Prepare for Arrival: Michi Meko at MOCA GA
By Shantay Robinson
While Michi Meko was the only black person camping with his cohort, his love for nature made his California outdoors residency profound in creating his latest work It Doesn’t Prepare You for Arrival, currently at Museum of Contemporary Art Georgia (MOCA GA) until January 26. The title of the show is very telling of his experience being out in the wilderness without the comfort of community. He is an avid fisherman, but leaving Atlanta’s heavily black population and traveling to scarcity of black presence in California was jarring for him. Being the only black person on the trip, Meko realized his identity in a way that he takes for granted living in city like Atlanta, stating, “I felt in some ways isolated. I was very curious about — would I see another black man or woman in the space that I’ve already sort of thrust my own ideas onto.” Through his research of the locale, Meko was made hyperaware of how the space he would share with his contemporaries his marked differently for him and them.
When Meko applied for a residency in California that would place him with other artists outdoors, he thought, due to his interest in fishing and camping, which were developed as a Boy Scout, he was in for a free camping trip. But the experience of being accepted into the residency afforded him an opportunity to think about his blackness in relation to the outdoors instead. When he did research on the part of California where he would camp out, he realized that it was a red state, and the people who lived in the area had voted for Donald Trump who had just been elected into office. Meko became apprehensive. He says, “It’s like after you look at a place and then where we were headed politically, where the country was headed politically, what we’ve all seen of that direction and then that being new and fresh, that signaled for me you may need to protect yourself beyond sticks and rocks.”
But Meko did not allow this marked space to dictate what he would find in nature. His goal was to find out how nature would influence his voice in an intentional way. He wanted to know how his voice would be different or similar to the white male voices who dominate the narratives about nature. “I just was looking for my own voice in nature because when you read about nature…it would always be from a white male’s voice, and so I began to wonder…what does that voice sound like from a black perspective? Is it any different?” Meko admits he’s still not sure how his voice is impacted by nature, but his paintings tell a different story.
When Meko speaks about his voice, he’s also thinking about his black contemporaries who are exploring nature and publicizing their voyages, so that black people will know they are as welcomed in nature as any other people. He mentions, “There’s another artist Ingrid Pollard that was doing this sorta kinda examination of identity in nature. And she’s in the UK. She’s an African in London. And I bought books just to make sure that I’m not crazy and there are other black people that are interested in nature, which I know, but it was just something I wanted to explore for myself.” Of course, Meko will have a voice distinct from others who write about nature from a black perspective. During his residency, the camp was positioned between very significant monuments. He was existing between Mount Whitney, one of the highest peaks in America and Death Valley, one of the lowest points in this country. He was placed between Alabama Hills, named for the confederacy and The Ashram, a site for rejuvenation and retreat. He felt stuck in the middle. It seems like Meko was stuck in a space where black people exist in this country overall. Yes, there are rights for all citizens of this country to live fruitfully, but without a justice system to enforce these rights, black people stuck in the middle.
Meko’s experience outdoors is as significant as the paintings he created after being there. He says his experience out there was everything, but it also amplified things he was already thinking about and that searching for blackness in that space was noteworthy. He said, “I was already out camping…And going off into spaces. But then going out west it’s something about how big that sky can become out west. And that’s when you begin to feel small. But then it was also something I wanted to explore even more. What does it mean to be black in wilderness? And what does that look like and how does that feel?” His exploration out west and the large sky and the feeling of smallness he experienced are adequately translated into huge paintings of black landscapes taking up much of the space in the gallery designated for his exhibition at the MOCA GA.
Michi Meko is one of three artists selected for the 2017/2018 MOCA GA Working Artist Project. At the gallery talk, Meko introduced us to his paintings in his exhibition with the sounds of Sun Ra’s “Sky is a Sea of Darkness.” The vastness of the music welcomed viewers to the massiveness of the large-scale landscapes of black sky and black sea Meko reproduced from his trip to California. The black landscapes Meko painted are unexpected because many landscapes typically replicate the land with light. It takes close inspection to see what the levels of black paint are doing to the canvases. But once close enough, the viewer can see that there are paintings of vast views of the ocean and the sky in darkness.
He chose a monochrome palette because he wanted to question art history and pushback against it. He wanted to see if he could make beautiful pieces of art with a color not typically used in an art historical context. He was interested in seeing whether or not he could create depth with one color. He says, “I just began to wonder, could I make a beautiful work of art with this one color, which is black? There weren’t a lot of black paintings in art history, so I began to think about that. And trying to create a lane for myself, an aesthetic choice for myself, a visual language for myself, but also sort of push back against art history, and to see if I could push this color in a bunch of different directions. Can it be done?”
The blackness of the paint parallels the blackness of his person, and represent his innate presence in nature. The black landscapes are complimented by navigational lines that crisscross the sky, alluding to the stars as navigational units. Of the lines in the painting, Meko says, “It’s me also trying to create a map and use different parts of maps to create my own map in a way they become abstractions and they become contradictions.” He calls the stars early GPS that were used by enslaved people navigating the course to freedom. During his residency, the cohort was privileged to expertly-led stargazing that influenced his perception of the stars, and he states that he realized, at that time, black people had already been stargazing.
In his gallery talk, Meko mentions the song, “This Land is Your Land” and questions its real meaning. Can nonwhite people feel like this land is theirs? He says, “That’s one of the mythologies of those spaces. It’s just another thing I’m curious about. Like this land is your land this land is my land. You have these national parks which are supposed to be the land for the people. Like these are your public lands is how they word it. So, you should be able to go and participate in those public lands. So, I would like to see more black people participating in their public land. In the national parks.” He wishes for more inclusion for black people in nature but recognizes there’s a history that deters them from entering those spaces. He says,” I’m not saying that all black people don’t go camping, but a lot of us don’t. And I’m curious why is that? And it’s also with a lot of my nautical stuff, a lot of black people don’t swim, so why is that? But a lot of us do. Like I’ve said there are a lot of black people who are online who are visible. And you are not alone…But I think there’s a whole history there that sort of deters black participation in wilderness spaces. If you don’t see yourself in those spaces, you don’t know that you can go or are welcomed to those spaces.”
Through his work, Meko is still searching for answers but would like to show what moments of escape look and feel like. While the trip out to California afforded him quality time with nature, time that he sees as calming and reflective, and necessary, the space was marked with political racial baggage he trying to let go of. At a time when it seems aggressions against black people are the norm and not the exception, narratives of contemplative experiences by black people in nature will counter the narrative we hear all too often. Meko attempts to shift the narrative about nature from one where the voices are solely of white men, to one where all people can participate and experience the calm and reflection time with nature creates. But most importantly, he realizes that maybe black people need to see themselves in those spaces before they feel comfortable venturing out. It Doesn’t Prepare You for Arrival allows viewers the contemplative space to explore the outdoors with minimal risk. Meko translates on to canvases the feeling of being in wilderness, preparing others for the experience, so they too might know what that feels like to be one with nature.
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Shantay Robinson, BAIA resident scholar has participated in Burnaway’s Art Writers Mentorship Program, Duke University’s The New New South Editorial Fellowship, and CUE Art Foundation’s Art Critic Mentoring Program. She has written for Burnaway, ArtsATL, ARTS.BLACK, AFROPUNK, Number, Inc. and Washington City Paper. While receiving an MFA in Writing from Savannah College of Art and Design, she served as a docent at the High Museum of Art. She is currently working on a PhD in Writing and Rhetoric at George Mason University.
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