In a multifarious practice that spans the realms of performance, 2D and 3D work, Derrick Adams is a master interpreter of both popular and unpopular culture. His layered mash-ups of quotidian objects and texts reconfigure conventional understandings of form and structure in contemporary art practices. Through complex processes of fragmentation and re-construction, Adams’ works weave together temporal and visual elements that complicate the histories we’ve been fed as essential truths. A colleague, friend and mentor, Derrick has been my art-boo and confidant since I stepped out on the scene nearly a decade ago. In a ten-year reunion of sorts, we sat down over steaks to discuss a few offal truths about the art world, and our lived experience in it as black folk.
N: Can you talk a bit about the genesis of your photo series, “Communicating with Shadows”? What led you open up that dialogue with the legacies of artists such as David Hammons, Bruce Nauman and Adrian Piper?
D: The motivation behind this series was more about my conceptual relationship with these particular artists as their beneficiary—how I view my creative practice as it relates to what these artists make, and how they make it. My performance takes place within the shadow of what they have left for me to experience, understand, and respond to.
N: When I think of what a shadow is, or the conditions that allow it to be present, I imagine a bright source of light. Can you discuss this dichotomy between light and dark, what is seen and what is obscured, and how that spectrum resonates in your work?
D: In “Communicating with Shadows,” I used the silhouetted image projected on the wall as a backdrop for the performance as a major element of the work. I used a traditional overhead projector—the instrument used for presentations—which enabled smaller imagery to appear larger-than-life, through illumination of light and magnification. I like using basic objects that have practical function, as they can also highlight duplicity in meaning. The light and dark of the shadows were in conversation, with a transformed scale from small to large.
N: In a world divided by binaries, it is interesting to consider what inhabits the shadows or grey areas—the vast, conceptual distances between such constructs as self and other, or black and white. And often, it seems like the richness of the spectrum gets diluted in mainstream discourse. You know, like, how there are black artists that make black art, and then there are black artists that resist representations of black subjectivity to redirect people’s attention to their unique approach to form or process. Can you riff on that a bit, and talk about the ways you constantly resituate yourself and your body in your work?
D: Well, I believe most creatives resist the title of “black art” mainly because we may feel it is a contained space to exist in—a space given to us instead of chosen. The fact is our basic reality is one that has been constructed for us. I personally think it’s totally fine to own making “black art” just like people who make “black music,” it’s still music and you’re gonna dance to it when it’s played! Some believe that because it’s black music it has a significance not usually found in other types of music. So it’s more about understanding value systems in a way that will empower us to elevate the term. I’m Black, Black American, Afro-American, African American, American, etc, all rolled into one—I own it. Because I’m all of these and really much more, it’s all in the work as a result of my cultural perspective, which is my life experience. Black Culture
is American culture, and its complicated. Trust that if your artwork ever goes to auction or to a museum collection, your race will be part of the sales pitch, regardless of what you’re making.
N: And what about this fetish and desire of blackness? Unwanted or undesirable in certain mainstream definitions of beauty or high art, and totally desirable when it comes to comedy and entertainment—read also: Blackish. Lol.
D: When I look at certain TV programs I can tell which shows with black characters and storylines are created for me, as an audience member, in mind. I can also tell when there are programs about black culture with all black casts made for non-black people in the hopes of
giving particular audiences a hyper-representation of black life to illustrate how some people think we perform for each other. Some blacks even love it. This is usually so off in their depiction that it’s painful to watch.
N: What narratives do you think are omitted in depictions of the black experience? I know we talked the other day about the mystique of the successful, black artist. That there can be an omission of truth when it comes to the business of being an artist, and sustaining that life. What is the state of advocacy and mentorship in the art world?
D: Artists are like institutions and like everyone else we are part of a system. There has always been an interest in seeing the “black struggle” as a source of overcoming and perseverance, even in the art world. The story of black hardship as a provocation to sell and entice—“poverty porn,” as some call it—is usually associated with works that confront how we may be viewed, versus those who may live from earnings they make in the commercial art world. I want to leave for young people a body of work expressing more of the successful yet layered parts of black culture, not just what has been done to us, but more so of how we as a people have transformed this planet through our contributions before, during and after slavery and colonization. I want to put forth the other “real” black experience: blackness normalized, because it exists and I want future generations to be able to reference it.
N: And what about success more broadly? When I think about art-world outsiders, I think about those who are not self-taught, but rather use what they’ve learned directly from their environment, lived-experience and materials to make some seriously radical work, that in turn impacts and opens up the mainstream in important ways!
D: The thing I love about the art world now more than previous years is the severe splintering of creative practice and output with purpose. I think we have almost every area covered these days, the inside and outside of the mainstream art world. I love exhibiting in commercial and noncommercial spaces equally. Some ideas are better presented in alternative spaces that lend itself to the purpose of the work and the audience receiving the message. For me artmaking is therapy—sometimes it happens in front of an audience and other times in isolation. The results of both are used as a learning tool to understand who I am and how I occupy this space as a thinker, maker and responder to my environment.
N: We also talked about art as an outlet for the trauma of blackness. Do you think artists of color create altogether new visual languages to communicate a life experience too traumatic, too beautiful or too complex for words alone? And what remains undepictable, or unpalatable?
D: Being able to make great art requires a higher level of competence and a keen ability to communicate ideas into objects. There’s something special about the nature of things made by hand and the many ways it can be interpreted, that it doesn’t have to come with instructions to appreciate meaning. The language of visual arts and its understanding is subjective and the viewer’s understanding of it exposes their level critical thinking. People are always ready for the extremes, they expect it.