Talking with queer artist Derrick Woods-Morrow is an exercise in exploring boundaries.
This is, by no means, a criticismit's simply an observation. That Woods-Morrow initially comes across as shy doesn't mean he doesn't harbor lots of provocative thoughtsand the conversation he recently had with Windy City Times immediately took off when he expressed his thoughts on rapper Kanye West's controversial statement, "When you hear about slavery for 400 years ... For 400 years? That sounds like a choice."
Woods-Morrow told Windy City Times, "It's not even that I necessarily support what Kanye has to say. I just like the fact that he's stirring things up. He's doing a deviant thing. It makes no sense for a Black man to say some of the things he says."
The artist is certainly more than this thoughts, though. The 28-year-old Brown Summit, North Carolina, native aims to "practice navigates and negotiates sexual identity by fragmenting notions of representation, exploring personhood and memories, and reimagining ways to understand power dynamics as they pertain to consent and self preservation," according to his bio for Windy City Times' 30 Under 30 Awards. (He was an honoree this year.) Accomplishments include being an alum of the Fire Island Artist Residency 2016, a current Chicago Artists coalition 2017-2018 bolt resident, and being an adjunct assistant professor of photography and teaching artist at the University of Illinois-Chicago.
And this is an intriguing time to be an artistespecially given today's often-turbulent political climate. When asked how politics inform his art, Woods-Morrow said, "I believe everything is political; anything can be made political. So maybe history informs the work, and I'm actually more invested in trying to make future spacesand I'm doing that by trying to connect historical objects to ideas I had oftentimes as a child to trying to bring them to a space where I can … play.
"With my body being a mega-6'4", 280-pound Black body not being allowed to playbut there's something innately queer about play, or deviance. There's always a little deviance in the work."
And this is true, whether it's about one of his works showing him imitating the cover of the Grace Jones album Island Life ("It's my body being between masculine and feminine," according to Woods-Morrow) or another piece of art involving a rainbow arrangement of bricks.
"The bricks were given to me (and I won't say how, but these bricks are from where there was a lot of Black gay cruising in the '70s, '80s and '90s), but the sand is stolen from Fire Islandso I was trafficking sand. In a way, it's about who owns and who can reclaim land. For years, white bodies have been trafficking sand and eroding those beaches. For years, Black bodies weren't even allowed on that island so, when I steal sand, I'm asking, 'Can I have my sand? Is it anyone's sand?' So, now, the U.S. Postal Service has blacklisted me from sending sand through the mail."
"There's another work where I basically prostituted for Polaroids. If I had a connection, we worked out an arrangement where I had access to their cell phones. All of these works exhibit some type of deviant action or quality."
When asked if he sees himself as a disruptor, the response is decisive: "Yes, I doand I don't even have to be loud to be disruptive. I can disrupt and control in ways people don't see. When I enter a space, I see what goes on around me and I'm very aware of my position. I'm disrupting because people will see me and don't understand how I can act the way I do. 'How does he have the audacity to do that?' I think our bodies tend to disrupt thingsespecially Black, trans, queer and GNC bodies. And I welcome disruption; it brings discomfort, which brings about knowledgeit's revolutionary." For Woods-Morrow, enlightenment is keyno matter who learns something.
As for said enlightenment, Woods-Morrow said he believes that anyone can learn from anyone else. However, he added, "I have lots of unpopular opinions, like it's easier to learn from people who are inside your ethnic group. But I also think that opinions from the far right teach me a lot, including how I want to be seen."
With Woods-Morrow being such a fan of disruption, it led this writer to wonder if there are aspects of traditions he embraceswhich propelled the artist to talk about growing up in the South (and the revelation that he and this writer went to, respectively, Randolph College and Randolph-Macon College in Virginia). "Oh, yesSouthern family, Southern foodmac 'n' cheese, sweet tea, yams. … And, of course, I love Black people; I grew up with Black people." He's also traditional in the sense that he likes to build or maintain bonds with other people: "I like to build relationships with people from my past, like a [man] named Adam who I had sexual experiences with when I was younger. [Note: They were both boys at the time.] I like to connect and reconnect with all sorts of bodies." Now, Adam is a police officer who's posed for some of Woods-Morrow's works.
Then, the artist talked about turning some societal mores on their heads, through art. "I worship Black bodies. My impetus, though, is to make white bodies perform for me in the work. I have an extreme interest in having Black bodies at rest and not having to work all the time. Being Black seems to mean you have to laborit's all about labor. And, even now, I struggle with positioning Black bodies in my works, because I sometimes feel they become spectacle for white audiences. I'm constantly worry about Black bodies being at rest and not having to worry. These are things I think about. It's about my love for Black people and Black identity."
And, like any artist, Woods-Morrow sees his art evolving. "The art is evolving now," he said. "I wasn't making some of these items a year ago. I think about how I can push objects into different media and see where I go."
Not surprisingly, sexuality is another element of his life that Woods-Morrow happily sees as going against the grain. "At one time, I identified as straight or bi," he said. "Now, I identify as a queer man who has an openness with everyone, but who predominantly sleeps with men. I am attracted to lots of different types of peoplelots of genders and sexualities. I like that a thin top can come my way. Maybe I'm interested in the destabilization of my large Black body because I think I'm supposed to have a role where people see me one way."
And those are the proud words of a disruptor.