Meet Mekia Machine, a magnetic multidisciplinary artist based in Harlem, New York. Ahead of her debut UK Smithson collection, Still the Sky is Blue, we caught up with Mekia for a powerful and poignant conversation around her portfolio, the creative process and the new collection...
Mekia Machine: I’m antsy because I don't have my sketchbook in hand! I almost never have any meetings or lectures without doodling…! I may need to grab one in a second, but let’s see how long I can control myself.
Smithson Gallery: Do you like to sketch whilst talking?
Yeah, I find myself paying more attention that way, I am hypersensitive and get distracted easily, so doing this thing with my hand, while listening help’s me to focus on what I’m hearing. It is just my way of figuring out how to navigate being a hyper kid.
Well feel free — if you need to grab a sketchbook then please do so! So, to start, you're a multi-disciplinary artist, working across music and the visual arts, all the things! It seems that you have a deep need for expression, and I was wondering where you think this comes from?
I think it has always been innate. I’m curious and have recognised for a long time that I am always seeking, trying to navigate my environment, what do I want to show or hide or say. Different forms of expression allow for a fuller understanding and experience, I like that I like shifting between forms. Finding out when I was a lot older that I’m dyslexic, made sense, thinking about myself as a kid.
I think my work always goes back to the emotion and our experiences, and I’m interested in more than the physical or result… it is more than just the thing that is in front of you, but all that led to it. I am trying to communicate with that innate thing, to understand my compulsions or need for expression, I’m still trying to figure out all these things, I just know that I work better having the freedom to activate all my senses and experiences and use them as matter.
"Art is the thing that brought me comfort in not knowing."
And that is what is beautiful about it — this search and sense of discovery and exploration. Despite not knowing where you are going.
Absolutely, art is the thing that brought me comfort in not knowing. Music and art, or any sort of creative expression — just building things, making things, working with my hands, thinking, just makes sense to me.
I am trying to think back to when I was younger, and I used to draw these cartoons, but I have always been interested in so many types of expressions. And I am hungry for more, I want to make sculptures, I want to try new materials, but right now I feel the need to paint faces, at times abstracted at other times as real as possible.
I have always been afraid of people not understanding what I do, but I made a commitment to myself years ago that I would do it all. It took me a while to be able to say and own that, so I do. I want to do it all.
I totally understand those insecurities, society is always trying to categorise us, put us in boxes. But when you are a multifaceted, creative person, how do you define and capture that? Why is it so imperative that you to identify in a certain way? I think that’s a struggle for so many people, and especially creatives.
In America, a capitalist society, we are taught that you work, and go to school, and then get a job, and this is the system. So, when we look at art and creating, we tend to use the same lens, and focus so much on the product. The result is great, but it is the process that’s important. If you can’t be free in accessing your process, that is hard. The creative process is the one thing that only I have access to, it is individual to each of us. I aide others in finding theirs’, and because I’ve searched for it for so long, I’ve learned protect it.
I know what it is like to not be happy and to be miserable, and not be on my path, and creativity is the thing that makes me feel good. Anna [Smithson] is great because she encourages me to create, to take breaks when I need to, to collect my ideas together and really execute my ideas well and see them through to the finish, just by her being who she is. I appreciate her and Smithson Gallery so much because I need someone I trust, who is able to handle the business, and marketing, and the art world stuff, so I can have this thing that I am completely obsessed with. It is the only thing that makes sense to me, it took forever but wow I have really found my thing! It took forever, and now I have found a gallerist who gets it. The synergy is amazing.
Thank you so much for articulating the synergy between artist and gallery so perfectly. We believe the role of a gallery is to allow artists to have their creative freedom, to make the space for them to concentrate and focus on their work, whilst to a certain extent not have to worry so much about the business side. There are still so many misconceptions around the artist-gallery relationship. So, it is lovely to hear you capture that so well.
With Anna and Smithson Gallery, I feel heard, it’s so clear when people care about the artists and see the bigger picture — and it’s only going to help me grow, the universe just aligned!
Talking about this freedom and the need for freedom in order to search and discover, I am interested in how that fits into the institutional framework. I’m thinking about your Visual Art degree at Colombia University from which you graduated in 2019, and I would be interested to know why you decided to do your art degree at that point, what you got out of it? and how your ethos and approach fit into an institutional setting?
It took me forever to graduate college. I never thought I was going to graduate! I was like, ‘wow this is hard!’. I went to one of the top universities in the country, and everyone there is smart! It is competitive and isolating. I first went to Columbia in 2005 , dropped out in 2007, and had my daughters, I was married then, I had a business — I had a whole life! But I soon had that yearning, again, and I didn’t know what it was — I just thought, I can’t sit here because this is not where I am supposed to be!
Going back to school and being in an institution, and having freedom, how does that work? It is a constant navigation between an understanding that you are not going to have a perfect situation, and that is okay because you need that. You need that dissonance because that is where you get new ideas. In an institution whilst you have the time, access to facilities and materials and you are surrounded by experts and other creatives just like you, you also have this restriction, you have to make work in a certain amount of time. But for me everything made sense, so I fell in love with being in art classes and drawing! My first drawing class was in 2016, and everything just exploded! You have access to so many different materials, the classes are introducing you to so many different methods, you have different assignments. So, the role that an institution plays for me is that it gives me the okay and the freedom to play, and it is that discovery period that is so important to me, that is the thing that no one else gets to experience apart from me, that space and that time and that freedom. I was painting incessantly! It felt so right, it felt like I needed it, and I never knew that I needed it.
It’s very different being in school and making art, compared to being out of school and making art — the community is super important.
I really hear you on this idea of parameters, and the question of how you maintain those parameters for yourself beyond the institution. That makes me also think of your Liquitex residence, which is of course how we came across you and your work, and how there are these opportunities for artists beyond universities that give them the space, freedom and materials — that must have been such a fantastic opportunity for you!
It was everything! It was so perfect. I do believe in manifesting your wants. When you are well, in your own lane, tapped in, and act, and everything just works out, WOW! One of my favourite artists, Tschabalala Self did the Colart residency, I just thought I can totally do that! I saw myself doing it! Then I read that they only invite artists! So, I saw it as a future possibility. But in visualizing myself there and feeling like I could do it, it was done, that moment was already set. Months later I saw Liqutex’s ad on Instagram, I applied, I wrote, ‘I got this’ on my Wall of Spells, and then I did get it! It was just perfect, everything aligned, and you found me through the residency, so it's like, wow!
"I feel like if we search enough, and we are in tune enough with ourselves and what we need, we will find the things and situations that are right for us."
The power of manifestation! I love this idea that if you put it out to the world, the world is also looking for you, and you meet in the middle.
Yes! They were just starting this brand-new residency, so I was their first resident. There was just so much creative freedom, and that is what they wanted. They wanted to just give the artist the space, and time, and tools to just go. And that is what I did, and it was exactly what I needed. I feel like if we search enough, and we are in tune enough with ourselves and what we need, we will find the things and situations that are right for us. I will go forward looking for open and good experiences — I know that my freedom is super important for me to be able to thrive. So whatever situation I am in, or whatever residencies or programmes, it is super important for me to feel free. Free to be my weird self.
So, to get on to your work, specifically your painting and the bodies of work you are creating now, you said in the past you were looking to capture the essence of a person, going beyond the figurative, and you mentioned that discovery of the ‘real real’. Could you just tell us a bit more about what you mean by that? And what dimensions of a person you are trying to capture when you are painting people?
I think I am still in a space of figuring that out, and maybe a couple years from now it won’t necessarily be paint on canvas, maybe it will be something else. There are cultural things and personal things and reasons why I think I make the sort of art that I do. I definitely want to see myself; I am always seeking that. I am seeking my skin tone, my look, my features — I am doing the sort of work which 14-year-old me needed. She needed to feel like, ‘That is cool, I see myself in this!’
I have this obsession with photos and imagery, and the fact that I don’t have photos of my grandparents, my grandmother specifically — I have one photo of myself when I was 6 years old. Maybe that is why I do these portraits, and why there is this missing information. I don’t know what my grandparents look like, so how do I represent them? I used to paint their features and think, maybe they had a nose like mine, or they had my hair. But then I just started taking away the face… Looking at some of those paintings in my peripheral vision and I am like, it feels like someone is standing right there! There is no need for the features, right? Even though I am still having a hard time figuring out as to why I am taking away features…
Being teased as a kid for having a big nose and big lips, I’d paint my features. I became obsessed with what is missing, and missing bodies. I used to watch Tom and Jerry when I was a kid, and in it you only saw the maid’s feet. There was one image of her, and she looked awful, really ugly. For me this is packed with a choice to not represent a brown skinned person, or to throw them into one tone... you know like those black figures with red lips, that really ugly and racist way of depicting black people… I feel like I am trying to find a true way to represent the essence of a person.
It is not necessarily only through an image in a page. I like the experience of walking past these images and thinking you are seeing someone, and then you look and they don’t have a face! It is not just about me, but about all the different types of black people, and how maybe I can try to represent them? Right now, I am playing with these ideas, and it is very sensitive, because I am not loving all the work all the time, but I am figuring it out. And I think I have to look towards the things that charge me, that I am impacted by — let's read this question in a year and see what my answer will be then!
And you won’t know still, but that is the beauty of it! It is so fascinating watching you and other artists going through these processes of questioning, and not knowing, and what is produced through that exploration
Right?! It is so weird, and cool!
Absolutely! I imagine what you were just describing encapsulates the sort of thinking that went into the first collection for Smithson and the Art Car Boot Fair?
Yes. It is a trial and error process. I am figuring it out, and I like that I am figuring it out. I see that I am getting closer to something that resonates better with me. And I also like the fact that sometimes I need to shift, and I know when I need to, and it is okay to.
Moving onto materials, you mentioned earlier that you are always searching and responding with materials, and I just want to hear a bit more about how they shape your practice?
I used to play a lot with hot glue. I started playing with toilet paper, and there is a whole long story about why! I didn’t have access to art material, and I felt like, maybe if I glue toilet paper together, then I can probably paint on top of that and create some kind of surface. But then I started working with just the glue, and it was pretty cool… I haven’t done any of those sorts of things, and those are the urges I am starting to get right now.
I love painting. I love that I get to make this thing that I didn’t grow up with, and I am a part of this conversation, but I think it is important for me to be able to move across materials. If I am trying to bring this ephemeral thing into existence, where someone is three dimensional, it shouldn’t just be in one way. It should ignite all these different senses. I do like works that make you want to touch and feel them
This is a mask I made, it is just from hot glue It kind of looks like a dog! (See image) I remember I was working on my thesis, and I was just in the studio making, making, making, and then I had this idea and I thought I would just try it, and the way that I did it was just so cool and simple, and something came of it. And then I started making more… I want to play with this approach again, I feel the need to be making something more tactile.
"There is this internal experience that is the process, the discoveries, the ups and downs, the ebb and flow — that’s just magic."
It will be interesting to see how these ongoing questions that you have, about how you capture people and identities, translates across other mediums.
Like I said before, it is a process. When I am dead and gone, I would like to have had some sort of impact where my work is not just this material thing. That’s why I also work as a teacher, to help my students gain access to the experience of finding their thing. For someone else to find that moment, that is the coolest thing! That aligns with what I feel when I am creating, the thing that cannot be commodified, the thing that no one else can have. There is this internal experience that is the process, the discoveries, the ups and downs, the ebb and flow — that’s just magic.
As you were speaking it struck me how generous artistic practice is. It is an act of generosity. You are giving something to the world, a piece of yourself.
It is a thing that comes from inside you, and you are nervous about whether you are able to translate it well enough! ‘Is this horrible? Did I do a good job?’ And of course, you did a good job! No one else can translate that, you are the only one!
(Mekia then shows more of her hot glue pieces, one like lace, another with toilet paper enmeshed in it.)
These types of material and glue I do want to return to, because it gives me the sort of painter experience, as well as the sculptural piece. I am glad I pulled these out, because immediately I just got an idea!
I love seeing these works, and this is why these kinds of conversations are so important, to really get a deep insight, into the breadth and depth of the practice, and that you are not just a one trick pony!
It’s an urge, an obsession.
It is such an honour to witness, to be let into your world. I wanted to talk a bit about things you might be working on at the moment for a potential future body of work for Smithson.
I can show you on the wall! I love the idea of dark skin figures with soft pastel colours. I like what it says, the statement that black people are also soft. Being from the Caribbean, I am using the colours of the houses, I am using hibiscus flowers too, the national flower of Jamaica where I was born. Usually, I am just making composites of people, but here I am doing portraits of folks that I know.
There is something about them that goes beyond portraiture, and really evokes the context, the environment, atmosphere, or landscape — something that really gets beyond the person.
Yes! I was really feeling this tropical thing, I am going to Jamaica next month. There is this sort of tropical, home, Caribbean feel to it. They are very graphic, I sketch them on my phone first, and then I play with the ideas and colours — I want to capture realness in a graphic image. I like the fact that I am sketching a person on my phone, and then translating it… I couldn’t have models sit with me during covid, so I was using a lot of photos of people on Instagram and photos I’ve taken of friends. There is a subtle reference to that, to technology in general. Then there’s my use of colour. Growing up in Jamaica, my grandmother was Anglican, she was so conservative and bright colours were a no-no, so I am flaunting all these colours, and I am having fun with this vibrance and liveliness.
The other drawings that came out of it was a Night Swim series. It is just close-up shots of parts of bodies. You are seeing something, and you are like, is that what I think it is? And it’s probably not. One image can give you a lot of different ideas. You are thinking you are reading it one way, but it can be read a completely different way.
(Mekia continues to show many different works, some highly abstract and expressive)
Tell me about when you are painting something like this? Is there intention behind it, or is it more just expression?
Whenever I paint like this I am really in my head, I am working something out, and trying to deal with something. This is a portrait of myself (shows a painting of many different body parts swirling together), and I have been nervous about painting other people like this because it is dismembering in a way. This is a heart, but it is also a portrait, even though it is body parts. I am thinking about how, as someone who was molested as a child, how some body parts are treated, and as someone who identifies as queer how I was raised to think about that … I feel the need to just smush it all together, and it doesn’t necessarily need to be linear and clear, it is just, right now this is the body part I am dealing with, and this is the history or the drama.
Thank you so much for sharing that all with me. It is really interesting and important how we think about representing or communicating these fractured parts of ourselves, the pain and disjointed nature of things.
The Night Swim series is like that too, a little glimpse of an experience. They are a small moment, and an intimate moment, some of it is salacious, you get that sort of vibe from it. You don’t need to share all of it, you only get to see this small part, you can then extrapolate on that, I really enjoy hearing what folks see in my work, especially what I never noticed. These are all pretty much all queer couples.
I love the beauty and mysterious nature of these Night Swimming series — I think they potently resist this need to share everything about ourselves, our desires, relationships, traumas, politics, grief — especially in such a mediated world. For me that series says something about the value and importance of privacy, protection, intimacy and sacred moments. There is also something about the presence of water, the salt water and its healing nature. I’m thinking about this concept of ‘hydrofeminism’ how we are all fluid bodies of water that leak into one another connecting everything — there is a queerness in that too.
I said to my daughter the other day, I was super thirsty and I was drinking, I was like, ‘you know, drinking water is like going home’, and she was like, ‘why? Because we are made of water?’. And I am like, yeah! You know the feeling when you go home? There is really nothing like it. And that is like when you are thirsty, and you drink, that quench is a whole experience. We are all connected by water! We are so connected.
"The best part is the part that you are not just going to get in the painting. It is a discovery."
Another thought as you were speaking was about whether this idea of realness is something about recognition on the part of the viewer? Recognising an experience, a moment, or recognising yourself or another person through your paintings?
That is interesting. I ask myself; how could I give the best part of creating art to the viewer? The best part is the part that you are not just going to get in the painting. It is a discovery. So that recognition is just like, what do you see. Because you are going to experience something that no one else necessarily sees when I make works like this.
(Showing another piece) This came out of this drawing experiment I did, which started in the UK in 2016. I just sat with strangers and doodled, and I didn’t talk about it. And then I was realising that people saw figures and forms in my work that I didn’t see. So just like how the artist creates this thing that has never been seen before, the viewer also finds this recognisable thing. It depends on your age; a child might see things that an adult wouldn't be able to see. It depends on your trauma and your experiences, and what is passed down to you. That freedom of interpretation is important.
I know that you have a deep interest in philosophy and theory, and I wonder how that inspires your work?
When it comes to art, I am trying to be authentic. I have to think, what is it that I am using, what is it that I am saying? I am focused on the senses, experiencing a piece of art. I don’t necessarily create too many parameters, or make it fall into a certain theory or context or art movement, but it always does. We take from everyone, and I love art history, and thinkers, and the people who are interested in more than just our physical bodies. Not just our bodies, but the space that we take up when we are also not here.
But I also want to give myself the space and freedom to discover something, maybe that is where it aligns. It is this innate need to make something. One thing that I have been recently interested in, and I started doing some reading about it, is psychology and racism. When you think about the psychological impact of racism on black people and black bodies, it is insane.
So, I care about this psychology, so maybe my need for feeling, and expressing, and freedom, that is where it is all tied up. So, I am representing these black bodies, but am I also representing not just their physical, because that is what we know, that is what you can see on TV, is me showing you a painting of a black guy in a tub making you feel differently about that black guy? So how could I show his humanity?
"Can a work of art reveal why you are, and what you’ve endured? Or give sense of the climate — surviving a pandemic, the collective mood of a period."
I think you are exploring fundamental questions, how to show the real, how to show humanity — how to show the humanity for example behind the racially profiled “black male” who is so often dehumanised by society.
Exactly. The stuff I tend not to share, the work I do when I am doing loops in my head, it is so important for me to turn on myself first, as a black woman, and to show that. It is like the confidence it might give someone else to show who they are, because we are so much more. What we have experienced, all the traumas, all the isms, all of that, made you the way you are. Can a work of art reveal why you are, and what you’ve endured? Or give sense of the climate — surviving a pandemic, the collective mood of a period. So again, the whole thing with trying to render feelings. How could we show what this time period feels like?
I sold a painting recently. I started it on Father’s Day last year, and I was thinking a lot about George Floyd, and about what we are dealing with. Those are the works that I am still guarded with because those are deep emotions, and I want to protect it. I think artists are definitely broaching those questions, it will be interesting to see everything that comes out of this period in the next 20 years.
Thinking about the future then, and your vision board, what is it that you are manifesting?
There is one particular school that I want to get into for graduate study, so there is that. I definitely want to do lots of shows, and more residencies, and more space, and more art.
I love my students, they are mostly queer folks of colour. Over Covid I have bonded with these older women, and they are such great artists, so I envision a space where we are creating work together — I want them to do residencies, I want them to do shows. I think the population I am working with are so special, and there are not a lot of programmes that even care about intergenerational work like that, but they are so interesting. I think that once people catch onto how cool they are, the history they have, and the stories they are able to tell, they’ll see how dope the are! So that is one of the major things that is on my wall, in different ways.
I want to do all that I can do in this life to create an honest reflection. And maybe for me, that is the hardest part, to be totally honest with how I feel and how I am, and hopefully I can create something that someone will recognise themselves in and will validate themselves through.
Thank you Mekia, you have been brilliant, and we can’t wait to reveal your new collection!