How did your art practice begin?
Photography for me really started with an admiration and love for fashion. It started in middle school when I started to watch America’s Next Top Model a lot, I was like a little queer teenag- er, and I found the process of the photoshoots on that show to be amazing. I had dreams of working in the entertainment industry at some capacity, either writing about music, or being a creative director, or writing about fashion, or photography. In high school I was the co-editor and photo editor for the school newspaper. From that I had received a scholarship to get into undergraduate, I received the Ford Motor Company’s journalism scholarship for $24,000 and that was obviously great. I got that with the intentions of me going to school to become a jour- nalist, but my dyslexia said “um, nah that’s not you.” I started thinking of other ways to still work within journalism without having to write so heavily, so I took my first photojournalism class at Wayne State University. I ended up becoming a general photography major. I still had this strong intention of doing fashion photography, but I was met with a little pushback from faculty at Wayne— I had one professor who said that fashion photography is not real art. And then I had one professor in my second photography class who was like “OK Darryl you’re in- terested in fashion photography but you’re also interested in having a conversation about Blackness in America, so how about you think about merging the two.” that’s when I made my first body of work, it was eight images of this highly stylized Dracula shoot. I loved it, it was so fun, but Shana Merola (professor) had also introduced me to a plethora of contemporary Black artists who honestly changed my life.
Who were some of those artists?
Carrie Mae Weems, Hank Willis Thomas, Glenn Ligon, Simone Leigh, Lorna Simpson, Xaviera Simmons. These are artists who I consider to be the art parents for a lot of young, emerging artists out today. Throughout undergrad I would keep coming back to these artists, and I found myself more interested in wanting to become an artist outside of fashion photography. So I started reading and researching more, and there were three artists that I had come across that I was just in awe of: Sandra Perry, who at the time was a grad student at Columbia University in New York City; John Edmonds, who was at the time at Yale for an MFA; and then Shikeith I even introduced him to one of my professors and she bought his book for the photography de- partment’s artist book collection. So I kept looking at what they were doing in undergrad and I was like “I would love to be in a space with artists like this, maybe I want to go to grad school.”
While I do credit Wayne State for being a great starting point, when I was there, their photogra- phy department had a lot of flaws. I think its kind of ridiculous that when I look at other photog- raphy departments at both art schools and research schools with art programs, there students are learning large format photography, and they’re still learning theory, and we sadly didn’t (well their learning it now).
There wasn’t a lot of reading theory or keeping up with contemporary photography at Wayne?
Not really. If it wasn’t for that one professor whom I still keep in contact with, she’s a dear friend of mine— if it wasn’t for her I don’t think I would have gone to grad school honestly. But I still don’t know how to do large format photography and it drives me crazy when I see my peers taking these beautiful photos with large format cameras and my goofy ass is here using a DSLR. For the past few days I’ve been kind of beating myself up about my photography prac- tice, and I’ve been feeling stuck since I moved back to Detroit.
When was the move back?
December 2018. I graduated from Wayne State in 2015 and I had two more classes to take that summer, and the last day of those classes was precisely two weeks before my first class of graduate school. I went to SAIC in Chicago, and at that moment I was like, “I did something.” Granted this is me going into graduate school with no knowledge of theory or photo history— when I was in undergrad we didn’t even have critiques—it was a tough change. Imagine going from one program where the only critique comes from your professor to going to another pro- gram where you’re being critiqued by everyone who walks into your studio. It was devastating, it was a culture shock. We had our first critique three weeks into the semester and I had a complete breakdown. All I remember is sitting there and feeling this overwhelming energy leav- ing my body and I just started crying. When I was there were only two black grad students in my cohort, and only two in the cohort before me, and I just remember all of them looking like, “where did Darryl go?” And they came back to my studio and were like, “are you ok?”, and I was just in tears. So they texted the professor, “the four of us are gonna leave to help Darryl cope with his first critique.”
I was breaking down because they were asking questions that I didn’t know how to answer. They were bringing up ideas and theories that I had never heard of. I was very interested in the representation of Black queer bodies, so I was photographing Black queer people whom I had met within those three weeks of me being in Chicago, photographing them with a background of African cloth, which to my knowledge they were African cloths and they’re made by African people. I didn’t even understand the idea of fucking colonization. I find it interesting that the same way I left high school, which was ill-prepared for college, was the same I way I left Wayne State, which was ill-prepared for grad school. So I got there and I just remember doing this work and my professor telling me, “those are wax prints and wax prints come from the Dutch” and how the Dutch colonized Africa, “so you need to have a conversation about colonization and why it is important for you to have those African fabrics in the background of Black queer bodies, but also how do we know that these bodies are actually queer, are there ways that you can bring through queerness in these photos?” And I was just sitting there like, “what the fuck.” It was in complete shock. But thankfully during that semester I had an advisor—who I was not expecting to be my advisor. When they contacted me letting me know that I was ac- cepted, they also let me know that LaToya Ruby Frazier wanted to be my advisor. I had just become aware of her and I was freaking out, but then a week before the school notified me that she wouldn’t be there because she got the Guggenheim fellowship. As a replacement they had brought in Xaviera Simmons who was an artist that I had also been introduced to and was in awe of. The work I remember seeing by her was One Day Back Then, which are these two photos of her nude and in complete black face head to toe with a big afro. She is sitting in this wicker chair in one image, and the background is this really tall hay field. And the image was doing something to me but I didn’t know what it was.
She really helped me understand, she was like, “ok Darryl you don’t have all this educational background which is fine, but you are here, and you are here for a reason because you make good work, so we’re gonna work.” She helped me build a foundation for me to have a strong practice even after she left. I hold that near and dear to my heart to this day, she’s another per- son from school who I keep in contact with.
What did building that foundation look like? Was it reading or conversations about your practice?
It was conversations about my practice. My form of research was not very reading heavy at the time. I was reading James Baldwin for the first time, and reading Zora Neale-Hurston, Toni Morrison, and a lot of poetry. Those are my forms of research, but also listening to music and podcasts and watching movies and tv shows to pull influences. But one of my advisors,
Ayanah Moor was like, “you really need to watch some blaxploitation films”, and one advisor was like “you need to listen to Sun Ra,” and one advisor was like, “let’s go to a museum and talk about what stands out to you’, and one was like, “let’s just go out and breathe.”
It was really nurturing but also really informative in ways I didn’t know I needed.
How did the move to Chicago reflect upon your identity as a Detroiter, were there ways you had realized Detroit had shaped your identity that you were unaware of before.
Growing up Black and queer in Detroit I always felt like I was quick to try to assimilate to my straight friends and my family so that I wasn’t judged. So I remember being in undergrad and being proud like, “yeah I’m the straightest acting gay n***a you’ll ever meet.” I was at that level of self-hate and not really acknowledging it until probably my last year of undergrad. So when I moved to Chicago I was introduced to a very queer community, something that I felt and still somewhat feel Detroit doesn’t have much of— a stronger accepting queer community. That really shaped me when I moved to Chicago, but also just being away from Detroit and thinking about my family a lot and thinking about the ways I was being active within movement spaces, I was organizing and protesting as an undergrad, I was the president of the BSU (Black Student Union), and then for me to move to Chicago and seeing that they’re doing things at a larger level, I started thinking about ways to intertwine Detroit and Chicago, and ways to bring Detroit culture to Chicago and vice versa.
Did that openness to queer identities shape your practice?
Oh yeah. When I was in undergrad my work was about police brutality and racial profiling, it was more about this broad idea about the collective Black experience. Moving to Chicago and being around a bunch of queer people and being able to have candid conversations about de- sire and sex, and these ideas and conversations that are had in queer spaces— it felt like it al- lowed me to make work about it.
There’s this triptych I have called “I Wish I Were Perfectly Happy”. It came out of these conver- sations we were having about the “American Dream”, how as a Black person the “American Dream” doesn’t fit us, but then as a Black queer person the “American Dream” really doesn’t fucking fit us. I started thinking about the critiques that are placed upon my idea. But I would have never made this work had I stayed in Detroit, I wouldn’t have felt comfortable. If I had went to Cranbrook I think I would have been the first or second Black male to have graduated from the Photo Department at Cranbrook, do I think my work would have been as openly queer as it is? Do I think I would’e made the work that I’ve made, No I don’t think i would have.
So I made this work and honestly i was thinking about conversations I was having with my queer community in Chicago, as well as a lot of my Cis-Hetero friends in Detroit. Thinking about some of my friends in Detroit who were getting married and buying houses and all these things that are seen as the American Dream, but, didn’t feel tangible to me. I was 23 and had never had a boyfriend yet. These things are not tangible to me, they don’t feel like a realistic dream for my Black queer body to have. I remember showing that to my advisors and the question of “what do you love about yourself” kept coming up. Because in critiquing my body a lot of the conversation was about my weight, my height, my skin tone, my intellect, the histo- ry of my body but also the history of black bodies. A lot of it was slurs and terms that I had been called since I was four. Being called a fag, a sissy, a fudgepacker, a twinky, I’ve been called these words since before I understood their meaning. So for people who didn’t know my upbringing they were like “why are you writing this on your body” but these are things that have become part of body, and my identity through my existence, And as I was thinking about that and the things that I love about myself I started to realize that the things that I love about myself were the things that I had been hiding due to the fact that I felt like I could not be com- pletely open and be myself in Detroit. That’s where Dion comes from.
Dion is a manifestation of my high femme self. Then I started reading the poetry of Danez Smith, I have all of their books. Danez is this amazing Black queer HIV positive poet who has conversations about blackness, desire, sex, etc., but also about police brutality and being called a “fag”, and that really resonated with me. I going to their live poetry readings when I could, listening to their poetry readings online and reading their poems a lot, and I started revisiting shows like Noah’s Arc and RuPaul’s Drag Race, movies like Marlon Riggs “Tongues untied”, Paris is Bruning, and The Queen (to name a few). I then decided I was going to dive really deep into Dion. Once I started working on Dion I started thinking about Dion as this symbol of desire that is not often celebrated. Dion is this fat, black non-binary person. The words that I use to describe Dion are: ghettofabulous sophistirathchet, boujetto, and gaudy. Some of these words are made up, to me that’s just part of the urban aesthetic, we make up shit. The more and more I would revisit the first triptych which is just titled “Dion Untitled 1, 2, and 3, or Sitting Pretty, or These Niggas Revolve Around Me”. With the last title, I guess the realization was that when I work with these images in a certain type of way, in a certain sequence, the guys are actually revolving around me, their position revolves around my body like parents to the sun. I’m the center of their desire. I’m something they want to protect and hold and love and cherish, which for me was important because as Darryl I never feel this way in queer spaces around other queer bodies. With Dion I feel like I am that bitch.
That idea has been ongoing throughout my work with Dion. I made a series of four images in which I’m at the edge of a makeshift “step and repeat” like I’m at an awards show or something, and I’m again wearing the large black, tulle skirt, but this time I’m wearing a giant afro, I’m wearing my gold glasses and jewelry, and makeup, and those four images are titled in reference to a Danez poem, “I Could Be the Trophy for An Award Show Only Niggas Know… Source ’95”. Again thinking about this object of desire, this award, and I’m thinking about when I go back and watch the Source Awards, that award was like this thing that every nigga in that space wanted and they were mad if they didn’t get it. Dion is that person that every nigga wants and they’re mad if they can’t get it.
After that there is “documentation of Dion Being a Bad Bitch… Periodt”. It’s a diptych and it’s probably the most elaborate of the Dion images. It was photographed at night with a backdrop, and a crew of people around me observing me. There is a woman on the far right side holding a reflector, there’s two white people on the far left side holding a camera and recording what’s happened, then there is a black shirtless. Du-Rag wearing man in the foreground identity not seen, but who I’m exchanging gazes with.
So the mechanics of the image are displayed within the image?
Exactly. And I’m thinking about how it’s taking place at night in a private, gated backyard. No one can see it but the people who are there. The only person whose identity is obscured is the person who is actually taking the photo of me, who is a guy kneeling in front of me with a white du rag, no shirt, black Calvin Klein underwear and black jeans. I’m thinking of him as this idea of this hyper masculine black man who finds me desirable enough to want to be in my space but is also hiding me to a certain extent. But then again you see the mechanics, you see the strobe lights, you see the backdrop, you see the reflector.
I did two more images, there’s “With Expensive Taste…That’s It, Ain’t Nothing Broke Over Here” which is an image of my hand with these big gaudy nails, and tattoos, and gold jewelry and my hand is on a fur coat, and I wanted to make sure it was a real fur coat so I called my mom and borrowed her fur coat. I really wanted to start leaning more into the gaudiness of it.
The last image that I’ve done for Dion so far is called “I Looked Like My Momma Self (Portrait 1980’s)” which is a celebration of my femmeness, but also a celebration of my mom, while also referencing a Mapplethorpe photo that I saw at the Guggenheimin September 2019. That image has me with my face professionally done, I have on a big curly wig, I’m wearing the fur coat again, and I’m also sitting in the giant peacock wicker chair again.
I’ve done two performances as Dion, one at a gallery in Chicago called 65 Grand which is in Humboldt Park on the Northside. And I did a performance at the MoCADA Museum of Contemporary African Diaspora Art in Brooklyn.
And you’ve curated as well.
Yes. The way that people get starstruck over like Beyoncé or Rihanna, I get starstruck over visual artists. I make it a mission now to go to Expo in Chicago every year and see all the art and meet all the artists, that to me is a big deal. I enjoy being able to really think and figure out conversations between artists, but I also think it’s important again going back to building a connection between Detroit and Chicago. 2017 was my first real curatorial project, it was titled “+”, it was in conjunction with C.H.A.G (Community Health Awareness Group) here in Detroit. It was curated by me and it was organized by a friend of mine who is also a publicist and community health awareness advocate, her name is Desiree Jennings. Both of us curated an exhibition in conjunction with World AIDS Day Detroit and the show was centering HIV, desire and sexuality. The artists were a mixture of artists from Detroit and Chicago. I found it difficult to find Detroit artists because a lot of Detroit artists don’t make work about HIV or desire, so it was really difficult to find Detroit based artists.
In 2018 I curated a show called Oh, Maker which was about how artists appropriate materials and resources to have conversations about America today, in the past, and tomorrow, and that show included one Detroit artist. Shanna Merola was the Detroit based artist who was also the professor from undergrad who gave me the wings to fly.
Last year I curated a show during Detroit Arts Week. I was the only Detroit native curator in that entire program.
What was the program?
It was Young Curators New Ideas IV.
How many people were chosen?
I think 12 and I was the only black one and the only one who was born and raised in the city of Detroit.
Who put this on?
Amani Olu. He’s great, like I don’t know Him and his partner started Detroit Arts Week. They did four Young Curator New Ideas before, this were based in the Bronx, NY (I think). So like one of the past curators who did this was Larry Mensah, who was the curator at MOCAD before he left after being there for less than a year. With that situation I found it weird and interesting because I know for a fact there were five black curators who applied because I had told them about it and we applied together. So I was like “I’m the only black curator”, on one hand I was excited but on the other hand I was like “wait, girl, what.”
You’re seeing that everywhere, like with the Rocket Mortgage internship class photo they just released, I don’t know if you saw that.
I saw it, it was like the walls of my bedroom, all white. Since being back in Detroit I have not been as open as I want to be about the experience of white bodies in Detroit being jarring to me. I work downtown at a gallery, I teach at Oakland University, but I live in the fucking hood at E. Jefferson and Holcomb and next door to me is a bunch of wild niggas out there yelling and screaming all damn day, cracking jokes, smoking weed and drinking on the sidewalk cause its too hot to be in their apartment. When I left Detroit I rarely ever saw people downtown. I left Detroit in 2015 and I come back in 2018 and I’m like damn, it’s a drastic change. I moved to Chicago and I saw white people everywhere, like I lived with white people. But then to come to Detroit and see the same homeless person who I used to see walk around Wayne State who I used to give my lunch too if I had extra money to buy what I wanted to buy, and now I’m seeing people walking by him and looking at him and clenching their purses, and I’m like “this man is just walking to the bus stop why are y’all tripping?”
It hit me that we have to be hyperaware in a whole different way than we were prior to this level of gentrification. Prior to Quicken Loans moving to downtown, the hyperawareness that we had as Black people living in Detroit, it was the police, or possibly getting robbed for your Cartiers or your Jordans. It was what I unfortunately think of as mundane hood shit. But now I come back and it’s like we not only have to be hyperaware of that, we also have to be hyperaware of being around white bodies that aren’t accustomed to being in a majority Black city. I find it interesting because right when I finished undergrad and I was coming back home pretty often, I started this project called Project 20’s that is my idea of having this conversation about gentrification, how it affects people within their 20s. I’m in my 20s so I can speak about how it affects me and my peers, but I can’t speak to how it affects those in their 30s, 40s and so on. I started working on it when I was 25 in 2017 and I’ll be finishing it when I’m 30.
Oh so you spent a half decade on one particular piece?
Yes. It is a alternative photo process where I’m using cyanotypes and putting them in coffee or tea. Funny story, When I was in undergrad we were smoking weed in a dorm, we were hotboxing which we weren’t supposed to do and we were listening to Section.80 by Kendrick Lamar. On Section.80 he has a song called “Chapter 6” and on that song he raps about making it to 21. He says, “riding around my boys we get high, all we want to do is have a good time, living life reckless that’s how we live life, praying we make it to 21” and he repeats 21, it’s like a chant or a mantra. And then we’re high and my friend started crying and I’m sitting here like “what the fuck are you crying for?” And he just went into saying how he just made it 21, and how he didn’t think he would make it that far. And that’s something I never thought about before. So fast forward to 2017 and I’m at Oxbow and they were listening to Taylor Swift, and I fucking hate Taylor Swift so I started listening to Kanye on my headphones.
Went with her rival instead.
Exactly, so I’m listening to College Dropout and Kanye on the first song has this lyric that he has kids singing, “we wasn’t supposed to make it past twenty-five, jokes on you we’re still alive”. And I’m like damn these two artists are making music talking about these age groups that specifically black bodies are worried about making it to. And then I’m in Chicago and I’m thinking, “are these kids still alive?” So thinking about why is it that Black bodies question making it to 21 and 25 as I’m thinking about these institutions and structures that make it almost impossible to thrive in America. And one of those entities is gentrification, with gentrification comes displacement and the removal of resources, food deserts, comes death, comes prison, comes poverty, and I’m like, “what is a way that I can confront this within my artistic practice?”
Which brings me “Claim (Whitney Version) “ by Pope L. this really funny installation, it was a pink box that was tiled with bologna and in the center of each piece was cream cheese and the face of who he thought were Orthodox Jews who lived in Queens, New York. But I’m thinking about what it would be like if these faces were bigger and you could see all of their eyes, how overwhelming it would be on the viewer. Then I’m thinking about how everyone at this museum were uppity white people who can afford to be there at 2PM on a Tuesday. People who have access to art are oftentimes people who have the money to profit and to benefit from gentrification and the displacement of Black and brown bodies, so what would it be like if the faces of all the people they displaced were tiled on the white walls of the gallery that they go to in their leisure time. What if all these people were tiled from ceiling to floor, and everyone’s gaze is like “bitch, why is you here?” How overwhelming would that be if you know for a fact that these are young people that you have second-handedly benefited from their displacement. So I’m photographing up to two-hundred Black and brown bodies for this project. It’s people from 19-30. They are going to be produced as cyanotypes that are toned with coffee or tea which gives them these different variations of brown, black, and brownish-blue mixture and it’s cool because they all have their own identities, nobody looks the same.