Derrick Woods-Morrow builds a safe space for “queer kin” throughout his multidisciplinary practice
Raised in Greensboro and based in Chicago, the artist uses art, photography, film and archival imagery to explore sexuality and freedom.
- Ayla Angelos
- 3 September 2021
Derrick Woods-Morrow is more than an artist and photographer, he’s also an educator, sexual health activist and archivist – someone who navigates past histories and picks out “glitches” that show an alternative queer future. Based in Chicago and originally from Greensboro, North Carolina, his work encompasses an exploration into Black sexuality and freedom. He grew up surrounded by the love of his mother, grandmother and southern community; he also had “a very strong, Black male figures around my entire childhood,” he tells It’s Nice That. “They’ve made me think about my choice to currently identify as male, Black and queer. I think about freedoms people stole from them, and freedoms they’ve stolen from others. In my work, I give those freedoms flesh.”
Through a multidisciplinary mindset, Derrick has built an array of powerful narratives through the use of mixed-media, found imagery, portraiture and film. The body takes centre stage, as does the lensing of sexual freedom and the importance of providing a safe space for his community. When he was younger, he explains how his sexual education arose in adolescence, “but as early as I can remember, I explored by own body with others my age.” This leaves him pondering, now, whether he will ever reach such a state of free play again. “How can queer Black folks play and see ourselves as whole, when many of our childhood memories involve self-protective hiding? Where can we rest? Where do we have space to make mistakes?”
Derrick decided to pack his bags and move from Greensboro to the north, after hearing myths that it would provide a “better life”. He headed to Boston and studied at Massachusetts College of Art and Design, followed by the School of Art Institute of Chicago. “I encountered violent expulsion, especially from the police and within the gay community,” he recalls. Since, he incorporates the act of imaginative play – something he learned from his childhood – through his work across the board. Besides his artistic endeavours, Derrick also tends to the educational side of his practice and recently accepted a full-time faculty position at the Rhode Island School of Design, during which he focuses on “blurring and dismantling” the notions and boundaries of art, social activism and sex. Additionally, he’s also a member of the Chicago-based collective, Concerned Black Image Makers (CBIM) in which he’s started researching rural America for a project. So to say that Derrick is passionate and hard-working would be understated.
Although cross-disciplinary, photography will always have a firm place in Derrick’s practice. Meandering through his portfolio, you can see how refined and matured his picture-taking really is; depicting a life-long curiosity and skillset for the arts. But it was never all plain sailing for Derrick, who first viewed photography as being “porous” in the beginning of his journey. “I remember being a closeted college athlete and sneaking down to the darkroom in order to be alone with my thoughts,” he reminisces, of this period between 2008 and 2021. “I’d spend all hours of the night down there in an on-campus building known to be haunted. I’d also cruise these buildings and in between developing and printing photographs, I would sneak men throughout its halls.” Photography, in this sense, became devious, tactile and emotive – qualities that are still prevalent in his work today.
There’s a recent picture that Derrick now directs us towards, named Excerpts from Acts of Boyhood Divination, Negation of Sight (Photographic Documentation of 2-hour durational performance of Lincoln Beach. A monochromatic moment of two people located on a beach somewhere, the foreground depicts a runner in a floaty white dress, fabric creasing in the momentum of the strides; sand flicks upwards from the ground. The background sees an onlooker crouching, almost, and holding their own attire as they face towards the camera. As Derrick explains, these are “entities” named Lynell and Frederick, who “play co-authors, who co-perform and co-exist alongside me, the photographer. We are simultaneously stand-ins for each other in our co-creation.”
It’s important to note that Derrick sees his “entities” as being more like family – “my queer kin”. And this picture solidifies this thought and motion, whereby the three of them work together in an act of “art-making”, fuelling a sense of performance and kinship that each of them share in that given moment. It’s somewhere they can feel relaxed and spend time together, reflecting not only Derrick’s practice as an artist but also his ethos as an educator, activist and person. In answering how he hopes his audience will respond to his work, he says: “I hope they will give themselves time to explore the photographs and allow themselves space to engage with nuance, with detail and with a specificity that is ocular in nature – to engage with the implications of being a watcher and being a performer.”
Untitled (Kim Kardashian) | After the Paper Magazine Cover, 2015, Documentation of Performance as Photograph. Courtesy of the Artist
About the Author
Ayla is a London-based freelance writer, editor and consultant specialising in art, photography, design and culture. After joining It’s Nice That in 2017 as editorial assistant, she was interim online editor in 2022/2023 and continues to work with us on a freelance basis. She has written for i-D, Dazed, AnOther, WePresent, Port, Elephant and more, and she is also the managing editor of design magazine Anima.