Between a Brooklyn playground and Cremation Service & Funeral Home, you’ll find artist Qualeasha Wood’s yarn-filled studio. As we sit together, munching on pizza and warming up from the New York City freeze, Wood parses through the pitfalls of her zodiac sign: “I’m a double Scorpio. I don’t know how people tolerate me half the time,” she shrugs, seemingly still processing her recent “celebration” rather than “toleration.” With concurrent exhibited work at The Metropolitan Museum of Art and alpha-gallery Hauser & Wirth, Wood, 25, is on a meteoric rise to fame. Her image appears on Art in America’s cover, the backdrop for hundreds of selfies, and within the Lumpkin-Boccuzzi and Dean Collections. One of her fans even has a Qualeasha Wood shrine.
Throughout Wood’s work, worship weaves in labyrinthine plots and counterplots concerning Black women’s station in cultural consumption: be the inspiration sans recompensation. Her self-reverence and self-reference creates her voyeur surveyor: her image standing above you demanding hecatomb, haloed by Internet-inspired visuals, all while tuning into your reaction. “By centering myself in work, I know that there’s a conversation around my image that’s happening, whether I’m present or not,” Wood explains. “It allows me to have surveillance on other people because I’m literally watching a conversation about me.”
Born in New Jersey, Wood’s exposure to cyberculture began at the age of five, when her grandmother gifted her a “big-ass boxy monitor.” Averse to dirt, grass, and the outside in general, she found comfort in her digital extension. She’d play Zoo Tycoon, letting her animals run amuck and log into Club Penguin, shrouded in cyber-drag. “I pretended to be a guy at first because I was gay and in denial, so I was a boy [and] could have little girlfriends on this stupid little penguin app,” she says. After a proctor banned her from Club Penguin for using profanity, she’d transition to The Sims, entertained by her digital divinity. “I controlled everybody’s destiny, whether they’re happy or sad, whether they live or die,” she laughs, “My mother would watch me play and make me log off if I killed too many.” (Her preferred method? Burning the house down.)
At RISD, she began to regret her career intentions. “I went to school to illustrate [children’s books] because I was taught that to be a Black artist, I had to do something useful with it,” she explains, “[But] halfway through my freshman year, I literally hated drawing. It became the thing of my nightmares.” When her professor called with an excuse to get out of class, Wood jumped at it. Little did she know, she’d be sharing a limo ride with Tar Beach author Faith Ringgold, and her future would be radically altered. “Her work is all quilts. It’s all textiles and is narrative-based,” Wood says. “So every single piece tells us a story, and that made sense to me.” Wood told Ringgold about her desire to switch mediums, more inspired by her grandmother’s quilts than by traditional art history, to which Ringgold responded: “Go do whatever you want because other people don’t have the option to.” Then they took a selfie. Wood changed her major the next day.
Meek Mill’s Dreams and Nightmares (2021).
Courtesy of Gallery Kendra Jayne Patrick/Qualeasha Wood.
Halfway through her degree, Wood’s Internet presence took a more political turn. After infiltrating a Tomi Lahren Facebook Fan Group, she and her squad of trolls took over, one becoming an administrator and altering the group’s numen to Michelle Obama. In a comment, she laughed at the switch, prompting ineffable consequences. “All of a sudden, my parent’s address was popping up in Facebook groups, and they had my name,” she says. “There [were] semi-nude photos of me in all these different groups.” She reaches into her desk drawer, handing me a book of self-published selfies. “These were the photos they used. It’s honestly probably the worst [artwork] I’ve ever done,” she says, referencing the little yellow book, “But seriously though, I was terrified.”
For the first time in her life, Wood’s digital home became inhabitable. She logged off. “After I got doxxed, I just realized there is no such thing as privacy…so I claim consent [of my image] for myself before it can be taken from me,” she says, sitting in front of her selfie-portrait. “I’m gaining ownership back over something that I felt was lost.”
Reclamation has been an arduous emotional process. She sits, grieves, creates, and destroys until she’s ready to collect her thoughts; sometimes, she makes explicit work that will never be released. “Unfortunately, as a person of color, trauma is what sells,’” Wood says. “I live and exist beyond that, and my work should too.” In her recent lecture at RISD, she told students, “You need to lay it all out and then bury it carefully.” It’s a mantra she employs in her practice, by placing hidden messages behind her tapestry’s clouds, which are only accessible in her personal Adobe Photoshop drafts.
Despite owning the production of her image, Wood is still conflicted about its consumption. “My art allows people to attach themselves to a certain type of clout,” she acknowledges. “It doesn’t make you any less of a problem just because you own work made by Black artists.” It’s a heavily discussed issue in an art market capitalizing on Black figurative work. “Right now we’re in a sensationalized moment. Everybody’s buying Black art because it erases guilt for some people, [and] they think they’ve done their part by supporting Black artists.” It’s been a growing pain, though one she’s attempting to reconcile with at the moment. “People are gonna relate to the work and I think that’s important,” she sighs. “I’ve had my peace with people wanting to take a selfie with [my work] because they see someone else taking a selfie with it.”
Nevertheless, Wood is fascinated with one aspect of her reception: the connotations ascribed to her image, and her choice of clothing in particular. “Why I wear the dress is because none of my work is intended to be sexual, but people over-sexualize [it] all the time,” she explains. “There are these fantasies that extend to me even in a non-sexual level of how people think I’m going to be. And porn is the ultimate fantasy.” Fans have popped into her DMs with dominatrix reparation requests, asking her to “Dom them in some weird way so they can atone for their crimes against Black people,” she sighs, all this despite an absence of bawdy material, nudity, or erotica in her work. “It’s just a red dress.” (Though, we both agree, it is a great dress.)
Wood’s tapestries lean into control and surveillance, explicitly using the two-way nature of webcams to create the perfect Demiurgic selfie to build around. She’s aware that your consumption of her image is beyond her control, and yet, she’s literally the one pulling all the strings. Her works are woven narratives; they’re a blanket, which is exactly what she wants. “For me, it was about making something my family and my community could directly see and relate to,” Wood says, making it clear that she is less concerned with categorization by others. “At their core, they’re just selfies,” she smiles. “I hate Duchamp, but I think one of the most important things was the idea of ‘What is art?’ It just has to be proclaimed art.” And so it has been proclaimed by her—quite deservedly so. The success that comes with it is just a bonus.