Michi Meko, Directional on the Fringe, mixed media on paper
Michi Meko, Right Turn, mixed media on paper
Michi Meko, Wash DC: Float the Swamp, mixed media on paper
In the summer of 2015, I almost drowned.
Inviting this life changing event's influence into my studio practice, my recent paintings and sculptures focus on the African American experience of navigating public spaces while remaining buoyant within them .
I read in an interview with Atlanta Magazine that Mami Wata saved your life. Who is she and what is her backstory?
Well, Mami Wata is like a patois for Mother Water- an African water deity, that’s a part of African culture and spiritual belief systems, sort of like a folklore or a mermaid. She is a spirit that abducts her followers while they’re out swimming or boating, and she invites them into the underworld or takes them into the underworld, and if you survive, then you’ll have a new spiritual understanding and you’ll grow wealthy and be more attractive. And more easy going after that encounter.
Find the interview
Zoumana Sane (dates unknown, Senegal)
Mami Wata, circa 1987
Collection of Herbert M. and Shelley Cole
Photo by Don Cole
Who or what inspires you to continue being resilient?
Well, I think my mom and dad are inspirational in that resilience. But, also a belief system that they’ve provided me with. To be resilient. And then also, when I think about the history of black people, then I have no choice but to be resilient to continue to go forward. I would give credit to my parents and then some to myself, but then looking at the whole history of black people, you have to be resilient. To make it in the world!
It’s like you’re doing it for more than just yourself. It’s for something greater than you.
Yeah, it’s definitely something bigger than me. Like the Wutang. Teach the truth to the young black youth. Wutang!
Who’s an artist that made a strong impact on you?
My friends that are artists have a strong impact on me. My big brother. So far, a famous Serena Williams and Venus, Solange Knowles, poet and scholar Fred Moten, Jack Whitten, Ouattara Watts, Nari Ward because of his material choices, Mark Bardford because of process and scale, Julie Mehertu, Anselm Kiefer and so on… Sometimes I feel silly naming famous people, but the arts are so inspiring.
Anselm Kiefer, Aurora, 2015–17, oil, emulsion, acrylic, shellac, and sediment of an electrolysis on canvas, 110¼ × 149⅝ × 3⅝ inches.
PHOTO: ©GEORGES PONCET; ART: ©ANSELM KIEFER/COURTESY GAGOSIAN
Foam, battery canisters, Sprague Electric Company resistors and capacitors, and mango seeds 3 figures, 120 x 72 x 72 inches each.
In collaboration with MASS MoCA, North Adams, Massachusetts. Image courtesy the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong.
Jack Whitten, Black Monolith, II: Homage to Ralph Ellison The Invisible Man, 1994, acrylic and mixed media on canvas: molasses, copper, salt, coal ash, chocolate, onion, herbs, rust, eggshell, razor blade.
©JACK WHITTEN/COURTESY THE ARTIST AND HAUSER & WIRTH
History forms layers over a particular location- What’s a historical backstory that influenced your perception of an area?
I’m always mining for history and content. I’m also trying to tell a bigger story than just the regional one... but it’s just where I am and what I know most about. But, I’m always searching for history and searching for narratives outside of here… But then in a way trying to make them fit and relate, or bend them to my understanding as best as I can.
The last wall drawing I did in LA was very personal to LA. I took natural materials from there, palm fronds, and created sculptures out of them. That was the common thing that I could find, because there wasn’t a lot of junk in the area, but there was a lot of palm fronds. So, I was able to make work that was personal to the people in LA, but then still keep that influence on it.
What’s a tradition you carry with you today?
Man, I carry so many! Southern culture is full of tradition, but for me, I like to look for Africanisms in culture. Okra is an African plant- I still plant okra in my garden every summer. I have a bottle tree. I still cook like my mom’s mom. I go fishing like my uncle. There are a lot of things I do that are family oriented things. There’s so many that I know, they become second nature… or, tradition.
So, I read that you went to New Orleans. What was your impression there?
Oh, *laughs* New Orleans. How do I explain New Orleans? I’ll explain it like this. Because, I have a friend who has the perfect Air BnB, so for me, New Orleans is the perfect place to hide out if you do it right. You don’t have to do all the partying. I think New Orleans is like… romantic in a poetic form. It’s romantic like Leon Bridges, floating through the air that’s hot and heavy and thinking about Lisa Sawyer- The beautiful lady from New Orleans. I think it’s perfect for doing nothing, but everything at the same time. Plus, it’s full of culture and magic.
Palm trees are easy to plant due to their ball-like roots and were used to spruce up the barren desert of Los Angeles. They became a symbol of wealth, luxury, and vacation.
Do you believe in voodoo?
I believe in many things! I believe in spirituality, I believe in consciousness. I think we can call it by many different names. I’m trying to get to a higher form of myself but I struggle real bad at it, it’s just part of learning. I believe in all sorts of things. Who am I to say that one is right or one is wrong? Even when people come and knock on your door- The Jehovah’s Witnesses, I always do the prayer. I always listen to them, and talk to them. Because I believe that people have a job to do, and part of that job is asking questions and asking why. But I prefer to look at it in more of a spiritual kind of way. And more of a conscious kind of way. Voodoo, spirituality, Christianity, Catholicism, whatever you call it, I just believe we’re all trying to get to a higher form of ourselves. But, I’ll be the first to admit that I suck at it, I struggle.
I read somewhere that all religions are fingers pointing to the same star.
Pretty much; that’s why I let the Jehovah's Witnesses do their thing. And okay, you want to tell me about something that you’re into, I’ll let you do it. Who am I to say that you’re wrong? But I do believe in some forms of magic.
Many people are upset with the injustices that occur, but feel powerless. What’s your advice to them?
Mhm… I don’t know that I’m qualified to answer that. Because, I think we all deal with that sort of feeling differently. And for me, the only power that I know I have is the ability to make art and build. That’s my super power, and I’m going to use it to the best of my abilities.
Do you know anywhere where people can help out? Do you have any places you like to go to or people you like to talk to about that kind of thing?
I actually talk to my dad or my friends, or I just make art about things I’m thinking about, or mad about. But, I’ll put things into a book too. To be read at a later date. To track where my brain was… in 2019.
Michi Meko sketching in his studio space in Atlanta
Have you ever worked a job outside of art? And what was that like compared to where you are now?
A job is a job is a job. I always tell people, life is very real. You have to be paid, so if you have to work a job, it’s okay. Most artists do work a job, most artists teach. I work for Fulton County Arts & Culture. It’s got all my benefits and everything that I need for like… real life. But then, making art is a job within itself. But, sometimes it’s too much fun. I can’t believe I get to do this as a career and then have that be successful and profitable when for so many years it has not been. So it’s kinda cool to see that happen. And I’m really thankful for that part of the job *laughs* But it is a job, it’s a business. And I’m trying to learn everything about this art job.
I feel like art is often the toughest to get into, but once you really put your heart into it, it’s one of the most rewarding jobs you could have.
Yeah, and I don’t think people ever see me crying on this job, which I do a lot.
Yeah man, it’s hard. But think about it like this... Artists are a small business, they put out a lot. They invest in themselves a lot. They invest in materials, all of these things, for maybe a return. Maybe. There might not be a return. Or if there is, it might be smaller than what you’ve already put out. If it is a job or it is a business, thinking about it like a small business, then I think artists should get all the government whatever for small businesses too.
What’s your focus going into your next show, Out Here By Myself ?
I’ve been thinking a lot about Serena Williams. And where she is in her career. When she’s playing tennis, she’s out there by herself. She’s in this environment that, at first, was very hostile towards her because of her aesthetic. But, I like that she never changes her aesthetic. She never changed who she was and continues to exist in this white environment and then became the face of tennis, pretty much. Her and her sister dominated tennis for 10, 15 years. And I think that’s pretty impressive. She’s just out there, alone. By herself.
I was also thinking about the spiritual part of black people. Black people eat soul food and they are so interested in the soul. But, I'm also thinking about it in terms of spirituality. The thing that kicked it all off for this title was, I was thinking about the moment that John Coltrane stops playing with Sanders, and found himself in this moment of ascension. I’m interested in this spiritual journey that had him playing jazz or music that was so far out. That he was out there by himself. So, I’m just trying to push my chosen materials and the paintings in that direction, that spiritual place of ascension. I’m trying to create works that are singular, or works that will put me in a position where I’m out there by myself, or separated from other artists. Just, really making work that’s original. And, trying to exist in that space. But it’s mostly from thinking about Coltrane and Serena Williams.
Portrait of artist, Michi Meko