The Artsy Vanguard 2022: Qualeasha Wood

Harley Wong
Nov 15, 2022 5:06PM

“Sometimes I make tapestries or tuftings when I’m extremely emotional,” said Qualeasha Wood. “It’s like therapy.” The New York–based artist weaves Catholic iconography, webcam selfies, and trappings from the internet into fiberworks that reflect on her experiences navigating the digital age as a Black woman—encounters that veer from idolatry and fetishization to digital surveillance and doxxing. As the mainstream art world is giving craft long-overdue recognition, Wood’s visually complex tableaus are in a league of their own. And Wood, who just turned 26 last week, has a lot to celebrate.

“The moment where things started taking off beyond what I actually thought they could was last year,” she said. After her tapestry The [Black] Madonna-Whore Complex (2021) graced the cover of Art in America’s May/June 2021 issue—guest edited by art critic, curator, and Gagosian director Antwaun Sargent—Wood received an email from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Later that year in November, the same work was featured in the Met’s exhibition “Alter Egos | Projected Selves.” And this past April, the museum announced that the work would be entering its permanent collection. “I’ve been making art for a long time,” Wood added. “But in terms of feeling like what I have is a career, I think it’s only been a year.”

Qualeasha Wood, installation view of The [Black] Madonna/Whore Complex, 2021, in “Alter Egos | Projected Selves,” at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2021. Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Portrait of Qualeasha Wood with her tapestry The Pleasure Matrix, 2022. Photo by JaLeel Porcha. Courtesy of Qualeasha Wood.


Another achievement Wood accomplished in 2021 was earning an MFA in photography from Cranbrook Academy of Fine Art, after receiving a BFA in printmaking from the Rhode Island School of Design in 2019. When she first began her undergraduate studies, however, Wood was pursuing illustration. “Growing up in a small town, I didn’t know anybody who was an artist, and all the artists that I could name were painters,” said Wood, who was born in Long Branch, New Jersey. “I felt like Black artists had to just be really good at drawing. I felt like my value or my contribution at the time was being able to draw [in a photorealist style].”

Her ballpoint pen drawings on wood secured her admission to RISD and attested to the young artist’s creative innovation and early interest in materiality. Yet she quickly found the illustration program to be rigid, hierarchical, and discouraging of individual approaches to drawing. “I think a lot of younger Black kids learn how to draw by looking at photos of people. At art school, people didn’t value that and actually were kind of snobbish and mean to me as a portrait artist,” Wood recalled. “It was humbling to me really quickly, but I think that’s what I needed. Part of why I chose RISD was because I didn’t want an easy experience, I wanted to be challenged.”

It was this desire to grow that led Wood to work with textiles and, eventually, printmaking. For one of her first projects in her freshman year, she made a self-portrait quilt, teaching herself traditional sewing and quiltmaking techniques in the process. Wood comes from a family of women who know how to crochet and knit, and the artist sought to create with her hands in the same way.

Qualeasha Wood, Out of Time, 2021. © Qualeasha Wood. Courtesy of the artist; Pippy Houldsworth Gallery, London; and Gallery Kendra Jayne Patrick, Bern.

But it was a chance encounter with Faith Ringgold that ultimately pushed her to leave illustration. One of Wood’s friends worked with visiting artists at RISD at the time, and offered the freshman the chance to meet the celebrated artist. “A limo pulled up outside my studio building, and Faith Ringgold’s in the car wearing these sparkly, peach Ugg boots,” Wood reminisced. “I’ll never forget those boots.”

Ringgold spoke to her about how regrettably rare it was to see Black students in art school, especially prestigious ones. When Wood confided in her about wanting to pursue printmaking despite her parents’ wish for her to remain in illustration for greater job security, Ringgold advised: “If you want to go into printmaking, you should absolutely do that, because not everybody’s had the opportunity.”

They took a selfie together, and the next day, Wood’s friend surprised her with a signed copy of Tar Beach (1991), in which Ringgold wrote: “Qualeasha, you can fly and be a printmaker.” Wood switched majors that same day, adding, “Anytime I’m feeling confused or lost about what I’m doing, I look at the book and I’m like, ‘Alright, I have to keep going.’”


Applying the printmaking process of working in layers, Wood now fashions jacquard tapestries that often feature her haloed self at the center of the composition. Combining motifs of heavenly clouds and sacred hearts with Microsoft Windows 2000 web browsers and cursors, the works plunge the tradition of craft, medieval tapestries, and the iconography of Renaissance paintings into cyberspace.

Occupying the role of the venerated religious figure that’s often depicted white in European art history, Wood is surrounded by remnants of the internet that reveal a dehumanizing experience: text bubbles pointing to digital blackface, advertisements for the website racistsloveblackwomen dot com, and fetishizing pop-up windows linking “young hot ebony” with “salvation.”

Qualeasha Wood, installation view in Gallery Kendra Jayne Patrick’s booth at Art Basel in Miami Beach, 2021. Courtesy of the artist and Gallery Kendra Jayne Patrick, Bern.

In some tapestries, Wood is absent completely. For example, Woke Olympics (2019) depicts rows of angel emojis accompanying the warped text “black women died for your sins so you could be woke on the internet?” The emojis act almost as a substitute for Wood’s selfie, an abstraction of form she embraces further in her tufting practice. Inspired by Microsoft Paint’s emphasis on color and shape over hyper-detail, the tuftings are more cartoon-like in style than Wood’s photographic tapestries, but convey the raw emotions of inescapable surveillance all the same.

Now, Wood is preparing to show her latest work from her year-long residency with the Studio Museum in Harlem in the group exhibition “It’s time for me to go,” opening at MoMA PS1 on November 17th. Her new tapestries and tuftings focus on self-discovery and unpack her dizzyingly rapid art world ascent. “The Studio Museum reminded me about impressing myself and less about all the noise and chatter,” she said. “I didn’t show anyone the work that I was making for the last year, really. I tried to think so little about the outside world in terms of what people may think.”

Qualeasha Wood, Circle the Drain, 2021. © Qualeasha Wood. Courtesy of the artist; Pippy Houldsworth Gallery, London; and Gallery Kendra Jayne Patrick, Bern.

Wood credits the residency for restoring her sense of agency, allowing her to take her practice in more bold and carefree directions unswayed by the demands of the art market. She will have her first solo exhibition outside of the U.S. next year at London’s Pippy Houldsworth Gallery, which co-represents the artist with Gallery Kendra Jayne Patrick. For her international debut, viewers can expect persona and costume changes as Wood sheds the signature red dress frequently seen in her tapestries.

She’s also striving to capture more of the work that happens on the computer, relishing the moments of error that occur through the desktop experience. Before her tapestries materialize on the loom (specifically a computerized one in a North Carolina textile mill), Wood creates her compositions in Photoshop through a process similar to that of a digital collage. “A lot of it is reliant upon the relationship between me and the software, and what it chooses to highlight, erase, manipulate, or duplicate,” she explained. “So I try to allow those natural glitches to happen.”

Qualeasha Wood, installation view of ‘FOREVA’ By Cardi B, 2021, at The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. © Qualeasha Wood. Courtesy of The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

Qualeasha Wood
Waiting to Exhale, 2022
Pippy Houldsworth Gallery

As curator Legacy Russell detailed in her 2020 book Glitch Feminism: A Manifesto, glitches represent ruptures in the status quo and are generative for worldbuilding. (Russell included Wood’s work in the group exhibition “The New Bend” at Hauser & Wirth in New York earlier this year. The Los Angeles edition is on view now through December 30th.) For Wood, glitches date back to her childhood, when her computer would lag and she’d drag her browser across the screen to create an infinite number of pop-ups. In her tapestries, she makes tangible and permanent the temporal and digital realms created by glitches.

As much as the internet has been a space for possibility, it’s also been one of peril for Wood, who has been doxxed twice. The first time was when she was 19 or 20, and made a GoFundMe for tickets to Beyoncé’s Lemonade tour. Three or four years later in 2020, Wood found her information listed in an anti-Beyoncé forum on a KKK website. “It’s still up and functioning, and you have to type the hard ‘r’ as a CAPTCHA to enter the website. It’s absolutely insane,” Wood said. “There was a link to my Facebook, where I went to school, how old I was, my phone number—all that information on this website.”

The other time Wood was doxxed, she saw it happen in real time. After Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election, Wood and friends from a leftist Facebook group infiltrated a Tomi Lahren Facebook group and changed it into a Michelle Obama fan page. “It was fun but then immediately people started attacking anybody in the group that they realized was not actually a Trump supporter. And that was towards me, not my white friends,” Wood said. She began receiving death and rape threats while her information and personal photos were shared across multiple Facebook groups. In some of the images—intended for Self Control, a book of selfies self-published in 2017—Wood appears semi-nude.

Qualeasha Wood, installation view of Out of Stock, 2021, in “Dancing in Dark Times” at Pippy Houldsworth Gallery, 2021. © Qualeasha Wood. Courtesy of the artist; Pippy Houldsworth Gallery, London; and Gallery Kendra Jayne Patrick, Bern.

“I kind of lost the idea of having privacy when all that happened. I always felt like I was hyper-policed because people assume I don’t belong in a lot of places, but to literally feel like someone could be watching me or harassing me brought it to a whole new level,” she said. “I understand the internet as an extension of extreme surveillance now. By choosing to be online, I think we’re choosing to be surveilled in a lot of ways.”

Indeed, there’s a self-aware quality to many of Wood’s tapestries, whether she’s performing for the camera in the Photo Booth app or looking directly out at the viewer. She’s simultaneously facing not just the internet’s consumption of Black culture and the Black femme body, but also the art market’s consumption of Black artists, head on.

“Do people only love my art conditionally? Or love me as an object conditionally when I’m behaving a certain way? When the art looks a certain way? When it performs a certain way?” asked Wood. “I think about this a lot now, especially as I’ve gone through some of my most painful moments: Is it the tapestry that people will remember?”

The Artsy Vanguard 2022

The Artsy Vanguard is our annual feature recognizing the most promising artists working today. The fifth edition of The Artsy Vanguard features 19 rising talents from across the globe who are poised to become the next great leaders of contemporary art. Explore more of The Artsy Vanguard 2022 and collect works by the artists.

Harley Wong

Header: Qualeasha Wood, from left to right: “The [Black] Madonna/Whore Complex,” 2021. © Qualeasha Wood. Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; “Waiting to Exhale,” 2022. © Qualeasha Wood. Courtesy of the artist, Pippy Houldsworth Gallery, London and Gallery Kendra Jayne Patrick, Bern; “Out of Stock,” 2021. © Qualeasha Wood. Courtesy of the artist, Pippy Houldsworth Gallery, London and Gallery Kendra Jayne Patrick, Bern.