How Far We Haven’t Come
Austin Peay State University | October 2 through 22
WORDS Sara Lee Burd
“He soaks in the complexities of navigating a mostly white space and remains open to learning from his encounters. Ultimately the artist is aware that he has no control over how people view him.”
Michi Meko finds fault in statements such as, “Look how far we’ve come; we’ve had our first black president,” saying, “but then look at what happened right after that.” With the recent displays of violence and hatred in Charlottesville, Virginia, at a white Nationalist rally in August of 2017, the existence of racism in America is undeniable. Meko stares that reality in the face to make works of art that speak from his perspective as a man entangled within our current times. The artist explains with some annoyance, “I can look back to my father’s stories and hear about living under Jim Crow in Birmingham. He’s 70+ years old. A large part of his life was dealing with that stuff. Now we are in this undertow, and we are being dragged out into this same old shit.” Clarifying his approach to conceiving ideas and making art, Meko explains, “My work is never about the trauma or woe is me. I don’t feel inferior. I thank my father for that. My work is about heroes, about the strength and perseverance of people, especially black people.”
Meko grew up a Boy Scout and has never lost his appetite for being in nature. He prides himself on being a fisherman and sharpshooter but is aware that many in the black community do not feel safe in rural and wilderness areas. The disconnection with nature felt by many people of color has been attributed to many factors, including limited access to public and national parks during the years of “separate but equal” legislation which began with the Supreme Court Ruling of Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 banned racial discrimination and segregation in public and private spaces. Today, groups such as Outdoor Afro continue to bridge the divide experienced by many in the black community. In a trip to Eastern Sierras, Lone Pine, California, Meko was set to map coordinates of where he met people that looked like him. He notes with disappointment, “I didn’t encounter another black hiker . . . I was hoping to.” Aware that misconceptions of people and places create barriers, the artist pursues his authentic interests. He soaks in the complexities of navigating a mostly white space and remains open to learning from his encounters. Ultimately the artist is aware that he has no control over how people view him.
The pervasive use of nautical imagery in Meko’s art has multiple layers of significance. He has created a visual vocabulary that allows fluid interpretation but also has specific significances to himself. In Storm Warning, the artist presents a nautical scene that expresses anxiety and turbulence. The bottom half of the artwork features a sea of multi-hued black paint applied with ferocious brushstrokes. Bobbers and an ocean buoy are depicted struggling to withstand the choppy waves. The top portion of the composition contains lines that indicate nautical distance and lead to the specific coordinates of Washington, DC— perhaps the epicenter of the rocking water causing the undertow. Nautical flags within the composition directly communicate warnings of danger that Meko has encountered through his own journeys in the water. He explains the inspiration behind the imagery: “I felt in this past political climate we would be taken out into an undertow. Much like the ocean. There are many ways of surviving that, but the initial takeout into the undertow, the unknown, is the scariest part.”
In Life Preserved, Meko includes another recurring symbol, cast-iron skillets, which carries many meanings in his art—one in particular that Meko shared: “They came into the work because my mom had given me some skillets. She said, ‘These will outlive you if you take care of them correctly.’ It made me start thinking about wealth and how generational wealth works, and how in Southern history, people clamor for grandma’s skillets.” They also nod to the actuality that this isn’t the only thing that gets passed down for generations.
This installation features a triptych of life preservers from the Undertow series, presented bound by rope with suspended cast-iron skillets below. There is tension between the function of the floatation device and the heavy black pans weighing them down. The black paint contrasts against the bright orange fabric covering the safety vest, calling attention to the impending dangerous position people of color abide in the wake of the 2016 election.
Meko uses multiple mediums, which is part of his exploration as an artist and scholar of the history of art. His recurring inclusion of gold leaf is one way in which Meko rebels from tradition. Gold leafing has been used for centuries to signify preciousness and opulence. However, the metal itself has a deeply dark history related to human rights, greed, wealth, and value. He observes the way it has been used in decoration across the globe, and how it is also bought at pawn shops at less than market price. This tension inspires him to subvert the material: “It’s not a delicate process for me. It is rough and kind of mean the way I use gold leaf. It’s also gold leaf as a design element in my work and applying it in ways that I’d like to see things gold leafed.”
These works are true to his own story; they trace the passage of the artist’s emotions, thoughts, and questions that arise through his lived experience. “I’m making maps of my own survival, of trying to get through all these things. The -isms,” he explains. His identity is shaped by histories not so far gone, but he rejects stereotypes that conflict with who he knows himself to be. He describes his mission as an artist: “to distill what I see and make it digestible for a viewing audience . . . or not.” That’s no small task, as he states, “I’m an artist, for God’s sake. That’s one of the hardest jobs ever.”
How Far We Haven’t Come at Austin Peay State University’s New Gallery features work from the Undertow series and new explorations the artist has developed assembling large-scale wall maps. The latter works are more private in that the history he preserves is his own personal memory of his family members who have passed. But Meko acknowledges the relatable public context of when and where these people lived.
Showing at universities frees Meko of the need to sell his art and allows him to be more direct. Much like traversing wilderness is a political and artistic process for him, having his art exhibited in different spaces is also a way of subverting the norm just by being there. As Meko concludes, “I want to give students a museum-quality exhibition so that students can enjoy that, ask questions, or see how I worked it out. I’m not sure if they will take something from it or not, but I want it to be available.”
See How Far We Haven’t Come at Austin Peay State University’s New Gallery October 2 through 22. For more information, visit www.apsu.edu/art-design/exhibitions-speakers/newgallery.php and www.michimeko.com.