Diamond Gray and “Stranger in the Village”



Diamond Gray teaches Visual Studies at Phillips Academy Andover, a private boarding high school in Massachusetts. She started teaching at Andover in 2017 as a teaching fellow. She received a bachelor’s degree in Fine Arts from the University of Florida, specifying in printmaking. Then, Gray attended graduate school at Southern Methodist University, finishing in 2016. Jacksonville, Florida is her hometown.

Gray (known to me and my peers as Ms. Gray) never taught me in one of her classes at Andover. But, over theDiamond Gray course of my senior year in high school this past school year, she became an inspiration to me in ways that taught me immensely about academics, art, and life.

Now, I graduated from Andover just two weeks ago, so me and Ms. Gray (pictured right) only crossed paths for a year. But, before commencement day arrived, I made sure to speak with Ms. Gray about her forte: art.

This spring, she coheaded (is that the right word?) an incredible art exhibit with two other black artists, Merland Terlonge and Dominick Bedasse, titled “Stranger in the Village.” It was located in the Gelb Gallery within George Washington Hall (you might see the building George Washington referenced as G.W. in this piece), one of the more notable buildings on Andover’s campus. The exhibition opened on April 18, and I remember the gallery being filled with students and adults from the Andover community. All of the pieces were intricate and nuanced, layered with themes of blackness, identity, life and death, violence. Just to name a few.

And, in early May, standing in her exhibit, I got a chance to speak with Ms. Gray about her art. Our 40 minute conversation surveyed family, blackness, and artistic intention. What follows is a trimmed version of our discussion.


“D. G. P. O. G. W.,” 2018, mix media

Q: What was the inspiration for this piece? 

This will be kind of hard to explain fully because I’m still in the process of working details out myself. Which is fine, I can go at my own pace. But, this came from a lot of things; a lot of things I’ve seen, a lot of discussions I’ve had, just things I’m internalizing, just things I’m taking in. My environment, my experiences, my past – everything. And other people’s past.

I’ll start out with talking about my family. Because of “Critical Race Theory” class, this whole thing started to solidify more. Remember [the teacher’s] assignment where we had to ask our family members…? I’ve always been interested in that, but this really kicked me. So, I called my grandma and asked, “So grandma, what’s our family history? I don’t know, grandma.” … So, she was telling me all of these interesting things about my great granddaddy and how he was in the Islands (St. Croix), his mom moved up north somewhere to work – she actually worked for a white family. I’m saying that because I’m really interested in race relations and I think that’s important within the US. So, she worked. She was, apparently, a very stern woman. She brought him over here, he was trying to run the streets but she was like, “No, you ain’t gonna run these streets.” He made a family here; he had a tough time, his father at the time denied him. All these things were extremely personal experiences, but also, I’m thinking about class and gender and race involved in that. For me, it’s important for me to know that my great, great, grandmother – probably another great in there – did work for a white family, she had to do that.

Most black Americans don’t know the extent of their ancestry because of slavery – the Atlantic Slave Trade. That’s something I always grappled with, especially when I was younger. Now, I’m more grounded in how I view myself. But, when I was younger, I had, like, such an identity crisis. “Oh, I don’t have any culture” – culture’s all around us, we’ve been making culture for years, literally centuries. And, I felt this way because, again, of internalizing certain messages, that [made me] almost want to deny my blackness; I did deny my blackness. I think that also goes into generational trauma, too.

My grandma also told me about her grandfather’s side. Apparently her grandmother was a slave who lived up to 100 years old. And, to think, my grandma’s grandma was a slave is not far removed. It may seem like a long time ago, but it’s not that long ago. And, so, that’s really interesting, I didn’t know that until around my 20s.

So, I decided to talk to other family members and see what their account was. My grandmother holds a lot of artifacts from our family – a lot of pictures, images of our family members, which I absolutely love.

I asked my aunt, and she started telling my all this information about my granddaddy; he was the first doctor in Jacksonville at this hospital we call Shands. Was the only black doctor there. He came from a very abusive background, from his own father. His mom died, and he had this pressure to raise the rest of the family. And, my mom went to an all-white school, so she had some issues with that, too. All of this stuff is new to me.

I was also thinking about journey, or movement. Movement to strive for something. And, I feel like I’m in that process right now. So, I’m thinking about personal experiences and personal traumas. So, I’m thinking about my experience in grad school in Texas…Whew. Seeing confederate flags and in a predominantly white space. But, oh my god.

And then coming here [to Andover], a place which is more “liberal” – in quotation marks. It’s better off than Texas, but we still got some issues. I want to see more underrepresented folks around here. And, also, I want to see people from all marginalized backgrounds treated in a way that makes them feel comfortable in their own skin. I know that when I first got here, coming from a working class background, I didn’t go to an elite school, I’m looking around and I don’t see a lot of black women around.

Then, I go into this building: “George Washington.” George Washington owned quite a few slaves, and did terrible things, and to see that this building is named after George Washington – I walked through this building every day…it settles with me. So, it goes back to my grandmother who was a slave, it goes back to the other great grandmother who came to the mainland US for a better life. The things my mom had to do, my grandfather had to do. It had me really thinking.

So, I created the piece… These are actually my grandma’s clothing. They’re clothing I actually wear, so it’s very personal. The piece itself, going back to me looking at images, listening to things, and having conversations.

There’s this piece by Barbara McCullough. She’s a video artist, a black American. And, it’s this video from the 1970s I saw in the Brooklyn Museum for the show called “We Want a Revolution,” which was an expo for black female artists, which was incredible. Black excellence. It was incredible time to be there, to see all of these women who are doing the work and who are in the same conversations as I am regarding race, gender, and class. And so, in her video, it’s really interesting – hopefully I can recount all the information. She goes through this city, and it looks almost demolished. And so, she does this sort of ritual on the ground by these crumbled, large blocks of cement. Then, she bends down, and she pees on the ground. Which is interesting – I’m like, “okaayy girlfriend…” But, I can’t help but not look at it, because I’m like – “What?! What’s happening here?” She’s disposing of her fluid on the ground, as if she’s blessing it. Purifying it, in a way. I couldn’t help but feel that sense, especially after she did this routine of almost praying. And then I read this interesting article about black women video artists using bodily fluid to sort of disrupt the idea of the black body.

The black body, in this article, was described as something that is made up; a caricature; what is a black body? And so, these artists were using their bodily fluid to connect, to humanize their being. You’re distracted by the piss coming out of her body – well, yea, that’s her body. So, I thought that was incredible.

And so that’s why I was thinking, like, if I were to walk – this gonna sound funny, and I’m still thinking this through. But, if I were to walk into G.W. thinking of all my ancestors, and I were to pee on this ground to purify this land – for my black body to purify this land, what does that mean? Like I said, I’m still thinking this through, but I thought it was kinda funny. It’s kind of serious and kind of funny at the same time. So that’s where me squatting…

I wanted my black body to be shown in this piece to replicate what Barbara McCullough was doing. I wanted to be in conversation with her, and I wanted my black body to disappear at the same time. That’s why it’s called D.G.P.O.G.W: “Diamond Gray Pisses on G.W.” I wanted to connect my ancestors and the idea of transforming my body here. Because, I’m still a faculty of color. But, people have made comments where they are absolutely reading my black body, and that’s something I can’t help.

But, yeah, I wanted to replicate that image. Even the way the clothes are flowing on the ground, I’m thinking of bodily fluids. Like, menstrual. Piss. I could be reaching here, but I’m still thinking through these items.

Q: What does the hair signify?

Hair connects to blackness, and transforming oneself to assimilate. When I first got here, I almost
found myself trying to change myself so that I could fit in a bit more. But, then, I had a wake-up call and realized I have to be myself, no matter how people view my blackness. I’ve had people ask me about my hair, like, “oh, what’s under that?” So, it’s a connection to my body, but also a disconnect.

And, I actually had a sound piece with this – hence the head. The sound was a compilation of my conversation with my grandmother, aunt, and mom, but I had edited it so you can only here “hmm, mhmm, hmm?, hmm.” And, I say that because I often do that, and I noticed t when we’re in these conversations together. … Affirmation, especially with other black people, feels nice.

Q: You mentioned that this piece is tied to this building — George Washington Hall. How do you feel about the positioning of your work within the problematic nature of this space? 

It’s called representation. As a teacher, as a person who teaches art, as a person who’s been through art school, I didn’t see a lot of me in those works, in art history. Which was incredible, because there’s so much, so many people of color in art history. And that’s how one is stripped of their identity. And, once again, it goes back to me assimilation, me struggling with my own identity. I didn’t see myself in a lot of stuff. But, it’s important, when you’re in an educational space, for kids to see themselves. It’s important for that to happen.

So, to bring three black artists – one who is Jamaican and Haitian American, another who is Jamaican American, and me as Black American – I think that’s important for the student body around here. I’m happy that’s it in this space, and I’m happy that it’s addressing these sort of topics, because these are the topics I address in my class, and these are the topics that the school is trying to address. Compared to other places, [the school] is definitely trying. But, we got more work to do. So, I think it’s absolutely needed here. I was so incredibly happy to see [students of color] at the exhibition opening. You guys inspire me, and I hope that I’m inspiring you, in the same way, to inspire others – in spaces like this, and branch out into other spaces.


“Frisco,Texas,” 2016, mix media

Q: What was the inspiration behind this one?

So, I was having a rough time after grad school, because I couldn’t find a job. So, I found this job – it was part time, working at the YMCA as some after-school instructor. Had to drive 40 minutes there, and 40 minutes back. I was real broke, couldn’t even pay for groceries. Thankfully my mom helped me as much as she could, but it was getting to a point where she was like, ‘you may have to come home.’ It was a time where I had to ask for help, and I was grateful because I was in a position where there were family members willing to help me, even though they were having a hard time monetarily as well. And that was amazing, that was a blessing.

So, I had to go to job, in this city called Frisco, Texas. It’s this elementary school. IT was predominately white and Asian. Every time I drove into this area, I drove past this sign that said “Blue Lives Matter.” And, I drove past this sign every day. Driving past that every day, I was like, “oh, okay! What even is a blue life?” So, in this elementary school I did meet a lot of tension, aggression, a lot of disrespect, and I completely believe it’s because of my gender and my blackness. No doubt.

During this time, I wasn’t making work, because I was so stressed out; stressed out about money, stressed out about my job, stressed about getting a job. Because, you know, I graduated grad school. My entitlement came in – “I’m supposed to get a job!” It did not happen that quickly for me. So, it was really hard for me to make work. I was exhausted from grad school, exhausted from having to make a living wage, I was exhausted from the stress I was getting from my job. Not a lot of support, unfortunately.

But, this [piece] was a way for me to collect my experience and to make work. It was an opportunity, which I needed. It was just a collection of my time there. And, during my time there, I felt so othered. I felt incredibly othered. I’m in Massachusetts right now, and you can feel pretty othered depending on where you go. There, it was mind-blowing. The repetition, my body there, just felt… There were just so many forces at a time. I guess this is like a diary, in a way. I’m collecting my experience, conversations I’ve had.

Q: How tied to your art is your blackness?

I remember when I was in grad school. My art was not political at all. My work had my body in there, but I didn’t think of the black body. I realized my blackness, but I never thought about my blackness in work and how it was represented. In 2014, we had a lot of the police brutality [cases]. And, I actually had to do a project about the confederacy. I had to talk to this woman on the phone from the United Daughters of the Confederacy. I saw all these confederate monuments, and my mind started to open.

But, I can’t help but think about my being, about my work, about my history as being political. Because, that’s what it’s been for years, for centuries. I was born into this, I didn’t ask for it, but I was born into this. And, if I’m going to be born into this, why not do the work to combat the negativity that comes with it? And, I totally, wholeheartedly accepted it.

In grad school, during an artist visit, this woman was like, “Oh, you’re a black woman, you have no choice but to be political.” I felt some type of way about that because I was like, you’re not thinking about yourself! One of my friends, he’s white, he tried to talk about his whiteness, and she was like, “You should be drawing cats!” It was so odd. She has a hold different sort of standards for me than for him. So, why not deal with it? Being an artist has honestly helped me look at my own history, and I’m so grateful for that. To ask more questions. To be more open to other people and their traumas, like the LGBTQIA+ community, specifically within the black community. Thinking more about being an ally, because if I sympathize with myself how can I not sympathize with others?