Derrick Adams Brings A Practical Edge to Conceptual Art

fayemi shakur

 Derrick Adams, Crossroads, 2012 Derrick Adams (b. 1970) is a multidisciplinary artist working in performance, painting, sculpture and music. His latest solo project is at Aljira Center for Contemporary Art in Newark. Derrick Adams: THE HOLDOUT — A Social Sculpture with Curated Music Program organized by Dexter Wimberly, consisted of a large-scale, pyramid-like sculpture, along with photography and text-based work. 

THE HOLDOUT installation at Aljira With this project, Adams created a conceptual work with a functional edge. The Holdout featured a radio station that broadcasted recorded and live music, talks with special guests and other programming selected by Derrick Adams and the exhibition’s curator, Dexter Wimberly. Around the gallery, works from Adams' “Welcome to Monument City” series, 2009-present, were exhibited, including new photographs and sculpture. 

Positioned in the middle of Aljira’s main gallery, THE HOLDOUT pyramid installation represented an outpost, bunker, fortress or temple. “Though the term holdout is often associated within the real estate realm, I am more interested in its broader applications, and how and why a person or community would have reason to holdout and fully understand the true value of one’s property and culture — culture as a form of capital,” Adams says.

The show closed on April 25 with an epic, day-long series of performances and DJ sets by guest hosts and artists: Jerry Gant, Folakeforever, Livelle Collins, Ryan Lyons, Noise Cans, Jayson Keeling, Edwin Ramoran, Designer Imposter, Dexter Wimberly broadcasts on Holdout RadioJahmir, Queen Ella and Devin Morris from 3 dot zine. DJs have included Adams, Heather Hart, Adejoke Tugbiyele, Margie “Mia X” Johnson and members of her collective from People’s Open Mic, Kevin Darmanie, Nyugen E. Smith, Ezrakh, Rahsaan Gandy, curator Dexter Wimberly and myself. The broadcasts have covered a wide range of topics and musical genres: house cleaning music, cinematic music by black composers, the slave trade, LGBTQ rights, original poetry, music from the African continent and hip-hop culture.

Rahsaan Gandy (right) on the air with Derrick Adams

Week by week Adams and Dexter Wimberly built a sculpture of a different kind — a social sculpture that includes the program guests and gallery visitors who have participated in the radio broadcast. 

Adams’ intensely intellectual eye and critical approach to art is both refreshing and challenging. 

Listen to the archived broadcasts here

Inspiration and Process

THE HOLDOUT installation view FS: What inspired you to develop THE HOLDOUT? What is the significance of the pyramid structure?

 Derrick Adams, The Root of it All, 2012, from Welcome to Monument City series ADAMS: The idea around the show was something I had been thinking about for a long time. It’s based on a broader idea about culture as capital and historical experience. The pyramid represents historical presence. THE HOLDOUT highlights that value system by representing various aspects of urban culture that are sometimes seen by outsiders as a minor contribution, when in fact the cultural capital created by the black community is appropriated globally. Music, art, fashion and linguistics are the most easily recognizable aspects of black culture to find their way outside the community without acknowledgement.  THE HOLDOUT attempts to draw attention to this. 

Guest host Ezrakh after his DJ set with friends and artists The exhibition includes new photographs and sculpture continuing my “Welcome to Monument City” series that reinforce the concept of history and the coded language of the black diaspora. The pyramid form operates as sculpture and functional object for gathering. Within, individuals can take part in discussions ranging from social political issues to music, fashion, etc.

FS: How does this project relate to other elements you explore in your work and how would you describe your artistic and creative process?

ADAMS: I’ve used history and iconography in my work in the past. I’m interested in inserting historical context into a visually digestible experience for the viewer. I like conversations about music, art, fashion and culture. I try to subconsciously use those references and conversations in my work. I don’t try to over-think the work before it’s made. I think about what I want to see and how to make that a part of the work based on things I’m interested in and things others are interested in, too.

FS: How does the show relate to art, music, culture and cultural preservation?

Poet Margie ADAMS: When you think about culture and the urban landscape you think about the contributors to that culture. It’s about self-reflection, cultural identity and empowerment. Within the urban landscape and culture, sometimes artists are responding subconsciously to restraints and constraints they experience in life. What you hear in rap music and the blues, those are reactions to what happens in mainstream culture.

Heather Hart selected cinematic music by black composers for her broadcastAt Aljira, we’re having a conversation about ideas around art, the sculpture, photos and text-inspired work in the show. It really serves as an outpost to have other voices in the show. Allowing others to host brings new conversations and ideas into the space. It’s about highlighting ideas that we feel are priceless and sharing that with the audience. Thinking about this exhibition in those terms, in a non-profit space, goes beyond what happens in a commercial gallery.

Musically, jazz and R&B tie into a significant part of history. These songs are can be seen as journalism than just entertainment. Some of the songs address things that happened in America in a way that documents history or a moment of/in time. I think that’s a significant contribution to modern culture.

For instance, with “Wake Up Everybody” by Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes, “What Can I Do For You” by Labelle or even bringing hip hop into it, “C.R.E.A.M.” by Wu-Tang, these artists were speaking on their experiences. Popular culture changes the dynamic of the music but these people created the formula that other people follow in reference to their work. I’m interested in getting to the source. To me that’s what this show is about — the source.

Writing on the Wall installation view FS: What ideas are being communicated in the photo series “Welcome to Monument City” and the text based work in the show?

ADAMS: In my neighborhood the t-shirt shop presents a certain literal and conceptual response. It inserts political commentary. A lot of what’s sold on t-shirts in urban shops ends up in popular culture and entertainment by people who have no relationship to the origin it came from but they use it because it has a certain form of meaning. That fascinates me.

Clothing Designer, Zunyda (right) with artist Stephen McKenzie and gallery visitor during live broadcast All the photographs in the show are from an ongoing series from 2009. We all represent a physical form. Every landscape is made up of two things—people and architecture. The photos are trying to create a landscape using the body as an architectural structure. They attempt to show the viewer how much their physical body affects their environment. Certain things are built differently based on certain body forms or how people want to be seen. Dynasties are sometimes built huge and ridiculous to show who lived there. The pyramid
sculpture and the tier layout of the t-shirts suggest a form.

Derrick Adams, Elevated Platform. 2015, C print, 36  x 20Elevated Platform represents a foundational sculpture that holds these things up and I’m on top of it. I’m balancing myself on this foundation, the books below it. The books could also be read as stairs.

Derrick Adams, Please Come Back, 2015, C print, 25 x 36Please Come Back is showing the idea of scale. I’m inside the building, an architectural landscape. It’s a longing for relationship aesthetic type of piece. It’s a negotiation between this history and contemporary. The sculpture I’m holding in my hand is a hollowed out lock; it’s part of a door, it represents security.

FS: If every generation has a “soundtrack”, what do you think the soundtrack is for this current moment in time? How did music inspire you growing up?

ADAMS: Everyone has an individual soundtrack. It’s based on our openness to certain things. At one time, music wasn’t global like it is now. Now we have more options in what we can listen to. For this show, I’m presenting the variations of soundtracks that people are inspired by and grew up to. My soundtracks have to do with milestones in my life. My father is a musician and I grew up listening to all types of music.

One of the things that’s fun about working with other people is talking to them about what they want to play. It’s not a curated station based on pleasing the audience. It’s about inviting the audience to listen to you. I think people are curious about what people listen to. 

FS: How have you and Dexter Wimberly collaborated on this project and what do you enjoy or appreciate about working with him?

Derrick Adams broadcasts his clean up music show on Holdout Radio with assistance from sound artist John Dombroski John Dombroski checking map that shows that listeners are tuning in from as far as AfricaADAMS: I formed this project a while ago but was fortunate to have Dexter help me organize the programming because he understands the ideas behind the show. He’s been instrumental in reaching out to people to participate in the show. Derrick Adams with photographers Laylah Amatullah Barrayn (right) and Adama Delphine FawunduThere are certain things in certain cultures that aren’t communicated through words; they’re communicated through experience and he gets it. I think that’s important. We constantly talk about what would be a good fit for the programming and he understands what the project needs as a curator and an organizer. It’s a performance piece in a way that people have to be organized around it and willing to entertain.

FS: What can folks expect to hear on Holdout Radio? What is the significance of utilizing broadcast radio in the project?

THE HOLDOUT logoADAMS: The history of broadcasting through independent and pirate radio stations doesn’t have much reach but it creates a certain kind of interest. People that listen to those types of independent broadcasts are interested in a kind of alternate view. Each host on Holdout Radio can talk about what they want to talk about because it doesn’t have a corporate radio structure. People are free to say what they want. I think that’s how a lot of pirate and independent radio stations operate. There’s a lot of trust involved in the sharing of these ideas.

I’m always interested in doing things I’ve never done before. Unlike working in my studio alone, this is a collaborative project. THE HOLDOUT portion of the show is about people allowing you to be yourself and listening to you be you. I’m interested in their perspective and letting that be part of the conversation.

Artists and friends: Michael Chuapoco, John Dombroski, Renee Cox, Rahsaan Gandy, Derrick Adams and Nicole Awai after a day at THE HOLDOUTArtists Andrew Demirjian (l) and Dahlia Elsayed (r) dropped by to check out the broadcast. Aljira Executive Director, Victor L. Davson (center) The space is for the people, I don’t frame the conversation. I’m there to play music from the culture and participate in the rich oral tradition of sharing what I’ve experienced and allowing others to do the same. I’m grateful to have had people come weekly to hear the broadcast firsthand. We’ve talked mostly about community challenges for creative. It’s important for me to communicate through this installation that the value is not always in the physical property. You are valuable and you take it with you wherever you go. The “it” is for you to define. Self-worth can’t be marginalized, so recognize it, value it, hold on to it. That is the essence of THE HOLDOUT.

More about Derrick Adams

Photo: Qualeel JonesDerrick received his BA from Pratt Institute and his MFA from Columbia University and is an alumnus of The Skowhegan School of Painting & Sculpture. He has exhibited widely in New York, Chicago, Miami, Boston, Aspen, London and Paris. He has participated in Performa 05 and 13, and his work has been included in museum exhibitions at PS1/MoMA, New York (Greater New York, 2005); the Contemporary Art Museum, Houston; Grey Art Gallery, New York University; and Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, in Radical Presence: Black Performance in Contemporary Art, 2012-14, and on numerous occasions at The Studio Museum in Harlem, New York. He is a recipient of a 2009 Louis Comfort Tiffany Award and a 2014  S.J. Weiler Fund Award.

The pyramid structure is composed of 36 smaller triangles. When the show comes down, the triangles will be dismantled, signed and numbered and available for purchase through Aljira, a non-profit art space, to support its mission. THE HOLDOUT was developed with special thanks to artist and cultural producer Jaret Vadera. To listen to the archived radios visit To inquire about acquiring a piece of the structure, contact

fayemi shakur is a writer and cultural worker based in Newark. Her work has been featured online and in print in The New York Times, Nueva Luz Photographic Journal, and HYCIDE Magazine.