Elegance is Refusal: Visualizing a Southern Ohio Gothic
Marcus Morris’s Elegance is Refusal stages intimate vignettes of a Black Queer Appalachia. The artist uses monochrome film and digital photography, cyanotype, and video installation to craft images that celebrate his connections to southeastern Ohio while also disrupting the visual representation of Appalachia. Morris’s work contends with normative ideas about community, identity, land, and memory in a multimodal body of work. Elegance is Refusal recovers marginalized Appalachian histories and reimagines them formally in portraiture, glamourous editorials, and avant-garde moving images. Morris offers his vision of Black Queer Appalachia by way of anachronistic tableaux that encompass a range of references from popular media.

Toni Morrison’s acclaimed novel Beloved is a source text for Elegance is Refusal, the story set not far from the artist’s ancestral hometown of Tablertown, Ohio. The novel also shares a landscape with a central sequence in the exhibit, shot on location in a sprawling clearing, with the artist and his muse, Xavier, assuming the roles of mother and daughter. The image of mother and daughter is an iconography that the artist uses to construct an active archive of Queer culture. In the clearing sequence, Morris affirms the reality of the expansive familial arrangements of Queer people.

The artist has a deep interest in fashion and its editorial imagery. The exhibition's title, Elegance is Refusal, is an aphorism gleaned from famed Vogue editor Diana Vreeland: “Elegance is innate. It has nothing to do with being well-dressed. Elegance is refusal.” Morris repurposes Vreeland’s remark into a generative aesthetic for Black and Queer people. The work in the exhibition blends temporalities and melds the artist’s personal histories with disparate cultural reference points. Morris collapses all of his references into a singular photographic style that enlivens forms of Black and Queer performance from the late 19th century to the present. The video work in the exhibition plays a strong supporting role. Elegance is Refusal takes its viewers on a dreamlike excursion to the hollows of Appalachian Ohio that could just as well be an editorial in a glossy high fashion magazine.

— Qaman Omar

Artist Statement
My work explores liberation via imagmaking. I am interested in the way photography and moving image can be used as tools of personal and global liberty. This is explored with traditional and alternative photographic methods, video, installation and performance.

Elegance Is Refusal, my current project, aims to reimagine the past by making new images where trauma existed. Beloved by Toni Morrison provides a loose framework for engaging childhood trauma as a Black queer millennial in Appalachian Ohio. Elegance, to me a feminine of ‘cool,’ long associated with Black culture, considers Black queer and femme identity as a source of power and refusal in a White supremacist patriarchal capitalist system. Elegance Is Refusal comes from the editor Diana Vreeland, who says, “Elegance is innate. It has nothing to do with being well dressed. Elegance is refusal.” The project employs theatrical costuming to set the stage of a Reconstruction-era landscape. Working with Xavier Cruz, cast to play my younger self, I engage race, gender, sexuality, history, class, and the promise of liberty via queer mothering. This series of images and video is made near land my family has occupied in Ohio since being emancipated in the early 19th century.

Reclaiming history and identity in my art practice feel essential for liberation. Catharsis that happens in the photographic process, even without reconciliation can be freeing. One can make a picture, find peace and move on. It is an offering to the invisible Black, queer and Appalachian people who were ghosts so I could be in the wild.

Marcus Morris' work explores liberation via imagemaking that engages memory, identity and history. Research into Black, queer and Appalachian culture as well as performance inform his artistic practice. His current body of work, Elegance Is Refusal, imagines the potential of reclaiming one’s younger self with the works of Toni Morrison, bell hooks and the origins of photography as a guide.

Marcus Morris (b. 1983) is an MFA Fellow in Photography from The Ohio State University (2024) and received his BFA from Columbus College of Art & Design (2012). In addition, he spent six months studying Art and Photography at The Michaelis School of Fine Art at The University of Cape Town in Cape Town, South Africa. He has exhibited work at NoPlace Gallery, Herron Gallery, 934 Gallery and Urban Arts Space. He is a founder of Cineseries, an experimental film program series at The Wexner Center for the Arts, was recipient of the Greater Columbus Arts Council Grant, and is co-curator of the 2024 Fotofocus Biennale. He is a Graduate Teaching Associate at The Ohio State University.