by Megan Amal
We are currently collaborating in Chicago, where she continues research on the relevance of race and ethnicity to the design of urban public spaces. In conversation she serves up thoughtfulness, wit, and emotional generosity. As a friend and collaborator she challenges me to take myself seriously. She encourages confidence in thought and action and is there to back me up.
MA: Where do you find inspiration?
MS: At the poles: discontentment, unsafe spaces, violence; and comfort, safe spaces, affection. More specifically within that, what makes public and private spaces.
I'm much less bothered to make anything when I'm happy, so the inspiration comes when I am processing: trying to understand or contextualize something--usually in relation to what might be it’s polar opposite.
MA: What kind of artist are you? How would you describe your art to someone who is new to your work?
MS: Spontaneous, emotional, playful/foolish and thoughtful.
MA: As an artist, why do you use this particular medium? In what ways is it better at saying what you want it to?
MS: Ink is fast. It forces confidence in my hand--I can't even start to fuck with the doubt in an eraser. It’s unforgiving and permanent, like playing with consequences—little thrills. It’s really satisfying to be able to start and finish something in one sitting (even if that one sitting includes 10 hours of just staring), just pop it right on out. It can be revisited or it can be done—good ol’ India Ink is good for that.
MA: Do you practice other mediums of art? What value do you find in using multiple mediums?
MS: Some poetry. Some painting. I’ve been told I draw with paint, so not painting with any technical mastery. Some sculpture. I'd like to revisit stop motion animation. I get to see what’s recurring when I look across different mediums, then I start to see my style, how and what I’m thinking. That makes it sound like I’m disconnected from my mind--which maybe isn’t horribly inaccurate.
MA: When and where do you make your art? How do you make the time and space in your life to make art?
MS: It's a solitary game for me, home alone in the evenings after work usually. I need a clean empty room to make messy. It’s impulsive; when the making mood strikes I dive in and step away when it’s as done as it can be. I haven't figured out how to be certain of creating that space, but a big part of it is being alone. Physical space-wise, I have a studio apartment, so I stay tip-toeing around half-wet paintings and drawings.
MA: Do you have a lot of support in your life for what you're doing? Who supports you and how?
MS: My dad has always been the champion of this part of my life--flying out to every show, no matter how inconsequential. He notoriously shared my work like spam to *everyone* with his own thoughtful descriptions and interpretations. He died a couple months ago, so support looks different now.
I don't get a lot of formal criticism, since I don't have an MFA or take classes, it's mostly friends/coworkers/past teachers. It’s a double edged sword, on one hand it’s good to be supported by people that can contextualize the work within my person, but I fear they may consider my feelings before the work. If I weren’t afraid of the internet, I'd probably use it to get actual feedback for free. My sister is probably the only person who will always flatly say exactly what she doesn't like-- a refreshing change of pace, and my favorite feedback.
MA: What is a struggle you often find yourself coming up against, and how do you move past it?
MS: Feeling like I need permission. Is this a good idea? Is this ok? Will this next thing ruin it? I move past it with my own impulses (harnessing impatience) and with unforgiving mediums (like ink and paper). Mediums that don’t erase force me to commit in a way that keeps me moving forward.
MA: Do you identify as an artist? When did you start? Did you feel like you had to get permission first too?
MS: Yes, I only started pretty recently, but it wasn’t that I wanted permission. These last few years, I’ve been surrounded by working artists, journalists, muralists, organizers, and I began to see this world of working artists that I found comfortable. It took me a long time though- I always was an artist but felt silly with the word in my mouth. /I still can’t say “sexy” outloud without cringing, so ask me about that next year. /I guess when I was younger the people I knew that were comfortable identifying as artists weren't doing much outside of their own independent work, and that didn’t appeal to me.
MA: What artists have you admired for a long time? What kind of art is feeding you lately?
MS: Edward Gorey. Matisse. Kara Walker. I admire the concepts of Eric Fischl’s work.
Lately I’ve been lucky to have a lot of good project development conversations with artists about their projects--exhibitions, performances, murals-- focused, critical conversations about the political implications and decisions involved in their work. I’m fortunate to have a deeply energizing job, where I get to work with thoughtful, highly-skilled muralists committed to complex, challenging, projects in the tradition of community mural art. My job and the murals are very different than my personal work, but being exposed to the artists actively doing the work of/for social justice, and supporting them from the admin side, is deeply heartening.
Also, it’s winter in Chicago, so I’m into a lot of hibernation art: movies--lots of science fiction lately, television, graphic novels, online essays, podcasts, books- currently reading The Algebra of Infinite Justice by Arundhati Roy.
MA: Who is one artist you would like to share with the AFO community?
MS: I really admire the consistent hand and concepts of Chanel Chronicles. She had this wonderful soft sculpture of her wallet displayed in a window for a while in 2015, a self portrait. I might even say everything I’ve seen her make feels like a portrait because of the delicacy and attention with which she handles communities and objects alike.
Actually, I’ll give you two! because I met Chanel through Kristin Abhalter, who is both a wonderful artist and someone with a deep commitment to other artists and the neighborhood in which she lives in and works. I’ve known her to teach public workshops, engage pedestrians and local businesses in projects, establish public school arts education enrichment programs, design and build sets for local theater productions, and all while staying dedicated to organizing exhibition opportunities for new artists in Roman Susan gallery.
MA: What is your advice for other artists?
MS: At least some of the time, keep "why" alive.
I think it’s so important to always be deeply reflective about the role/intention behind shock, decorations...anything. I guess I say that partly out of appreciation for a strong concept and partly out of cynicism. I think ethos needs to be called into question more. I’ve seen just one too many a gallery comfortably showing one-dimensional, tourism-based portraits of “third world” people. That’s just one example of the many types of far-too-celebrated, thoughtless, undeveloped, unwarranted, hollow and oppressive work (whoops, is my frustration showing?). My advice would be to think hard (and out loud) about why you’re making/doing what you’re making/doing -- and the fact that it is you doing it.
MA: Where do you look when beginning a new work?
MS: When beginning a new work I’m either processing something I just learned and I want to figure out how I feel about it – or it’s the opposite and I’m feeling a way and want to figure out why it matters.
When I’m thinking about something - a theory, idea, law, movement, place, particular moment - I sit down and free write/draw. Then, if compelled, I'll research into the subject- anything from public space politics, public transportation structures, body politics, abuse, citizenship, animal ownership- whatever. I guess I want to see what I do, and then later think about why I did it, and then revisit it again when I know both. That's about it. So, I suppose I’m trying to figure out what I think/feel by making connections. Largely the work is about everything in relation to the abstract and physical design of the built environment: access, proximity, power. Thinking about where things fit into each other.
MA: What current projects are you working on?
MS: Cutouts! And some collage. And I’m excited about it.
I'm working on developing a show with two incredible artists: Megan Amal and Carlita Gay. Megan (the interviewer) is of course a dancer so she will cover the movement, Carlita is a singer and will cover the audio, while I address the visual environment. I’ve never worked on something like this, when it’s ready the audience will be in our place. I suppose it's kind of a redirection of your (Megan’s) research, right? We're talking, taking our stories and turning them into something. How would you describe it, Megan?-Can we get some dialogue in here?!
MA: Haha, yeah. The work’s working title is ‘pout.’ We are redirecting old pouts into new pouts. Like you said, we are creating an environment. I feel like we are crystallizing our conversations into movement, sound, and image and making an environment for them to live. We are taking our social and personal experiences seriously, I mean, we are letting ourselves and each other be important to ourselves and each other.
MA: What are some of your long term goals as an artist?
MS: The longest term goal is to keep art making a part of my work. Not exclusively the thing I do, but something that is informed and inspired by the rest of the things I do and vice versa. I want to be getting closer to having one voice-- eliminating (or repurposing) all my parenthetical statements, so I’m not saying one thing distinct from other parts of my life - simultaneously a social, academic, artistic, political, professional person.
MA: What is your philosophy as an art maker and artist?
MS: Still unsure of that. My interests are broad and I guess the only consistency is I’m approaching each different subject--and it seems to me you need some kind of consistency to have a philosophy. How inappropriate would it be for me, as a supposedly interesting person worth interviewing, to say “I don’t know?” because I don’t know.
MA: It is totally appropriate to not know.
MA: What are your experiences with feminism? Do you identify as a feminist? What does being a feminist mean for you?
MS: Yes, a feminist, an advocate for social justice.
For me it means valuing shared experiences, the nourishing stuff of support, the care with which we handle each other’s realities. I am critical of the one-dimensional assumptions and implications in western, white, feminism but am very comfortable holding my criticism as that has been a fundamental part of the practice of feminism.
I grew up in a small Florida town, I’m talking about creationism in Biology class. So home was where I learned how to unlearn.
My parents (born in Kenya and India) never tolerated sexism, racism, classism, homophobia--hate just wasn’t allowed inside the house, while outside it was abundant. Living with the differences and contradictions came easily to me, partly thanks to my mother’s example.
If peacocks were migratory animals (they’re not--but if they were), I’d say my mom is a peacock. Watching her navigate the expectations of behavior in rural/urban and domestic/international places --she has always been (sometimes to my dismay) defiantly herself. She was the first person I saw navigating difference without assimilation (not to say there isn’t strength in assimilation). Dressing differently (by which I of course mean, much more stylishly) making jokes not expected from her; she carried complexity confidently in spite of being anomalous in every situation. That’s informed much of my feminist practice.
MA: Thank you so much for taking the time to share with us and our readers. We will stay connected with you and follow your work. You rock!