Tameka Norris: Meka Jean

In your earlier works, you restage performance pieces like Marina Abramovic’s Art Must Be Beautiful, Artist Must Be Beautiful and Bruce Nauman’s Walking in an Exaggerated Manner Around the Perimeter of a Square. What was it like to occupy these works in which artists were documenting the everyday in early video, now a common practice of contemporary life?

I was most interested in seeing if the gestures embodied by my body read or felt differently in space—within the frame of video as well as in real lived time and real space. These works were made in grad school where I was still trying to cultivate an everyday practice. A practice in grad school is different than in “real life” in that I was living in a college town and navigating space in a way that I didn’t normally. I was used to driving on a freeway as opposed to walking. I was used to experiencing people in a more casual way as opposed to only in academic spaces. Space felt sterile and I was attempting to remake works from the canon–important works that questioned studio space and studio practice.

In another restaging of Pistoletto’s Venus of the Rags, Venus is imbued with specificity: to a time, a place, a race. I love thinking about this work in relation to the still relatively new discovery of the fact that these classical statues would have been painted with colors and patterns that almost make a tattooed Venus plausible. With Pistoletto’s version manifesting as an installation, why was it important for you to restage this as a video?

Restaging this work as a video was almost an accident. I intended it to be a photo but the process and experience of making the photo seemed significant. I enlisted the help of a colleague that just happened to be in the room when I was making the photo. His comments about beauty and staging the image added so much content that I couldn’t avoid the exchange we had. His male “voice of authority” made it feel like he was the photographer and I was the model. If someone walked up to the work, it could be assumed that he was the author of the work. So much of my work is about being subject, object and creator. The work has ultimately gone on to be the impetus for an ongoing work where I am having tattoos removed. I become a reductive sculpture.

The idea of the body as a reductive sculpture is fascinating. When did you decide you were going to remove your tattoos and how will this work materialize?

The more I looked at my video work, Venus of the Rags, the more I realized I would in fact never be Venus! The more I looked at what my body signified with a very specific tattoo, which marked a gender, century, and geographic location, the more I wanted to remove this specificity. The fact that the tattoo was placed on my body by another artist other than myself became a huge issue for me. The works will materialize in the world soon. I don’t want to give it away just yet, but I’m extremely excited about the possibility of making a collaborative work that allows others to be involved with the removal of the tattoos and technicians chiseling away at the surface.

Meka Jean embodies many tropes of women in the arts: “a self-empowered artist,” “an artist with gut-wrenching nerves,” “a collaborator,” “a sexy woman,” “a smart and serious woman,” “a woman of color.” While Meka Jean’s performances critique expectations of women and especially WOC in the arts, mustn’t we play the part?

Sure. I think as we evolve as beings we are given opportunities to be reborn or to reinvent. I use markers–moving, starting a new job, buying new shoes, a new hairdo, taking a nap, new glasses, taking a shower–as a chance to start over. I tap into a new version of myself as a mode of self preservation.

With the trending practice and mediation of self-care, I’d like to think of this as self preservation, as you say, rather than a consumer ritual. How can #selfcare practices carry political, radical potential?

#selfcare is just that–radical! We put our devices before ourselves. We prioritize the presentations of ourselves before the actual self. IG and FB become stand-ins for how we actually are. Filtering photos as a way to present an ideal self instead of digging deep and accepting our faces, our bodies, our smiles. Self-care is radical because it relies on acceptance. Consumer culture and pop culture have taught us to never stop wanting and wishing to have better but not necessarily be better.

In your series of paintings in the round, you create the ground for your paintings with fabrics your family gave you. The sense of place you create in these works fascinates me: depictions of domestic interiors, supermarket logos, silhouettes of states, and not to mention the place the paintings create themselves as seating and sites of participation for the viewers.

While living in the south after grad school and attempting to talk to family and community folks about what I do, I found it comical that I wanted to express usefulness for what I did. I became obsessed with how folks in my family use and reuse objects in many different ways. I wanted my objects to be paintings but also something more practical. I was almost embarrassed that my objects had no significant use.

I felt like my family was more impressed with seeing things they recognized like a defunct grocery store logo that sparked a memory or a painting that could also double as a seat. I thought a lot about practicality post grad school. I’m guessing this is because of how useless paintings feel when I’m witnessing and experiencing much more pressing and urgent issues in my community: gentrification, hurricanes, floods, police brutality, lack of access to healthy food.

You mentioned before that it feels as if you are performing more while making a painting versus “performing-performing” or making video because of “the strange process that is painting, like magic.”

It’s like going to your job as a waiter but aspiring to be an actor. When you go to your job as a waiter, you are performing what you know, what you hope is a good waiter. You use your skills as an actor to perform the role of a good waiter. You are upbeat, gregarious, attentive, etc. It’s a role you play to get the best tip… the best result! When you go to the kitchen to get the drinks… you may grumble and talk shit under your breath but return to your customer with a smile. Painting is similar for me! I go to work and am attentive and kind to the painting–even when I don’t want to! You can’t argue with your customer because they are always right! I talk shit and bitch and moan when I walk out the studio but return to the studio aiming to please in order to get the best result and the best tip. Painting is queen. I try to perform long enough and well enough to convince her that I’m worthy of a good tip.

Tameka Norris in conversation with Marisa Espe