“Privacy stopped existing for me the moment I became controversial,” said emerging artist Qualeasha Wood, in conversation.
The New Jersey-born artist’s works—genre-bending tapestries that weave together webcam-esque selfies with internet imagery and Catholic iconography—have earned a place on numerous artist-to-watch lists over the past two years. Now, her first European solo show “TL;DR” is opening at Pippy Houldsworth Gallery in London this week. The anticipated show will feature new Jacquard tapestries along with Wood’s more recent tuftings, a body of work that is being presented to the public for the first.
But sudden art world acclaim has not been without its growing pains.
“I didn’t expect in a lot of ways how being a public-facing figure, not only in my artwork but also in the art world, would affect my practice and my mental health. As well as my relationship with my body and my own self-image,” she explained.
Last year, at 25, Qualeasha Wood (b. 1996) became one of the youngest artists to have work acquired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art when her tapestry (2021) entered the collection. With its mashup of eras of imagery, the tapestry presents Wood as a Virgin Mary of the internet age, with the stigmata on her palms and a Sacred Heart in her grasp. Internet pop-up boxes for a “young hot ebony” float like clouds around her.
In the cataloging of the work, the museum wrote: “By presenting herself as both a holy icon and object of desire, Wood rejects the racist, sexist stereotype that views Black women solely as promiscuous commodities; she accomplishes this move by enshrining and controlling her own image.”
But Wood, a graduate of RISD with an MFA in photography from Cranbrook Academy of Fine Art, would say the recognition of work came with a sense of loss of control. “I felt overwhelmed and I took a step back after that. The works in this new exhibition are about that processing and healing moment,” she noted.
Despite her young age, the artist has been enmeshed in conversations about the internet since childhood. Raised along the Jersey Shore, the daughter of two military veterans, Wood had started playing around on her family’s large box computer as a kid. She said she spent the better part of the years between 2012 and 2019 in internet spaces, describing herself as “chronically online.” At RISD, amid the nearly all-white student environment, Wood first began exploring the visual language of voyeurism as a Black queer woman on the internet, an arena where she was pushed to conform to certain roles.
Wood didn’t conform, much to the wrath of the internet, and by 25, she’d been doxxed twice, once in the midst of the 2016 election and another time for simply crowdfunding for Beyoncé tickets. Several works in the new exhibition grapple with these experiences in which Wood’s private information and images were leaked online and in which she received threats of physical violence. The tapestries often include screenshots of comments she’s been tagged in.
Her recent works also grapple with questions of control on the other side of success. “The hardest part has been people completely disassociating the images in my tapestries from me as a person. People don’t recognize me even when I look exactly the same. Or they don’t expect me to sound a certain way, because of my Jersey Shore accent,” she explained. She points to the tapestry , in the exhibition, on which the words, “How do I make art if I don’t feel attractive?” are woven in snippets.
In making these newest works, Wood decided to limit herself to selfies taken within the past year—a conscious decision to honor herself where she is now. She takes all her selfies at home rather than in a studio, and a close examination of her works often reveals snippets of her home—a potted plant or a bed frame corner. She approaches each photography session with a very specific playlist (Lana del Rey and Caroline Polachek have been on rotation recently) and a glass of wine. Then she starts shooting.
“I just keep going for hours. I just move and click, move and click, and move and click.” She also carefully considers her clothing styling. In her current works, Wood appears in a white, slip-like dress. The artist, who is recently engaged, has reconsidered the hue that she once avoided.
“When I first started making work, white felt so cliche. But now I’m thinking about my body in a very different context and I’m getting married. The whole idea of a white dress for a bride representing innocence, purity, and virginity, felt important,” she explained. “Even when I was a virgin, I never got to experience that innocence—I had to deal with being hypersexualized.”
After she takes the selfies, Woods manipulates the files, adding layers, some of which conceal hidden messages she’s layered below, before sending the files to a mill in North Carolina. When she receives the tapestries, Wood then spends hours adding plotted-out beadwork—often including halos, angel wings, and other religious imagery.
Wood grew up in a family that was mixed Catholic, Baptist, and other Christian denominations, and was mesmerized by the ornate interiors of Catholic churches in cities like Philadelphia and New York that her father’s family, of Jamaican descent, attended. She also read the Bible with her mother and remembers being captivated by the miracles and imagery of the stories, without feeling any attachment to whether they were true or not. But the inspiration is broader than that. Growing up in New Jersey she often heard family friends who had converted to Islam greeting each other with the phrase, “what’s up, God?”
“I asked my mom, ‘why do people say that?’ I was thinking it was local slang. She told me for the Five Percenter sect of Islam, the Black man is God,” Wood said.
The tapestries became a way for her to consider herself through a sacred lens. “I got to college and I’m queer and trying to understand my place in the world and being told as a woman I need to be a certain way,” she noted. “The selfies and the tapestries were born from a place of recognizing that I would never get to be my whole self if I didn’t create a space to be my whole self.”
Now, Wood is creating tuftings alongside her Jacquard tapestries. These works employ a distinct visual language, a naïve aesthetic that draws from cartoon animations with their incumbent racial stereotyping.
“If I’m in the middle, the tapestries exist concurrently and towards the future, while the tuftings exist concurrently and towards the past,” she said. “The tuftings emerge from childhood fragments of memory and formative moments or trauma that are now hard to fully grasp and in which the perspective is constantly shifting.”
In the weeks before the exhibition, Wood, who has been based in Brooklyn, was packing up and moving to Philadelphia (she was crating up the last of her studio the day we spoke). She’s giving herself a little space from the internet and tells me she is working on a writing project—a horror film. “It’s about an interracial couple that like goes to a cabin in the woods to find that it’s haunted by a lesbian ghost,” she said with a smile. She also planning her wedding.
Wood, for her part, hasn’t lost her wonderment with life IRL, and said there are certainly nice parts to success—mostly she hopes she can mentor and inspire kids like her. “The other day I was in Philly and I was in the Sanrio Hello Kitty store when a girl recognized me. She was like, ‘oh my God, are you Qualeasha?’ Then we had a nice little conversation. When she left the store, I heard her yell, ‘it really was her!’” Wood said. “And was me.”