University of Michigan art history professor David Doris doesn’t go out of his way to tell students he played saxophone for a few years in a rock band called the Raunch Hands. But those who find out are definitely impressed. Profs well known in their field are nothing new at Michigan, but a guy who toured Europe and played on an album called Have a Swig? “They seem to connect with that,” Doris admits.
Now forty-seven, Doris is still very comfortable with an audience. “Hello, everybody!” he calls out as he bounds into a lecture hall in the C.C. Little Building in December. It’s the last day of class for his “Introduction to African Art and Visual Culture,” and the wavy-haired teacher is dressed with flair in a brown jacket, black open-neck shirt, and dark pants. “Doing all right? Relieved you’re not going to have to listen to this guy anymore?” he teases. Then, cheerleader style, he points to different sections of the hall and leads the students in a call and response: “Get on up! Get into it! Get involved!”
On cue, the James Brown song floods the room–and Doris launches into his lecture. After class, he explains that he opened with the Godfather of Soul because Brown had a big influence on post-colonial Africa. “A powerful black man! That was revolutionary.”
Until recently, most Western scholars of African art studied objects used in rituals or worship. Doris is one of a newer group who examine everyday objects with complicated meanings. He’s especially passionate about aale, objects that, he explained in a 2005 article, ordinary Nigerians create from found materials “to protect their properties–farms, gardens, market goods, piles of collected firewood–from the ravages of thieves.” A corncob tied with a strip of cloth to a handmade broom, for example, declares the power of the property’s owner–who tore the cloth, swept filth off the floor, and stripped the corncob. The implied threat is that this same power can be used against thieves.
Not all repurposed objects threaten retribution. Disney motifs, especially Mickey Mouse, often appear in Nigerian fabrics. Doris explains that heavy, low-grade discards from American textile manufacturers are shipped to Africa as scrap. Many Nigerians find delight in the animal images, and the broken, uneven patterns of the prints correspond with their country’s own artistic themes. Doris was the first to write about this instance of American commercial iconography being incorporated into a Third World culture.
Doris’s willingness to learn the difficult, tonal Yoruba language has endeared him to Nigerians (though they tease him about his pronunciation). Traveling around a country plagued by crime and ethnic and religious violence can be dangerous for a foreigner, and Doris says he has had to talk his way out of scary situations. But he doesn’t dwell on the dangers. “I love Nigeria because it has challenged me in a thousand ways,” he says. “Any troubles I might have experienced there pale in comparison with those Nigerians experience every day, year in and year out.”
Of Sicilian and Russian Jewish heritage, Doris grew up in New York, where his passions were acting, art, and playing the saxophone. After graduating from Southampton College at Long Island University in 1983, he worked in advertising and freelanced as a sax player, recording with people like Moe Tucker of the Velvet Underground. He joined the Raunch Hands in 1988. “NYC bluesy punkrock” is how a fan’s website describes the group. “Very male, loud and drunk, all of that,” says Doris.
The Raunch Hands, briefly, hit it big in Japan and parts of Europe. But Doris became restless, and, uncertain about the group’s direction, decided to move on. He quit in 1992 after a fight over the name of a future album. Doris wanted Wake Up and Smell the Raunch Hands. His band mates chose Fuck Me Stupid. “We parted on bad terms,” Doris admits.
By then, he was already deep into another passion: African art. It started as a fluke: he heard the Brian Eno-David Byrne album My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, which led him to read the novel of the same name by Nigeria’s Amos Tutuola. Discovering African culture, “I felt as if my head popped!” he recalls. “Here was a world I did not know that was incredibly rich.” He earned a master’s in art history from Hunter College in 1993 and a PhD from Yale in 2002.
Doris acknowledges that anything connected with Africa can be loaded: white students, especially, are nervous about saying something that might be construed as racist. To clear the air, he starts each semester by asking them to write down whatever image of Africa comes to their mind; their responses include mud huts, British colonies, and starving people. Then they discuss their perceptions. “I try never to alienate the students,” Doris says. “But it’s important to speak plainly, even to risk offending, if it brings us closer to real dialogue and understanding.”
“David is anything but one-dimensional,” says U-M art history chair Celeste Brusati. “He has written on topics that range from Zen and the international Fluxus art movement of the 1960s to Disney theme parks, Kodak Picture Spots, and the Internet’s role in constructing Yoruba identity.” He sometimes hosts faculty parties in a thatched-roof “tiki” house he built in the basement of the home he shares with his wife, Melissa, and their two-year-old daughter Marcella, adopted from Guatemala.
His enthusiasm for his work is contagious. “Prof Doris gets so excited about African art you can’t help being excited too,” writes a student on ratemyprofessors.com. And while teaching may not be as sexy as garage rock, Doris has no regrets. “I’ve devoted my life to doing something I love,” he exclaims. “Without this love, I wouldn’t continue doing this.”
This article has been edited since it appeared in the February 2010 Ann Arbor Observer. The state where Doris grew up has been corrected.