TAMEKA JENEAN NORRIS: "CUT FROM THE SAME CLOTH"
"Being Facebook friends with family members is so problematic but amazing and necessary at the same time," says artist Tameka Jenean Norris. Social media’s role as facilitator of relationships is indisputable, and a platform like Facebook is ground zero. The artist's reconnection with family through the social network became the launching point for her new show with Ronchini Gallery in London.
Cut from the Same Cloth is a collection of portraits Norris painted from various family members' Facebook photos and her own personal mementos. Norris used the portraits as a way to reconnect with relatives she had become estranged from due to relocation, incarceration, and death. The resulting "family tree," as she describes the assemblage of portraits, "is an attempt to untangle the line of systematic oppression that has burdened [her] family and black American culture at large.”
Autobiography is at the heart of Norris’ oeuvre. Her first exhibit at Ronchini Gallery, in 2014, depicted scenes from her childhood home in Gulfport in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. (She relocated to New Orleans from Los Angeles after the hurricane). In addition to the portraits in this show, Norris wove a large braid made with the recurrent theme of found materials as a physical metaphor for memories, not to mention the association of the braid to women of color.
A staunch multi-hyphenate, Norris deploys herself in a variety of roles as performance artist, painter, and photographer to scrutinize identity, self-exploration, and appropriation of black culture and female identity. She also delivers lyrically: In January, her alter-ego Meka Jean produced the artist’s first EP, titled Ivy League Ratchet, which reflected the artist’s past endeavors as a musician and her time at Yale University, where she received her MFA.
BLANC Modern Africa caught up with the artist to learn how she used the characteristically impersonal tool of social media to create intimacy with family, and where her fellow New Orleanean, Solange, fits in.
BLANC Modern Africa: The portraits in Cut From the Same Cloth continue from your first exhibit with Ronchini Gallery, in 2014, which also incorporated the theme of family. Why did you revisit this theme for your new show?
Tameka Jenean Norris: The previous work was focused on the structures, landscapes and homes of which belonged to my family which were destroyed in Hurricane Katrina. Then by 2014, my work was focused on the clumsy relationship between old and new spaces, old and new community - aka gentrification. My family and community are constantly being defined and redefined. This show confronts what it means to try to engage with, and be a voice for some members of my family. Social media really allows anyone to have a voice and I’m really intrigued with perceptions of what we put into the world (words and images) which ultimately define us.
What prompted you to begin connecting with family through Facebook?
No prompt - I think it’s a very natural thing to do. The most natural thing to do actually and I allowed the everyday, the normal, the nuanced be to the art. If I did anything more, I think I would be recreating iconic black images or stereotypical black images and I am not interested in that. I’m interested in “reality” not representations.
How did these connections transition from mere friend count to art? What’s the allure of mixing social media and art?
Being Facebook friends with family members is so problematic but amazing and necessary at the same time. I have friended and unfriended family and family has friended and unfriended me on social media. My “friends” consist of colleagues, aunts, parents, grandparents, other artists, patrons and admirers of me/my work.
The social mash-up of types of vernaculars, humors, dialects, languages, images, memes and so on is unpredictable in “public” social-space.
Did any humorous, sobering, or other types of emotional experiences happen as you interacted online with these family members for the first time?
During a trip earlier this year to Mississippi between Los Angeles and the MacDowell Colony residency, I got together a few times with my cousin Kim, who I painted for this series. After about 45 minutes of talking outside her house (I was not invited in because my dad and I arrived unannounced) she revealed that based on my Facebook posts/photos that she thought I was bougie aka bourgeois in black vernacular. Hence the title of the painting, “Tameka, I Thought You Were Bougie”. 2016
You have not met some of the family members shown in the exhibit. How did this detachment factor into how you presented those family members in the exhibit?
I’ve met everyone I painted. I haven’t seen some of them in 20 years.
You previously revealed your Ivy League experience caused a rift between yourself, and family members and community in New Orleans. Are those fractured relationships represented in the exhibit?
Not so much of a rift as much as an unavoidable distancing - literally by living on campus in a different town, state or country. It’s more about trying to re-establish common interests and managing time. When in school, I studied a lot and was in my studio when I wasn’t studying. Often I couldn’t afford to buy a plane ticket “home” either. So sometimes years went by before I saw family. No one in my family came to my Yale graduation! Not even my parents! When finances are an issue, some things just aren’t possible.
The braid has significance across many subject areas that you’ve addressed in your work, namely femininity and black culture. Stereotypes and cultural appropriation (recall the “boxer braid” craze, as a recent example) also apply. Can you give some insight to this project – how did the idea for the braid develop? Why did you decide to include it in a show about family?
“The touch, the feel of cotton, the fabric of our lives.” This is a slogan for cotton in the United States. It’s a sing songy feel good nostalgic slogan. It ignores that black enslaved people picked this cotton and lost their lives in those fields. The braid is titled “The Fabric of Our Lives” which literally talks about all the good and bad combined that makes the textures of our experiences. Soft, fuzzy, course, itchy, slippery, fragile, knotty experiences. All the fabrics used to create the clothing were found in the streets of Los Angeles, given to me by family members, found in laundromats when they were left accidentally. An action that brings all the strangers together by the act of weaving their clothing/experiences together.
In January 2016 you released your first album, titled Ivy League Ratchet. Is creating work for an art exhibit similar to the process of producing an album? Is one endeavor more challenging than the other?
They are all different and all present different challenges. I am always embarking on unfamiliar territory. It's frightening.
Which LP would you choose to accompany Cut From the Same Cloth to play as people wander through the gallery and interact with your art? What’s the reason for your selection?
I'd open with Meka Jean’s EP, Ivy League Ratchet and the go to Solange’s, A Seat at the Table. I began the works for CFTSC at MacDowell Colony and had just released my EP and was listening to it a bunch over the summer. Then shortly after I arrived at the Grant Wood Colony, Solange released her body of work. I listened to it a bunch while finishing the work. I think it’s a sweet combination as well because I could imagine an aunt saying something about how it reminds them of me. Lol it’s very sweet! In the past, when my family wouldn’t see me for a few years, they’d need a point of reference for the kind of black I was - if I somehow wasn’t like them. When I wrapped my hair, I was like Erykah Badu, when I had locks, they said Lauryn Hill or India Irie.
Occasionally, my family will “tag me” or send things in my direction, via my DM’s that they think I would like to see. Usually, it’s something “eclectic”, “afrocentric” and “artsy”.
There are also so many more complex and layered black women on TV and films than there was 15 years ago. So now their comparisons aren’t so specific. EEK!
There are no images of Tameka in this exhibit. In the past you've been a main figure in your artwork, in performance and video and photography. Why did you exclude yourself? Were you tempted at any time to 'jump in' and include yourself, especially since these portraits are conversations between you and family?"
Actually I see some of the works of my family as self-portraits as well. This is especially the case for the older women I painted such as my late Grandmother Bernadine and Great Aunt Emelda. They were smartphone images of original photographs then posted to Facebook which makes a pretty low resolution image. I often had to use my face as a reference to get some of the details of the face. So … I’m in there.
Cut from the Same Cloth is on view at Ronchini Gallery November 25, 2016 - January 21, 2017.
All images: Tameka Jenean Norris: Cut from the Same Cloth, Ronchini Gallery, London.