How artist T.J. Dedeaux-Norris turns exploitation on its head

Emma Gray/Little Village

T.J. Dedeaux-Norris once dreamed of becoming a famous rapper.

“I came to Art through my tumultuous experience of trying to ‘make it’ in Los Angeles as a vulnerable teenage girl on my own,” T.J. explains on their website. “I explored the roles of rapper, video hoe, certified audio engineer, certified massage therapist, phone sex operator, stripper, prostitute, a sexually exploited, uneducated woman, porn star, occasional drug dealer, barista, customer service call center agent, professor and art star — which now all inform my art and social practice.”

T.J. and I met at a snow cone stand in Iowa City on a hot summer day in 2017. T.J. came to Iowa as a Grant Wood Fellowship recipient and has been a tenure track assistant professor of painting and drawing at the University of Iowa since 2017. It was truly an “Iowa City moment” — one minute we are talking about snow cones, the next we are discussing healing modalities, art and sexuality.

T.J. was 15 when they moved from the Mississippi gulf coast to L.A. to pursue a career in rap, and found themself among some of rap’s biggest heavy-hitters in the early 2000s.

“I was in the room with a lot of men,” T.J. said, “and whether you have talent or not, there was always a negotiation of sex.”

By the age of 20, “I was tired of trying to negotiate pussy,” T.J. said, so they enrolled in audio engineering school. T.J. wanted to learn and develop their own technical skills, produce their own albums and take ownership of their path forward.

Once T.J. completed their training in engineering, they applied for a job at a production company, and the white woman interviewing them said T.J. was too little and distracting to be able to do the job they’d trained to do.

“Exploitation is built into all these systems,” T.J. realized. “I was born into this system that was meant to do these things to me or I was going to fall victim to it somehow. It was absolutely heartbreaking to realize the rap world, art world and academia has a lot of the same things. I worked so hard to pull myself out of reach of being exploited in various ways.”

Rather than allow themself to be exploited or degraded, T.J. decided they would, in a sense, exploit themself: T.J. began crafting songs, videos, performances and installations mimicking the more toxic elements of the music industry, as well as other fraught areas of American culture including racial and gender stereotypes, obscene symbols of wealth, the hypocrisy of the fine art world and human trafficking.

“A lot of my work is thinking about, how can I control my narrative?” T.J. said. “How do you flip exploitation?”

T.J. works in a variety of media — painting, music, dance, installations, videos, the internet, performance art — to, as they put it, “explore identity from the inside out.” T.J.’s most vital tool, though, is their own body. T.J.’s work has seen them fondling and grinding on top of multi-million-dollar sculptures on the UCLA campus for a tongue-in-cheek rap video; gluing their lips shut then prying them open; and cutting their tongue with a razor and dragging it against the walls of a museum.

In 2009, as a 28-year-old UCLA undergrad, T.J. performed a piece called “F@cking Art History.” During a summer residency at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Maine, T.J. walked into a semi-public library and attached a dildo to a stack of art history books.

T.J. Dedeaux-Norris’s “F@cking Art History.” — courtesy of the artist

“I proceeded to pornographically fuck the books in a semi-private performance.”

“There was a huge backlash when I performed it initially. It was presented on video at an exhibition on a loop. … It wasn’t a nude — I was butt-ass naked and my fellow white female residents had a really hard time and thought it was disgusting. They would say ‘who does that?’ They thought it was crass and all about shock value.” They couldn’t see the merit or significance in the work at the time.

“It’s talking about consumption of all of this knowledge and how to embody it. It’s also all built on exploitation. Who’s fucking who? Am I fucking art history, or is it fucking me? Is academia fucking me, or am I fucking it?”

T.J. went on to earn their M.F.A. in painting and printmaking from Yale and found they “felt more like a performer when making paintings than when I was making performances,” they said. “I started thinking about what it means to be in my body in my embodied experience as someone who is a Black politicized person who comes from a multi-raced background and who navigates the world radically, in a more fluid way.”

“There was a place I got post-grad school in the studio where I was seeing the frame of the painting as almost a type of embodiment, like a figure. I was often projecting, attempting to work through fabrics — familiar fabrics, familiar smells, scents, curtains, bed sheets — in order to think about form and personhood, and using the frame as a vessel to do that.”

T.J. earned a $25,000 National Endowment for the Arts grant in 2017. The Figge Museum in Davenport will host an exhibition titled “T.J. Dedeaux-Norris Presents the Estate of Tameka Jenean Norris” from Oct. 10 through Jan. 31, delving into the different chapters of the artist’s life.

On Mother’s Day, performed an emotional piece via Facebook Live. They shaved their long hair on camera and discussed their spiritual and emotional connection with their hair while a childhood photo of T.J. and their mom burned over a candle on the toilet next to them. “What does it mean to be in my body and have the type of hair I have?” T.J. said. “Hair is connected to vanity and what is valuable.”

T.J. views art as a “healing practice” and hopes their art can not only help heal them, but others who have experienced sexual exploitation and trafficking.

“I don’t want to hold secrets anymore. The more people say ‘me too,’ I feel less alone by saying it out loud,” T.J. said. “[I have] lived this shit, and I don’t say it out loud for street cred, but to understand my own narrative and to understand I am alive and it’s a miracle.”

T.J. Dedeaux-Norris in Iowa City. — courtesy of the artist

Natalie Benway-Correll LISW is a psychotherapist in private practice in Coralville. She has a certification in sexuality studies from the University of Iowa and is currently pursuing additional licensure with the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 285.