The painter and former basketball player who, through his ‘A Good Sport’ series, wants to rediscover and share African-American culture

“I grew up loving two things, art and basketball. Especially during my adolescence this was a constant parallel. In high school I was always in contact with both athletes and students of the art department. It was difficult to combine this dual vocation; I could not find a complete definition of myself and kept these two worlds separate. Then in college I had a revelation: basketball had become a ‘different beast,’ practice was much more demanding, and my passion was not strong enough…. That’s when I realized that I was going to be an artist, a painter, and that I would no longer just paint in my dormitory”

Jeremy Okai Davis’ paintings speak of memories, of figures lost in the flow of time, often forgotten like their deeds, like their meanings, like their achievements. They are men and women who have indelibly marked African-American history, they are ancient profiles that speak of the past in the present, of the present in the past; they are above all the athletes who make up the series ‘A Good Sport,’ currently on display at the Elizabeth Leach Gallery in Portland (gallery that is currently representing Jeremy).

Jeremy Okai Davis, Pearl (Walt), 2022, acrylic on canvas, 60 x 60". Courtesy of the artist and Elizabeth Leach Gallery. Image Credit: Mario Gallucci.
Jeremy Okai Davis. [Photo by Brittany Barkdull]
Jeremy Okai Davis, Black Gene (Benson), 2022, acrylic & pumice medium on canvas, 84 x 72". Courtesy of the artist and Elizabeth Leach Gallery. Image Credit: Mario Gallucci.

In order to introduce the artistic philosophy of this young painter born in North Carolina and now based in Portland, Oregon, we must necessarily talk about the very strong connection to the sports imagery. Because Jeremy has basketball in his blood. And it is no coincidence that James Naismith’s Game and its protagonists are among the muses most portrayed by his brushes…

“I grew up in Charlotte, where my father was a basketball coach. I followed him to practice, watched videotapes of games with him, observed giant books of plays and notes around our house…. From an early age I took the ball in my hands, prompted also by the example of my uncle Walter Davis (Olympic gold medalist in Montréal ’76 and 6-time NBA All-Star ed.) and my cousin Hubert Davis (former NBA player and current coach of the glorious North Carolina Tar Heels ed.). In this kind of environment I had the feeling that I had to become an athlete. It was written in my history”

Jeremy’s story, however, takes a different turn, finding in the canvas, and not the hardwood floor, his true vocation. A vocation he develops through pop art and introspective journeys. A vocation he fully embraces in his freshman year, when he decides to give up hoops and channel all his energy into canvas.

Jeremy Okai Davis, Hawk (Connie Hawkins), 2022, acrylic on canvas, 28 x 20". Courtesy of the artist and Elizabeth Leach Gallery. Image Credit: Mario Gallucci.

“I switched colleges and devoted myself solely to art and graphic design, which was exploding in the late 1990s. Pop art was my gateway. I was fascinated by the work of Warhol and Lichtenstein, Rosenquist and Hamilton. They were proposing something accessible to everyone, playing on the constant dichotomy between mass production and metaphorical communication. Chuck Close was a huge reference point in my artistic maturation, as was Basquiat, whom I have appreciated over the years. But it was Kerry James Marshall who really inspired my artistic philosophy: for me it’s fundamental to use art as a tool to educate, to educate myself and, at the same time, observers. It’s a ‘each one teach one’ form that allows for a process of individual and collective expansion”

Jeremy Okai Davis, Untitled (Youth Football), 2022, acrylic on canvas, 36 x 36". Courtesy of the artist and Elizabeth Leach Gallery. Image Credit: Mario Gallucci.
Jeremy Okai Davis, Untitled (Cheer Squad), 2022, acrylic on canvas, 36 x 36". Courtesy of the artist and Elizabeth Leach Gallery. Image Credit: Mario Gallucci.

“Since 2015, I began to focus on the idea of discovering and highlighting stories of African American personalities. The protagonists of ‘A Good Sport’ can be athletes, but also writers, artists, activists…. I want to bring out how multifaceted and profound the impact of African Americans on society has been. I feel I have a great responsibility. One of my paintings, for example, is dedicated to Bill Russell. I painted it before his death, and it has enormous value to me: Russell is a sports icon, but he was able to transcend that status and become a social icon. His words and actions were pivotal, as were those of Jackie Robinson, but also as were those of less famous figures, such as jockey Jimmy Winkfield, who in the early 1900s was forced to flee America and compete in Russia because of heavy racial issues.

Artists and athletes can affect society in similar ways, Jeremy points out before returning to his canvases and new characters to research and portray. In the artist’s case, the unique theme of abstraction comes into play: the work does not represent a finishing point, but a starting point for dialogues, conversations, reflections. For personal and community enrichment. As in the case of ‘A Good Sport’.

Credits: Jeremy Okai , Elizabeth Leach Gallery , Mario Gallucci Photo
Testo a cura di Gianmarco Pacione