graduated from high school in Zanesville, Ohio, on a Saturday. On Sunday, he boarded a Greyhound bus headed for Atlanta, where he lived for a month before continuing on to New York City.
Fifteen years later, a combination of factors has led the photographer and artist to revisit his hometown via his work, exploring Black culture in Appalachia and Southern Ohio, but also his own family history and the traumas he internalized growing up Black and queer in the region.
“I didn’t have a particularly violent childhood, but you realize the ways you’re advised to create an interior world for your own safety, and it takes time to undo that,” said Morris, who has a pair of works on display in “Effigies,” a new group exhibit on Friday, March 3. “I have to remember that no one is going to criticize me for being myself at 35, because at 15 I couldn’t do or say anything that might give myself away.”
The pieces on display at 934, both of which are titled “Elegance Is Refusal,” have roots in a confluence of events, Morris said, including: the natural looking back that occurred when he reached his mid-30s; living in the midst of a pandemic and the self-reflection afforded by this degree of isolation; and the 2019 death of Toni Morrison, which led the artist to revisit works by the famed author, and in particular her novel Beloved, which he first encountered as a teenager.
“And I was like, this is a Black Appalachian story. … And then I kept thinking about the lens of Beloved as an opportunity to think about your past, and maybe even ask what it means to engage with the ghosts of your past,” Morris said.
For the ongoing series, Morris hired a model, Xavier, who portrays a younger version of the artist in photographs. “He’s like Julia Roberts to my Erin Brockovich,” Morris said. Rather than presenting a true-to-life accounting of those years, however, Morris has embraced this as an opportunity to reimagine his past. In “Elegance Is Refusal,” for instance, the model sports a mustache and an impeccable afro and stands posed like a 1960s pin-up model.
“And he sort of reclaims my younger self, in a way,” said Morris, currently an M.F.A. candidate and graduate fellow at Ohio State University. “And it gives that younger self space to exist in a way that’s liberated rather than repressed, which is a way you’re not presenting yourself growing up in Zanesville, especially 20 years ago. … You can’t really change the past, but you can sort of reimagine things. And that’s sort of been an aspect of the thesis, asking, ‘What if the goal in your artwork is to reimagine, reclaim, redesign your personal history in a way that you feel reconciles the trauma of it?’”
Growing up, Morris initially planned to pursue a career in music, having spent his early teenage years idolizing the likes of David Bowie, Prince and Madonna. Eventually, though, he came to understand that what he was really drawn toward was expression, which gradually took form in his photography. In this pursuit, the various influences he absorbed as a teen – not just the pop stars but the photographers and fashion designers that existed in their orbits – provided a rich visual well on which to draw as Morris worked to develop his own perspective behind the lens.
“I think what happens is you end up being a sort of collection of references until you’ve reformed it into a thing that feels more you,” Morris said. “There are always these references that you then sort of break and remake.”
In “Elegance,” these touchpoints are broken and rebuilt via a process that uncovered deeper personal and cultural meanings. Rather than presenting the original photo as a crisp portrait, Morris silk screened it onto a sheet of brown paper, repeating the image until it became unrecognizable in places. “The way you can disintegrate into shapes when you’re not seen,” Morris said.
Indeed, there are layers of intention embedded in every aspect of the piece, from the use of the brown paper, meant to elicit and issues of colorism and gatekeeping that continue to exist within the Black and queer communities, to the repetition of the image, which creates a blurring and a purposeful sense of movement. “Seeing the Black queer body publicly in movement and performance feels like a refusal to this history of hiding,” Morris wrote in an artist statement accompanying the exhibit, going on to reference everything from ballroom culture to the dance marathons of the 1920s.
Morris traced his habit of intricately layering ideas in his work to the Michaelis School of Fine Art in Cape Town, South Africa, where he studied for six months following his graduation from CCAD. While he said the instruction at CCAD centered technique, Cape Town proved to be a more conceptual space, in comparison. “They’d be like, ‘Oh, we don’t care about your technique. What’s the idea?’” Morris said. “And I struggled with that for a long time, but now it’s important to my process. You can make a pristine image, but it means nothing if the thought behind it isn’t supporting an idea.”
“Elegance Is Refusal,” along with other similarly themed works in the ongoing series, has allowed Morris to spend time excavating his past, as well as the history of the region in which he grew up, leaving him with a growing understanding that not everything deserves or even needs resolution.
“I think the biggest thing I’ve learned is that you can reconcile without resolving,” he said. “You can move on without having all the answers. And I think that's sort of probably going to happen consistently for the rest of my life.”