Profile: Derrick Adams (1970)


Derrick Adams is a New York–based, multidisciplinary artist working in performance, video, sound, textile- and paper-based collage, and multimedia sculpture. His practice is rooted in deconstructivist philosophies such as the fragmentation and manipulation of structure and surface, and the marriage of complex and improbable forms. Through these techniques, Adams examines the force of popular culture and the media on the perception and construction of self-image.

Early life

Derrick Adams was born in 1970 in Baltimore, Maryland. After a briefly teaching elementary school, Adams attended the Pratt Institute. Following his 1996 graduation, Adams earned his MFA from Columbia University, completing his degree in 2003.


In 2016, Adams created an installation (titled Derrick Adams: THE HOLDOUT — A Social Sculpture with Curated Music Program) for the Aljira Center for Contemporary Art in Newark, NJ, that featured a large pyramid enclosing a broadcasting radio station. According to Adams, the pyramids in his work reference the long presence of Black culture and the cultural capital built by black people over history.

Adams’s 2016 show at Pioneer Works explored Black characters in popular culture. Titled Derrick Adams: ON, the exhibition included collages, sculptures, and lampshades that evoked characters from popular movies and TV shows like In Living Color and The Matrix.

The Studio Museum in Harlem mounted Adams’s 2017 exhibition Derrick Adams: Patrick Kelley, The Journey, in which the artist created mood boards for a proposed autobiography of the fashion designer Patrick Kelley, whose techniques with formal composition resonated with Adams in terms of the construction of identity.

In 2017, Adams used the archival collections of the Stony Island Arts Bank (along with material from other collections), to create a solo show there, Future People. An installation environment featured a looping video that projected images and quotes from Black authors and speakers. A series of collages in the exhibition, Orbiting Us #1-#10, depicted items designed by Charles Harrison, the first Black executive at Sears, Roebuck and Company. Adams used the exhibition to highlight the productive power of Black people to imagine and innovate through difficult circumstances.

At the Museum of Arts and Design in 2018, Adams showed work inspired by The Negro Motorist Green Book. Titled Sanctuary, Adams’s show featured an installation environment structured by a miniaturized highway that ran through the galleries, passing collages that evoked locations listed in the guidebook. Sanctuary celebrated the leisure time and success of African Americans even during the Jim Crow era, partly illuminated by small houses resembling milk cartons.

In 2018, the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver presented a survey of Adams’s work spanning 2014-2017, including sculptures, installations, and works on paper. Titled, Derrick Adams: Transmission, the exhibition showcased three bodies of work: “Future People” (2017), “Fabrication Station” (2016), and a series of “Boxhead” sculptures (2014), exploring “Derrick Adams’s ongoing study of racial identity as it is both filtered through popular culture and also reimagined for the future.”

Derrick Adams was awarded a 2018 Gordon Parks Foundation Fellowship, and participated in a two-person exhibition, American Family: Derrick Adams and Deana Lawson, at the Foundation as part of the award. Adams says about the exhibition, “Parks’ influence…goes beyond the visual, into the meaning and purpose of why I feel it’s so important to show the many facets of black American life in ways that shed light onto the complexity and richness of our past, present and future.”

In 2019, Adams’s work was featured in the Fox TV hit, Empire. The art work in the series depicts the main characters, Cookie and Lucious Lyon (played by Taraji P. Henson and Terrence Howard), and is part of a real-life limited-edition collection of objects, “Empire x Derrick Adams collection”, which supports Turnaround Arts, an arts-based school program at the Kennedy Center. This wasn’t the first time his work was showcased on a hit american TV show. In 2017, Issa Rea included his work in her HBO comedy Insecure.

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