus the perspective of diversity being beautiful. I think this project will have a strong impact and speak to various groups of individuals and a wide audience with an emphasis on those who identify as multi-racial. 

To be mixed is not just to be black and white but encompasses many lived experiences. Canada is made up of people who have settled on these lands from elsewhere. The ultimate goal of Mixed↑ is to have a universal dialogue around race and identity accessible to many people. I think, for myself, art is a cathartic expression to make sense of all the feelings I have with myself and the world around me. That is why art is necessary for our souls.

The project is currently in development and obtaining financing with goals of release next spring. The film is being co-produced by Jack Fox, a trans director and producer from Vancouver, BC whose works speaks towards activism and change. Updates on Mixed↑ will be available soon at mixedup.ca

Q: Can you tell us about your development as an artist and the factors that have shaped your interests?

A: I am part of a new generation of artists of colour with the intention of sharing stories related to people of mixed heritage. The emphasis of my work is to share diverse stories through highly theatrical imagery and multiple artistic forms. 

I started performing in theatre when I was younger in the United Kingdom (born of mixed Jamaican, Taino/Arawak and European heritage). I would say my aesthetic is heavily influenced by theatre, dance and opera. 

Since immigrating to Canada I’ve continued to perform in theatre and film but have also maintained a practice as a creator. My work has been seen in theatre and film across Canada – most recently at the Shaw Festival, Canadian Opera Company and upcoming with CBC.

It has been an interesting journey so far, particularly when people ask what I do. I’ve never wanted to be known for one thing, which is why I would call myself a multi-disciplinary artist with skills as a performer, filmmaker, designer and visual artist. For more of my work you can see it at haui.ca or howardjdavis.com.

Q: Your previous short film, ‘C’est Moi’ (www.cestmoifilm.com), brought the story of Marie-Joséphe Angélique into focus. As someone who studied pre-colonial African History at Ryerson University; what role do you feel the past should play in understanding and improving race relations?

A: What is interesting about history is it can show us cyclical patterns of behaviour from our past that are reflective of our time now. I think it is important that we end the perpetuation of bad choices from our past but unfortunately we are human so we must work harder to make sure this does not happen.

This was definitely an entry for my film in exploring Canada’s involvement in slavery and to observe how the past directly impacts our future. Marie-Joséphe Angélique was an enslaved woman in 18th century New France who was tried, tortured and killed for allegedly burning down the city of Montreal.

Through her perspective I wanted to ask how our country could choose to celebrate its 150th year since confederation, without acknowledge all the events from our past. The good and the bad. Choosing to remove those parts of our history are not healthy if we want to move forward conscientiously.

I would say the work I have chosen to involve myself with is a big part of my artistic advocacy. Indigenous actress/advocate Tantoo Cardinal, Dene/Metis filmmaker Marie Clements, indigenous actress/director Jani Lauzon, Canadian poet and novelist George Elliott Clarke are some of the artists who have impacted my work over the last few years. 

Q: You’ve spent time in Canada and Britain. Do you see a difference in the way both nations interact with racial prejudice (both in the present and past)?

A: Being part of the Commonwealth (who knows how Brexit will affect this) our countries share union under the British monarchy. That has meant the perpetuation and benefit of white colonialism and domination. 

I find in North America, as this is were I live now, racial prejudice is coded in a different way and is disguised differently. Some would argue that we are more overtly prejudice given our current socio-political climate. Call me naive, but I hope to an advocate to help move us away from racial prejudice.

Q: Disney’s casting of Halle Bailey as Ariel in ‘The Little Mermaid’ has sparked debate and – more troublingly – abuse online. I saw you post about the casting on Instagram. How do you view the situation and the response it has received from the internet?

A: I was very happy to hear the news of Halle Bailey’s casting as Ariel in The Little Mermaid. I don’t know her personally but from what I’ve seen she is very sweet, talented and deserving of the role. The reaction from the internet has had a strange backlash. My hope is that the film uses her blackness to redefine who Ariel is for the next generation. Better yet it could be powerful to not have the story be focused on how she looks at all. I would buy that doll for my kids (if I had any).

We must adapt our culture to reflect what we see in the world. My lack of melanin should not negate my blackness nor should someone’s presence of it prevent them from playing a mermaid… Halle is wonderfully talented and I’m sure Rob Marshall had very good reasons to cast her. I think the Disney canon of characters were created for the sole purpose of relating to the people who watch those films. 

Yes, I’ve yet to see a character who is mixed heritage but in some ways I relate to all the characters given my mixed heritage. Probably my favourite is Maui from Moana.

Q: What is your goal as an artist? What constitutes success for you?

A: I think that is a loaded question and changes everyday. What remains consistent is my goal of fusing multiples artistic forms of expression in an artistically visual and impactful way. What is also important for me is to build a practice of work that speaks to social issues and can resonate with a wide audience. 

When I was younger I was asked why I wanted to be an artist. I remember at the time I had said that I wanted to be an artist to find out who I was as a person. Being more self assured in my identity I create art today to impact people and perhaps shed light on those who feel unrepresented.

I think success in our industry is different from individual to individual. Success is essentially the accomplishment of an aim or purpose, however for many success is confused with or measured by the attainment of popularity. I guess the latter has never interested me particularly as it is driven by the ego. My goals of artistic fulfillment are certainly satisfied by my working with diverse artists and having our voices known and shared.

1 comment

Leave a Reply