Pandemics come and go in relatively short spans of time, leaving us behind to reassemble, readjust, and ultimately move on from what’s been lost. Artists play a major role in documenting these losses, contextualizing or abstracting our traumas for better processing. COVID-19 has already inspired so much art that has popped up for auction online. BLM (Black Lives Matter) art is taking over the streets and Instagram feeds, and as these works trend exponentially, so do the comparisons between the COVID-19 and HIV pandemics. Robert Mapplethorpe and Keith Haring meticulously documented their pandemic experiences and have been immortalized by their works, but Black queer artistry is largely unavailable for reference to a disease that ravaged its community. Today there are many Black queer artists creating in isolation, consciously (or not) documenting their progression through this pandemic where previous generations couldn’t.
Devin Morris stands about 5 feet 8 inches, with a gentle smile and an amber tan from quarantine gardening. Originally from Baltimore, he currently lives and works in Brooklyn, lovingly creating collages and installations from abandoned furniture. Morris has the speech pattern of a rabbit, jolting and soft, tentative, pausing frequently in our exchange. His current exhibit at PPOW Gallery carries a similar dynamic energy, both challenging and intimate. In everything, his work and “The Work” (civil rights), Morris shows himself as simply existing and exploring.
Malik Saaka: What have you learned about yourself during this time [of isolation]?
Devin N. Morris: I’m continually reckoning with the ideas of mourning and love. Transcendence with love through all of this … that’s what I’ve been in communication with. I always try to contextualize, not in my work but mentally, how to let go and love. There was definitely a reckoning of understanding surfaces, what I desire in a romantic sense, and what is specifically trauma, especially as we started to see a media storm of Black death. That kind of ruined me a bit, I can’t fully deal with that, because of how death has operated in my life. It triggered me really heavily into a lot of different emotional states.
MS: Same here.
DNM: I’m happy for it, it pushes you further to a point of, “How can I not lose my mind?” and it’s like, “Actually, I have to do some of the work,” because I’m not as far as I may have believed I was.
MS: I look at it as, “How safely can I lose my mind?”
DNM: I think that’s how it happens. Luckily, it’s a good time to be alone and deal with all that.
MS: The Noplace exhibit is described as bringing together works of artists that “reflect the ills of society while simultaneously communicating ways to exist in the world.” What ills did you want to draw attention to, or what have you drawn attention to?
DNM: Not necessarily drawing a connection to ills, but the need for transcendence in the work. The need to have windows and doors, and think about what they perform. Not even physically, you can mentally have a door, mentally have a window. I wouldn’t say I’m dealing with ills, I’m more so in a state of transition, process, and sharing space with relationships people have to very simple things.
MS: Have the recent revolts brought us to equality? Is ideal living possible after this? How do you see it going?
DNM: Things have to expire more.
MS: How much more expiration?
DNM: That’s always the thing—nothing comes without great sacrifice. I remember trying to work at newspapers or write for little magazines, and they’d be like, “hmmm, you’re not ready,” and I’d be like, “You know what’s ready? My ideas.” The ideas are ready, people aren’t ready to communicate. … Sometimes there’s a stagnancy, and that period has to go. I think we’re seeing more expiration of that stagnancy, but how [much] farther to go, I’m not sure.
MS: You make areas of reflection on spaces queer people inhabit, and the times we inhabit them, spanning over multiple experiences, using furniture. In your 2018 piece, “A seat for sitting,” you created a miniature park of benches and chairs to memorialize the spaces homeless Black trans women inhabit. As visibility for Black trans women increases, what can we take from that work today?
DNM: I’m not surprised by the existence of trans women, the presence of Black trans women, as they’ve always existed in my life. I think a lot about what makes people think that they are not the same thing they say oppresses them, when they decide someone else shouldn’t exist. What I’ve seen this time around is more acknowledgment of Black trans women and Black trans women issues. Even though, at the protest at the Brooklyn Museum in honor of Black trans women, I was with my Black trans friend, and even as we’re walking through the street, the aggression and acknowledgment towards her body—
MS: It’s visceral!
DNM: It’s visceral! To what extent do you believe that this person exists?
MS: Many have compared the current pandemic to the AIDS crisis, and there’s a growing cache of COVID-19 art being created. Do you feel like the two epidemics are similar?
DNM: No. I think that neither one competes with the other. They’re just two different experiences. Never have I seen New York City, and I haven’t been here my whole life, grind to a halt. That is not like the HIV/AIDS crisis. So many lives were lost, not because they couldn’t be supported, it was because of shame that said that Black gay people, Latinx people—this is their thing. Also, COVID is like a brushfire, this is something different. I don’t know why people want to compare those two things. I think that [places] a limit on speaking about the current state of HIV/AIDS, awareness, people existing with the disease, even trying to get people to the point where they can exist with the disease. Even mentally, knowing it’s OK to have it. People are still dying of AIDS. Two different needs, two different concerns.
MS: Black positive artists have largely been erased from the narrative when discussing work created during the ’80s, ’90s AIDS crisis. Has this had any impact on your documenting your status in your work?
DNM: I guess it’s always in the work in a way, tethering to mortality. I have to take a pill every day—I do keep putting it in the work. Also the idea of exposing “T,” feeling like some version of the cross for me, even though I’m talking about Tina. I go back and forth between this idea of mortality and this idea of shady practices. Shady sexual/drug practices we’d link to…
MS: Like a windy road kind of thing.
DNM: Yeah, like maybe it won’t happen to you. That’s like our connotation. I want to bring it out more—addiction is real. I keep that close, I’ve dealt with a lot of addiction in my family.
I’m not making Black art that is specifically trying to be canonized, I actually live with this and this is how I process. I do try to find the Black people who are lost through all periods, because so much hasn’t been exposed. You need that permission, to know that there’s never been a time where you didn’t exist.
Everything can be anything; that helps take me out of some restrictions I would give myself while building larger works.
MS: Larger work like the “moving away from up there” piece?
DNM: Yeah, mentally I draw everything—I see it, then I can do it. I thought, “This is a doorway made out of doors.”
MS: This is a portal!
DNM: It is! My friend was saying they’re requiring trust, because you’re walking under [the work].
MS: What was your intention?
DNM: What speaks directly to transcendence. I remember years ago writing, “What’s on the other side of the door?”—an ambiguous feeling and statement. Leaving heaven in that ambiguous space for me, where heaven transitions to death, a something I don’t really need to understand fully.
MS: It feels like a coming home, so to speak.
DNM: That’s always in the work, too. That feeling of dealing with home and realizing home is within yourself.
MS: What are your concerns regarding the health of positive Black artists at this time, under this administration?
DNM: I wonder, in what ways will we get to a place where there’s less stigma? I would say there’s less rejection on a personal level, but stigma is what limits a lot of things, as well as location. Not just for artists, just young Black people.
Noplace can be viewed at PPOW gallery in the Chelsea neighborhood of New York City through August 14.