This is the kind of question Wood’s masterfully crafted and conceptually multi-layered work invites. In fact, her first European solo exhibition Qualeasha Wood: tl;dr at Pippy Holdsworth revolves around the act of looking in all its forms (surveillance, spectatorship, voyeurism, the white and Black gaze). Using the modern and traditional technologies of digital jacquard weaving and hand-sewn embroidery and embellishment, Wood creates dazzling self-reflexive tapestries that implicate onlookers, thus blurring the line between the viewer and viewed, subject and object. Likewise, in her soft, seemingly harmless tuftings, cartoonish figures, vivid colours and child-like imagery are all employed to question who is looking aggressively or suggestively at whom. At once unsettling and exciting to encounter , Wood’s textile art innovates the analogue processes of craft as much as it reanimates our interaction with it on- and offline.
I steady my smartphone, touch the screen lightly to focus and press hold. One snap, two snaps, three snaps more, and a whole album of images uploads to Google cloud. This has become second nature now; viewing and responding to art through the frame of the hand-held device, watching the life these photographs take on through the multiple apps that make up one’s own virtual universe. But when it comes to the art of Qualeasha Wood, taking a quick photo or selfie becomes loaded with meaning. It becomes freighted with one’s sudden awareness of being directly implicated in the work itself. Holding the lens level with the tapestry, where a beautiful Black femme woman does the same, do I imitate this act of digital recreation or step back, sans smartphone, and reconsider the relation of myself to what is artistically at play?
"a quick photo or selfie becomes loaded with meaning"
But this innovation and reanimation starts with Wood herself. Though she is known to assume various avatars and identities online, Wood is clear that the image we see reflected back at us from her tapestries is, most certainly, her. Like artists Lina Iris Viktor, Hayv Kahraman, Juliana Huxtable and Cindy Sherman to name a few, Wood begins with photographic representations of her own body. But unlike them she remains her own model and muse – that is, her self-portraits are not an extension of former cosplay or fictitious characterisation. Using a webcam or hand-held device, Wood generates strings of selfies and then embeds them in a matrix of multidimensional digital and tabular worlds. Processed through a digital jacquard loom, where each pixel represents a single stitch, Wood’s self-documentation and self-regard becomes reduplicated and mirrored ad infinitum (a mise-en-abîme of selfhood, self-assertion and self-consideration). Gazing out from the tapestries, Wood captures herself in the artful act of looking, only, therefore, to turn that gaze back on our own.
"each pixel represents a single stitch"
Then again, Wood simultaneously creates a circularity of looking and being in her work that cuts out the viewer. In Cloud Backup (2023), miniature versions of Wood posing and peering into an Apple webcam via its Photo Gallery app are dwarfed by a larger iteration of the artist looking directly outwards. Behind her, this dominant image warps in the literal warp of the tapestry, a glorious glitching of noses, mouths and chins coalescing one into the other. Here, self-regard, via the technological props of camera, screen, app and jacquard thread, becomes a moment of bliss and bathos; of joy in the multiplicity of selfhood online and hilarity at the bodily possibilities the abstract realms of cyber and digital activity allow. As Legacy Russell has outlined in her liberatory manifesto Glitch Feminism, it is in the glitch, the ‘in-between state’, that marginalised individuals – and indeed Black queer folk – not only survive, but thrive in their ‘refusal’ of hegemonic rules, readings and imposed restricted performances of the body. In this, Wood’s blurring of bodily parts and photos – a disruption of the work’s titular ‘backup’ – turns a digital liberty into liberation, and liberation into rebellious pleasure reserved mostly for the artist herself.
Of course, the body – whether that be Wood’s or that of the three-dimensional material tapestry itself – is as much recomposed as it is decomposed. Aiding this recomposition is the visual vocabulary of computerised devices and digital domains – the tabs, notifications, scroll bars, browsers, folders, acronyms and emoticons we all see and use on a day-to-day basis. This language, an extension of bodily activity and evidence of interactions with other bodies, is strewn like hieroglyphics across the surface of Wood’s tapestries. If in Cloud Backup, fire engulfed hearts and Black angel emojis go beyond their catholic associations to insert emotion and humour into an already associatively dense textured surface, then in her magisterial landscaped work, All Around Me (2023), it is the cursor that rules supreme, dancing across and uniting Wood’s form, screens and opened tabs into one unified whole. Guiding both Wood’s and the viewer’s eyes, the cursor is more than another narrative device or symbol of online autonomy and motion. Rather, the cursor is Wood’s signature, her guiding principle, motioning us through the interfacial and intertextual layers of the work. Via the cursor, our eyes gloss over abstracted and material things, but this vision is a controlled construct, Wood’s authorial hand waving god-like over this altar-piece of a tapestry. Tipping the iconography of the sacred into the profane, Wood’s tapestries and specially made prayer stools challenge art historical precedents, conveying that the new religion is by way of the internet.
"Tipping the iconography of the sacred into the profane"
This ‘unorthodoxy’ of online language and looking are completely re-envisaged, however, in Wood’s tuftings. If in the tapestries, Wood renegotiates the (white) gaze of others online and in the gallery space through the intermediary medium of screens, scrollbars and stitched screen-savers, then in the tuftings the horror and fear of such sight is replayed before us with uncanny childlike candour. Memories of the intrusive gaze and touch of white people resurfaces when Wood’s caricature – a completely Black figure with striking cartoon eyes reminiscent of mini-mouse – is surrounded by a gang of forcefully pointing white gloved hands, in the aptly titled I’m Not Touching You! (2023). The violence of accusation and interrogation is offset here by the hallucinogenic green of the flower-inflected meadow. Likewise, in Timeout! (2023) Wood’s caricature looks lonesome and painfully vulnerable in a corner of a gallery while pairs of eyes ogle her from within the dark depths of the surrounding frames. Is this a moment of heightened visibility and hypersensitivity from being positioned in a predominantly antagonistic (white) space? Or is this a nightmarish fantasy of returning self-recognition, at once alienating and haunting, the kind absent from the self-asserting and all-seeing photorealist tapestries?
What is more, when taking out my phone to photograph this, am I re-inscribing all that Wood aims to be free from through her work? Am I looking, surveilling, fetishistically consuming her form at a rate the cursor icon cannot prevent? Perhaps, but when I share a glance with Wood in her tapestries, I feel transformed in the exchange. One snap, two snap, three snaps more, and I, too, am transported into Qualeasha Wood’s tabulated, textured and tufted cyber worlds.
Cover image: Qualeasha Wood, All Around Me, 2023. courtesy of the artist, Pippy Houldsworth Gallery, London and Gallery Kendra Jayne Patrick.