The MoCA presents
an interview with
The MoCA conducts interviews with prominent artists who have gained wide recognition, as well as emerging artists who have shown exceptional potential in their fields. The published interviews help our readers learn about some of the most promising artistic voices of our times.
The MoCA conducted an in-depth interview with Debra Wright, who shows how she very efficiently wields her considerable artists aptitudes through various social commentary. The mood of the interview was conversational and has been lightly edited for relevance and clarity.
I’ve always gravitated toward art and artists that make me contemplate life outside the gallery walls.
The MoCA > Hello, and welcome to THE MAGAZINE OF CONTEMPORARY ART! Before we begin, as always, it will be an excellent idea for our readers to check out your profile page on our website to familiarize themselves with your art and activism.
The MoCA > Let’s start with getting an idea about who you are and what you do.
I am an artist and activist residing in the Washington metropolitan area. I work primarily with found objects and utilize them to convey commentary on social justice, human rights and the pursuit of personal identity. I exhibit internationally in traditional venues and also engage with my community through public art.
Love and Bullets I
it’s a privilege to give a voice to someone’s experience, and I consider the ability to do that a victory for all of us.
The MoCA > For some of us, it’s a magic moment that triggers the artist within us, for others it’s just the culmination of an idea. For you, was there a point in your life when you decided to pursue this profession?
I often dreamt of becoming a professional artist but was too timid in my younger years to pursue it. As I started to approach the 50 yard line, I felt this gnawing. Something was missing and it was very frustrating. I never harbored any resentment for the path my life had taken up to that point, but I knew that the time was now and the timing was perfect. I didn’t have the courage back then to create the work I’m making now.
The MoCA > Even a cursory glance at your body of works will reveal to the viewers the relentless activism that lies in it. What has led to it, and have you always felt that art is somehow more than just “art for art’s sake?”
While I do value work that is masterfully created or is highly aesthetic, I’ve always gravitated toward art and artists that make me contemplate life outside the gallery walls. In terms of my own practice, I express myself through my work. I have a lot I want to say, and this is how I say it.
I try to give people something they’ve never seen before that hits them like a hammer. Love it or hate it, you’ll never forget it.
And So It All Falls Apart
The MoCA > Let’s stick to this notion a bit longer, especially since it’s so very important in these turbulent times. How do you see yourself as making some difference in the society through your art?
It’s very important that my work appear in public and in the most accessible way possible. I gain the most from witnessing others engage with it, relate to it, find their own personal meaning in it. I feel as if we enter a sacred space together, one where we can approach topics that are otherwise too difficult to discuss. In this gap, there’s a place for healing. There are important conversations we need to be having with each other.
The MoCA > With the bold statements you make through your art, there certainly were times when your passion for creation had led to a sliver of positive change in society. Give us some idea about those life experiences.
I continue to be honored by patrons that share how they find great personal meaning in my work. Regardless of how it speaks to them, it’s a privilege to give a voice to someone’s experience, and I consider the ability to do that a victory for all of us.
Black and White Photography
I juxtaposed syringes with a butterfly quite intentionally to allow the viewer the ability to fill in the blank on what the meaning is between the two.
The MoCA > What inspiration do you always rely on while making your art? Has there been a constant source, or has it approach you like waves? Given the era we’re living through, we suspect it’s the latter?
Inspiration comes in waves with such velocity that it can get unnerving. This usually happens in the hours before sunrise when it’s quiet and I have a chance to sit in silence and process everything that’s happening around me. It’s rapid fire as an idea enters, I commit it to paper, and then another concept takes its place. I go back later and revisit everything, moving on what works. It’s a very private process and I don’t like having anyone around when it happens.
The MoCA > Let’s turn to some commercial aspects now. Has your art been well received by art lovers and art galleries? What kind of feedback do you normally get from them?
When I stopped generating pieces that I thought everyone else wanted and began creating work that spoke to my soul, that’s when things took flight. Conceptually, my work is very simple in form and design, but the power comes from unique concepts. I try to give people something they’ve never seen before that hits them like a hammer. Love it or hate it, you’ll never forget it.
The MoCA > Focusing on one of your stunning works, in fact, the one that forms the main image on your profile – Love and Bullets I – the message is clear. The image has the ability to shock and awe. Tell us a bit more about it.
Love and Bullets I serves as commentary on domestic violence. It represents the downward, cyclic nature of gift giving after incidents of physical assault. To wit:
After the argument
An extension of abuse
As I accept, I signal my aggressor
“Yes, you own me. I know my place.”
Repayment demanded in intimate favors
The cost of such lavishes
Is lost dignity
And I remain
The MoCA > Let’s turn now to a couple of others. Frankly, we were moved by all, but just to pick two for the purpose of discussion. First, Resurrection: what statement are you making beyond what’s evident from the title?
Resurrection addresses the tragedy of opioid addiction. I juxtaposed syringes with a butterfly quite intentionally to allow the viewer the ability to fill in the blank on what the meaning is between the two. The syringe is clearly an implement of addiction and the butterfly the universal symbol for the soul. I trust the viewer to interpret it as it best applies to their experience. By allowing this place for interpretation, it gives the work greater impact. I’ve had people tell me it conveys their grief for someone lost due to overdose while others celebrate their recovery in it. To me, it signifies both beginnings and endings. Of interest, the injection sites on the butterfly occurred completely by accident. I had no idea I had placed them in the veins until I went to process the photographs. I like to think that’s an intervention of some sort coming from somewhere outside of myself.
When the pandemic hit, I put everything on the backburner and devoted my time and talents to mutual aid.
Black and White Photography
The MoCA > There are two other pieces that caught our eyes, and they belong to the same series: Dying To Be Beautiful. The messaging appears somewhat non-linear. Can you explain the work?
Dying to Be Beautiful utilizes ammunition and spent casings to illustrate the dangers of American beauty products. These cosmetics contain hazardous toxins and carcinogenic compounds that are perfectly legal for sale here, yet have been banned overseas.
The European Union has banned close to 2,000 chemicals and additives from use in cosmetics and personal care products. In contrast, the FDA still permits the usage of these, and they can be found in everything from makeup to soaps, shampoos, hair dyes, perfumes and even first aid supplies. When this piece appears in exhibition, I produce the E.U. itemization alongside it, which is a document that is 58 pages in length, single spaced.
The MoCA > How has the brutal pandemic treated you? And we ask not just from the medical standpoint, which is obviously beyond measure, but mostly from the point of your artistic profession, how well you’ve been able to incorporate the strange idea of lockdown and what some see as infringement of personal liberty, and even the result it’s had on your viewership and sales?
When the pandemic hit, I put everything on the backburner and devoted my time and talents to mutual aid. My people were suffering, and as a skilled seamstress, I applied mass fabrication techniques I’d been taught earlier in life and began generating masks for anyone that needed them at no charge. As of this writing, I’ve given 1,041 free masks away to individuals and organizations all over the country. This has left me feeling incredibly energized and I’ve rolled that over into new ventures that benefit the community by creating public art for an expanding audience. People are hungry for it. They desperately need a positive diversion and I think it’s pulling us closer together than we have ever been before.
The Space Race (from Period Pieces Series)
I feel like we’re truly living in a global village now and that’s a good thing.
The MoCA > If there’s been a positive outcome that has arisen from the coronavirus, what is it? And we mean it’s effects on specifically visual arts?
We’ve learned that we are stronger together and that we have the power to save each other. I think we underestimated our ability to connect and motivate each other under duress, but we’ve exceeded our own expectations. I feel like we’re truly living in a global village now and that’s a good thing. It’s made us more willing to adapt and grow outside of our comfort zones. For me, that’s translated into more engagement with my community through renegade art. These unauthorized installations used to be torn down and carted away. Now, I’m being asked to share more and am also being given permission to do so.
The MoCA > Do you see your works to evolve in a post-COVID world?
While I truly enjoy gallery exhibitions, I’m seeing myself take a hard turn towards public art. I’ve benefited so much from engaging with viewers in the community and I think they’re eager to see more.
We need equity on a global scale. Everyone has the same worth, the same value. We need to level the playing field across the board.
Miss Me? (from Period Pieces Series)
The MoCA > For an artist, the future is never set in stone, so it’s always hard for you to plan where you go from here. Do you see yourself on a curve to elevate causes that you deeply believe in or are there any major stylistic changes in your approach you plan on implementing?
Absolutely. I’ve started approaching organizations that address causes that matter to me, reaching out and saying, “I’m here. This is what I do. How can I help?” I believe that each of us is born with the ability to change the world and I hope to continue sharing my time and talents in furtherance of others.
The MoCA > We’ve really appreciated your help in understanding the artist and her art, in this case, mixed in with a whole lot of your passion for social justice. So, thank you for that! Before we close this conversation, can you tell us what ideal set of affairs would mitigate your quest for social justice?
We need equity on a global scale. Everyone has the same worth, the same value. We need to level the playing field across the board. In my industry, I’d love to see female, non-binary and artists of color gain equal representation. Everyone deserves the right to speak their truth and to be heard.