In her textile practice, American artist Qualeasha Wood combines traditional craft techniques with modern technology. Her works explore racial, sexual, and gender identity in relation to the Black femme body, using her own image as a starting point. She adeptly navigates the internet’s dual role as a space of celebration and exploitation for Black femmes. Wood’s tapestries merge digital and analog processes, symbolizing the past, present, and future of Black femmehood, while her “tuftings” depict cartoon-like figures influenced by racist caricatures, highlighting the complexities of Black girlhood and the media’s impact on identity.
Qualeasha Wood sits down with Editor Katarina Doric to talk about cyberculture, influence of social media and being a black queer female artist today.
What’s life like for a double Scorpio? – Fun, but exhausting! I’m so impulsive, and everyone around me hates it. But I always say I wouldn’t get anything done if I didn’t just do it. I’m also rarely wrong, so I always get the last laugh. But I’m emotional and not as logical as I could be. So, I’ll hold onto the idea of something or people longer than I should because I obsess too much over how it might make everyone feel until I feel fed up, and then I’ll forget everyone else in a heartbeat! It makes for good work, I think, the heightened emotions and the drama of it all. I always think it keeps me genuine and ahead of the game.
When did you begin to do art, and why? – I would say I did a lot of art in my early years, like 5-13 years old. Mostly I did a lot of projects instead of turning in essays. I realized I was good at it, better than many of my classmates, so it made a lot more sense to do what I was good at vs. write a paper that I’d find boring. I could write a paper on France, or I could make the Eiffel Tower out of clay, paint it and then give a 5-minute presentation (true story, actually).
Art wasn’t allowed for freshmen in my high school, so I stopped doing art for most of that time (outside of drawing at home) until the second half of my junior year. At that point, I began taking art classes to avoid other classes I didn’t want in my schedule anymore. It was then we all realized that I was really, really good at it, and it wasn’t just a hobby anymore.
Do you remember your first exposure to the internet? – I remember the internet wasn’t the instant thing we’re all familiar with now. I remember we had AOL dial-up, and people couldn’t be on the phone at the same time for it to work. It used to take forever to connect, and sometimes it wouldn’t. I had an AIM account to message friends at school, and I was a huge user of Club Penguin! RuneScape was also a game I played a lot which I think feeds more into my hobbies now as an adult with playing RPGs.
What drove you to video games? – The first video game I played around age 5 was Mortal Kombat II for the Sega Genesis. The Sega Genesis was my dad’s console. He left it running or something, and I picked it up and just started playing. Obviously, it didn’t last very long. My parents didn’t want me to play something so violent–but they did make a note and bought me my own games, and it kind of just went from there. I got new consoles every so often, and eventually, games were all I ever asked for on holidays. Looking back, I think I loved creating the characters and storylines, and I think, ultimately, that was the biggest allure. I love escapism and world-building. Video Games allowed me to be anyone, anywhere.
What was your favorite way to kill a Sim? – Oh, I was definitely a take-the-pool-ladder-away type of kid! In the older versions of the Sims (I started with Sims 1), I wasn’t super cheat savvy, so I didn’t know how to revive them once they died, so I didn’t like to kill off my Sims randomly without reason. I used to hate, for example, how they’d catch on fire so easily and then act as if they couldn’t extinguish themselves! It was so irritating! The pool method was reserved for townie Sims I grew to despise over time or found generally annoying. Nowadays, if a Sim of mine dies, it’s either entirely random (with mods installed) or part of the plot for the world!
My white friends who make art don’t find themselves wrestling with the overall morality of their sales, their collectors, or their relationships with galleries and other artists (and frankly, no one asks them to). Not only do I not have the privilege of being so blissfully ignorant, but I morally and ethically cannot live like that without losing the core of who I am.
Faith Ringgold had a big role in your switch from illustration to printmaking. Tell me how it happened. What drew me to textiles, in general, was my family’s history with the medium. A lot of women in my family have worked with their hands to knit, sew and crochet. I felt like I was losing that part of my identity because growing up in the late 90s and 2000s meant I didn’t have to learn how to make anything myself anymore. I started working with textiles to reconnect with that skill and paired with meeting other textile artists (most of my friends studied textiles formally). I was really interested in the ways the medium could overlap with photography.
Meeting Faith Ringgold, I think, was more so inspirational because, up until that point in time, I had never personally met a black artist aside from my peers, who I felt were all aspiring to be artists. Beyond the words of wisdom she provided, I think her physical presence gave me a reality check—that she was real and that the life I wanted was more than possible, tangible even.
You bridge the gap between physical and digital, craft and art. Tell me more about your creative process. – If I’m being really honest, my creative practice typically starts with a glass of wine and a joint. Somewhere comfortable, like the couch or my bed, is where I settle into start working. But really, conceptually, it usually starts with an obsession. I could be walking down the street, and I’ll have an image in my head. I could be watching cartoons, the Simpsons, Tom and Jerry, and Looney Tunes…. And I’ll freeze frame. And I’ll replay moments and start to think about how I feel like I’ve been there before, somewhere totally fictional, but for a moment, it was real to me. And I’ll start to draw the parallels. I’ll hear a song, and I’ll start to have visions of the work I want to make that feels like that song. I’ll replay it in my mind over and over again. I’m a big daydreamer. Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve been stuck in my head. And so, when an image sticks with me and doesn’t let go, I have to get it out. So, for the tapestries, I go into my office at home, lock the door, blast music, set up my webcam, and I just move. I usually take 20-100 selfies at a time. I try not to critique them too harshly but just move and click. With the tuftings, I quickly draw them out on little envelopes or napkins, usually within 5 minutes, just to get them to feel right.
What is it like being a black queer female artist today? – It’s challenging, and I don’t think that’s changing, nor will it ever change. I think anyone who doesn’t find it challenging is probably lying a little bit. You always have to deal with the constant demand—and I don’t mean just the work. I mean the labor that comes with speaking about your identities, the demand for more trauma in the work, and the fact that the more traumatic a piece feels, the more successful it can become. The demand for more “vulnerability” and more political commentary. The demand for an opinion on everything. You’re placed in a position where you are never free from expectations. When you start to deny people access to you, your work, and your life, you start to make people angry. You seem ungrateful for wanting to cling to your humanity. And that’s what’s really hard, the more you find yourself carving out a way towards liberation, the more you realize that looks like constantly finding ways to adjust within a system that wants you to give in or give up. My white friends who make art don’t find themselves wrestling with the overall morality of their sales, their collectors, or their relationships with galleries and other artists (and frankly, no one asks them to). Not only do I not have the privilege of being so blissfully ignorant, but I morally and ethically cannot live like that without losing the core of who I am.
But being an artist in general, it’s great, LOL!
While I can’t always control how people consume me or negate my consumption, I can control how I choose to be seen. I can reclaim, alter, and control the gaze and how I allow it to function in spite of predetermined circumstances and projections.
The fetishization and sexual objectification of a black female body are still omnipresent in modern society, and with your art, you are trying to point out this pressing issue. What else needs to be done? – Everything. Most of the work done so far has been done by black people. I find that a lot of allyship is performative, and most people do not actually care enough to sacrifice anything—be it their time, money, or comfort. Most people would rather just share the news on social media and call it a day. At a bare minimum, people need to have conversations with the people in their lives about just being better people. We could all do better at that. It starts at home.
Selfie culture is also one of the themes present in your work. Is it a way for you to own your image again? – While I can’t always control how people consume me or negate my consumption, I can control how I choose to be seen. I can reclaim, alter, and control the gaze and how I allow it to function in spite of predetermined circumstances and projections. Rather than just working against something, I dare to take it back and recontextualize it entirely. And in that, in taking a selfie and choosing its ultimate context, I do regain that control over myself.
The themes of control and surveillance are also seen throughout your work. People are taking selfies in front of your work, where you are taking a selfie while being recorded. Who’s the voyeur there? – I think my body in the tapestries takes on the role of watching the viewer and the audience from a position of security, defense, and defiance. In a way, I think I’m activated as a voyeur or challenging the traditional idea of voyeurism by engaging back and looking. When people take selfies with the work, I think it’s kind of funny. It’s sometimes annoying, though. There are certain people who will take the selfie with the work and tag me in the photos, and I see them all. And based on their caption and the types of things they post, I can tell if the work really resonated with them or if they just thought it was a cool thing to do. I’ll never tell people how to enjoy art, but I will say that there are times when my role as a voyeur is not always equal. Rather I am fully pushed into the role of a surveillant or a guardian over my image and, subsequently, the image of black women.
I think my body in the tapestries takes on the role of watching the viewer and the audience from a position of security, defense, and defiance. In a way, I think I’m activated as a voyeur or challenging the traditional idea of voyeurism by engaging back and looking.
What do you do when you’re procrastinating? – I think the best part about being an artist is that every time I procrastinate, I get to say that it’s research. Life experience often leads me to work. So, you can often find me leaving the studio because I chose to get dinner instead, leaving to play video games or to just simply go take a nap. I sometimes choose concerts over the studio or going to do a lecture halfway across the country over the studio. When my cat was still alive, I used to say, “Oh, I have to leave right now; I know my cat’s hungry.” Life happens, and it’s so much more important. Those little breaks and moments of pushing something off really allow me to come back stronger.
Right now, I’m in Milan, which was really an excuse to take a vacation after opening my first European solo show in London. But I’ve found myself taking so many photos of the architecture, sculptures, etc., and I’m feeling really inspired. I keep texting people with ideas and making notes. That desire for a break, to procrastinate, to avoid going home and going back to work actually leads to more work in the end!
What’s the last thing that made you cry? – Most recently, it was a friend of mine telling me how happy they were. I think we don’t cherish the little things enough, and we take everything for granted. When you’re constantly hearing or watching your friends go through something, you start to want to try to make it better for them. But that’s not always possible. You can surely help in some ways, but you can’t always fix things for others. When people overcome things, especially those closest to me, and they’re smiling and laughing again…it’s like getting presents on Christmas day. Sometimes I just get overwhelmed with the emotions of other people. But I’m also a water sign with many water sign friends!
What’s your favorite artwork by someone else? – It changes all the time; it depends on so much. Right now, I’m enjoying Dimithry Victor’s We Got Food at Home. It’s such a simple painting; a black person is holding a McDonald’s Happy Meal box. But it does so much for me; I’m able to really respond and connect to it. I think about my own childhood and that classic black family moment of, “You got McDonald’s money?” I love the way Dimithry paints and depicts black life and moments in his paintings. I bought a print of it (I did try to buy the original, I won’t lie!), and it is one of the few prints I’ve ever purchased. Despite being an artist, and my fiancé being an avid art lover, we don’t own much art in our home. But we are slowly building our little collection, and Dimithry’s print was the first art purchase I made in 2023.
What’s next for you? – I think the easier question is, what isn’t next? Every day I come up with something new I want to do. It’s just who I am. I remain committed and focused on textiles, but ultimately, I love installations too. And I love gaming, and I love computers. I’m always looking for ways to create an experience in a gallery that can’t be replicated anywhere else that feels like you HAVE to be there. So, I’m working on what the shows look like beyond what we’re used to seeing as the art on the walls or on the floor. But quite literally, I’m trying to add frescos; I’m trying to add furniture. Everything that can completely open up new work.
Outside of my fine arts practice, I’m working on a screenplay for a lesbian horror film. I won’t give away a lot because it’s still in its earliest stages, but I hope to be able to pursue my dreams of working in film & cinema and highlighting queer black voices. Growing up (and I would say still, except for a few iconic films), we don’t see queer films go to the box office or even receive viral attention, let alone those that are queer and black. These films exist, don’t get me wrong, but they do not receive the respect, attention, or love they deserve. And I hope to bring our stories to the screen because right now, there are people who NEED to see themselves, not just in the ways in which we deem conventionally attractive or stereotypical.
Originally published in DSCENE Magazine’s “The World We Live In” Summer 2023 print issue.
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