“Now I’ve Become the Wilderness”: A Conversation with Michi Meko

Georgia Review editor Gerald Maa spoke with artist Michi Meko in his Atlanta studio on 23 September 2019. A portfolio of Meko’s recent work appears in the Winter 2019 issue of The Georgia Review.

 

Gerald Maa (GM): Let’s start by giving our readers a sense of where you came from, how you got here. Not only in terms of place, but in terms of practice, mindset, and the like.

Michi Meko (MM): I think that a lot of my work is about navigating. So, my leaving a small town in Florence, Alabama, was a journey, and then arriving here—there’s this journey that I’m taking here. My work is interested in thinking about navigation through public space, by seeing myself in public lands—what does that mean? What does that look like? So that’s where the idea of wilderness comes in. I always, in some ways, try to make a connection with land, but in some ways you feel detached from it. Because a lot of spaces, especially wilderness spaces, don’t seem that inviting to black bodies—you know the American men, like, This Land Is Your Land, This Land Is My Land, kind of thing? But one of the things that I like, or I enjoy, about those sort of Americanisms is that someone had the foresight to preserve these lands so that we can see them in future generations. That shit is important, as flowery and as mythical as that language sounds. It’s like, what does it mean to now be able to go and hike down a trail or into a volcano or go to this place, the Grand Canyon, or go to this place, the desert, or climb onto these mountains or see these rock formations? There’s something to be said about those ideas and what that means to preserve land. Even now we see people who want to take those lands, politically, away from the people. I’ve always sort of looked at that like what does that mean for me, a black body, a black man in these spaces? So, it’s always been a sort of churning, of navigating, to try to find a place.

GM: There are a bunch of writers out there, such as Camille Dungy and Ed Roberson, who are with you. They’re trying to carve out an alternate history for—it’s not even alternate, it has already been there. You know, nature and black life; well, there’s slave work.

MM: And I think if we are talking at a cellular level, or if we are talking at the level of memory, if these things are passed down through internal cells or cultural retention, then that is a very good sort of explanation of why there aren’t a lot of black people in national parks or in that type of public space. What does it mean to go out west and to see that black body in the Rockies, or you’re at this campground, and you see another brother, and you’re like, “Hey, what’s up?” Like, is this a trip? I get it! To me, it’s just looking at these things and not only being fascinated by the landscape and the language and all of that, but also wanting to give my own vision about these things. But then, also, with this work that I make, it’s me looking at these spaces and trying to navigate them in terms of public space, with everyday space being like a wilderness.

GM: One of the rich stories throughout your work is that navigation—whether guided by the horizon or the constellation—is about a place that you are going to. These lines and markers are always being in transit. Could you talk a little bit about that, about what it means to paint the point at which you’re going?

MM: For me, it is a question of how do I tell this story, this thing that I’m very interested in, this place that I find myself, or these ideas that I have, without being too traditional. It would be easy to create a horizon and paint this beautiful landscape and have this romantic image of place, right? But how can I continue to make these without getting burnt out? But then, also not—I became a thing I’ve made fun of, which is landscape painters. I work very hard to create these things, but then to also flatten them out, to purposefully have a lot of contradictions in the way that I’m making these things. There’s a part of me that wants to go out and actually paint these beautiful things, but then I think from my experience and where I am in life and the way that I do think about things and the way that politics raise cultures, the myth of Southern culture, the myth of Americanism. All of that kind of language forces me to create a truer version of a landscape. It’s not so readable. The language is not absolutely clear. In myth, it is, but the action is not absolutely clear. That’s why the abstraction, to me, is very important to what I’m doing. 

GM: What is the color black doing for you? Speak aesthetically first, in terms of this flattening and in terms of this abstraction. People who see the folio will understand, but for people who don’t know, you’re very invested in laying bare the infinite gradation within the color black. Black just does so much in all of your work. So what is black doing for you? 

MM: Black, in terms of the work, can exist on a lot of levels. Black, for me, can be heavy in terms of color and weight. Most galleries have white walls, and when you hang something black, it will have weight. Black has symbolic weight too, it has its own sort of story, its own history, its own mythology. In a way, that’s a lot of how I think about black people, especially black people in a public space. It only takes two black people to rearrange a public environment, to rearrange a party. So when you have a group of black, that changes the energy of a space. But then, what happens when you dilute, so if you have one part black and two parts white, what gray is that? Is that within the same hue and tone? And then if you do one part black and one part white, then that’s just one step away from its original color. But then also that’s like black people come in all different shades, hues, and all of these different things. So there’s me thinking about that, too, but also applying that to material, and also putting that into the history of painting or mark-making, which is something I like. It’s very purposeful. 

GM: What I like about your new work is that there’s still the navigation thing, but black as the unknown. It can so easily turn from exterior darkness to some sort of interior wildness. When we talk about wilderness and discovery, it requires black, right? Because that’s the unknown, right? So as much as metaphysics and nature writing and these Americanisms are dominated by whiteness, written as whiteness, the black is necessary despite the efforts of white writing. You need black, because that’s what you can’t see, right? To have real introspection requires your interiority to be black, which I think people won’t admit.

MM: Yeah. So that’s a good sort of segue for where this new work is going, because I’ve switched the view, right? As I’m sitting out looking into a wilderness or out at a wilderness, the whole thing is honestly trying to come inside so that I can find this voice and find this clarity. But with this new work and where I am in my life right now, there’s this need to understand who it is that I am as a person. Now I’ve become the wilderness.

GM: When did this work start? Can you peg a date when you felt this new introspective kind of call?

MM: These things started about six months ago.

GM: So, very new.

MM: Very new. This work actually went to the Hudgens Center for the Arts, because I’m up for that award. I was very self-conscious about that work, because it was the first body of work with which I’ve started to deal with these ideas. This happened after a panic attack where I felt dizzy, and in that dizzy feeling I could not find myself, because the thing is spinning. So if the thing is spinning, where is your absolute? My work is about navigating. On a compass, there is the tip that is always north, like on a watch. If you have a dial watch, it’s not twelve, it’s usually a bright mark. So that bright mark I could not find, and the more I tried to find it, the more the adrenaline kicked in. Then we said, okay you need to go out and get some air. I make my way to the door to go get the air, and it’s still just spinning, like there is no absolute. So then the fight or flight kicks in, and the adrenaline, and the panic—everything kicks in, until eventually I guess your system will shut itself off.

I am trying to make this work illustrate what panic feels like, or what being disoriented feels like, but also thinking about this work, not only in terms of my internal wilderness and this thing that I’m doing within my mind or consciousness, but also in the minds of other black men or black people, because a lot of this feeling, this disorienting sort of thing, is what it feels like daily.

GM: On your website you talk about this theme that you’re working through: black buoyancy. It came about, you said, through a near-drowning experience a number of years ago. You’ve been able to abstract from that experience some sort of concept of everyday living you call black buoyancy. Tell us, what is black buoyancy? What was it was back then, how has it changed, maybe, as you’ve been more introspective?

MM: In 2015 I did a show called Pursuit: Almost Drowned. And that was me sort of completing a mantra and the mantra was “comfort kills pursuit and then pursuit kills comfort so all that is left is to pursue.” The “almost drowned” part was me looking at the history of violence against black males. At that time, 2014–2015—like 2012, ’13, ’14, ’15—there were all these shootings of black men by cops. They were in the news daily. There was always something on your Facebook page. There was always this information coming at you, coming at you, again this thing is coming at you. So then within that you begin to take on that psychological weight, and then you begin to internalize these things. Looking at that, and this idea of resiliency, and then the idea of staying afloat, it all came from me looking at what was happening in the world to black males and black male bodies, and the destruction of those bodies in public space. We could see these things play out in videos, and then you could also imagine yourself within those spaces, within those videos, and then being someone like—I’ve had seven officers point rifles at me, I’ve been handcuffed with pistols pointed at me from policemen, so I could’ve easily been one of these men. Easily. I begin to think about that fight-or-flight response and make these sort of works and then the idea of navigating. How do I now navigate this world that seems to be throwing all these things at me, and how do I dodge the bullet? Like, is there a map I could make that could successfully get me through the day or successfully navigate me through life?

 

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This interview has been edited and condensed.

 

Editor of The Georgia Review.