ACBF Director Karen Ashton meets Mekia Machine - a fresh and exciting talent from New York City
It’s a Friday afternoon. Towards the end of a long day at the end of a long week and I’ve arranged a zoom meeting with Mekia, a new artist to the ACBF, appearing courtesy of Smithson Gallery. I log on and up pops the phenomenon that is Mekia Machine, from her studio in New York City. Her warm and appealing persona serves as an instant tonic. Within minutes I feel like I am chatting to a friend. As with her recent paintings, the Mekia effect is as instantly engaging as sunlight yet with much going on under the surface.
Mekia has been a New York resident since the age of 11 ( where she arrived from a formative early childhood in Jamaica), and she's a bundle of forward motion, undeterred by what others might think of as catastrophes. She is forever wed to the idea of new challenges – in her art, her music (she’s also an accomplished musician and composer) and her teaching.
She is currently completing an Artist Residency supported by renowned acrylic paint manufacturer Liquitex and her recent work has taken a dramatic and impactful turn with bold use of colour, powerful graphic portraits and an ebullient signature style.
Sketch of an eye by Mekia Machine
It turns out that she been working with a significant constraint. A recent eye infection has impaired her sight significantly, her left eye especially. At night this requires immense amounts of light for her to work effectively. As yet unsure whether it's temporary, it’s an impairment that would make any artist despair but with her unquenchable spirit she has embraced this as a challenge rather than a handicap, and it has led to her working with brighter colour-fields and trenchant lines, drawing on the rich array of materials provided by her residency.
The result is a series of striking portraits that caught the eye of gallerist Anna Smithson who signed up Mekia on the spot. Having a gallery is something new for Mekia since she'd not really considered selling her work up to now. However, now that the prospect exists, it's an exciting one and one that comes with responsibilities as she's always mindful of Nina Simone's statement - 'An Artists duty is to reflect the times’.
Portraits by Mekia Machine
Karen: What is your approach to the politics of making art?
Mekia: I don’t have the option not to be political - I’m a black woman making art! I did also study political science and history initially though now it all goes towards the idea that I want black people to own my art and of course I want to see people with my skin colour. I have this interest right now with the juxtaposition of pastel colours with black skin, black with soft, black with fragile. Instead of saying ‘yes we’re people, yes we have feelings, yes we hurt’ sometimes we just need visual cues. We need to see these things. So I want to paint black bodies, to present black female bodies, queer bodies, mothers - I decided on honesty, to be raw and honest.
Karen: I wonder what you’d make of Bob & Roberta Smith, a popular artist here in the UK and a regular in the Art Car Boot Fair line-up - as he makes slogan based art that includes works that say things like: ‘Every School should be an Art School’ and ‘Art makes people powerful’.
Mekia: I love that! What if we were all taught to feel and to look and to observe. What a difference that would make!’
Karen: Is this something you try to bring into your teaching?
Mekia: Teaching wasn't something I ever thought I’d do, mainly because I’ve seen the teachers getting such a hard time in New York schools! But I have this idea of wanting to Pay it Forward - which means taking the support you have had and paying that forward by supporting others. And then this opportunity came up to teach a group of older women - sixty and seventy year old queer women of colour. It's something that started as a simple art class but has turned into so much more – it’s become a kind of art therapy space, and they have responded by making some incredible work. These women have all got stories in abundance as queer women of colour, some of whom were at the Stonewall Riots of 1969. They lived through extremely difficult times, in many cases being ‘out’ simply wasn’t an option let alone all the challenges that people of colour experience, then and now. These women are survivors and their work is transformational and in turn my life is being transformed by them. I’m always amazed at all the love and acceptance that exists amongst them.
Karen: I'm intrigued by the working process of every individual artist. What’s yours?
Mekia: I get the studio neat and tidy, verging on obsessively tidy but when the painting process starts, when the flow begins, things get moved around, boxes and other objects, and I find myself so focused on the work that I’m leaning over stuff, kind of contorting my body to find the canvas, working around the mess I’m making. Then when the work’s complete I press re-set, tidy up and start again! My ideal studio would have different wall options as I have two different ways of working - one is with a precise meticulous mindset, the other more visceral, more expressive. So it’s great to have it all up and be able to return and return - to wait till the mindset comes back. Not to rush.
Karen: Do you see paint as a spiritual medium?
Mekia: Well in the sense that eveything that’s created by hand is in some way spiritual. And in the sense of bringing something from one realm into another, the brush being comfortable in your hand, the paint feeling right, the way you're present and you're not, the paint changing from a liquid state to a solid state.
Karen: Now you have a UK based gallery do you plan to come to the UK, to London perhaps?
Mekia: I love London! Every artist I know wants to come to London and I would love to have a residency there. I’ve been to London a couple of times, most recently in 2018 where I found myself in a difficult place, without a guide to show me around and struggling with a few existential thoughts. And so I started working through these thoughts in my sketch book, writing things down then obscuring the words with doodles and this was the image I ended up with.'
Sketch by Mekia Machine
She shows me the image from that 2018 sketchbook, it's like a giant busy brain towering over a small almost cartoonish figure - the self looking up at oneself's brain, perplexed at it. It’s a brilliant evocation of a feeling I’m sure many of us are familiar with. I know I am not alone in hoping for the Mekia Effect to head our way sooner rather than later.
Meanwhile join us on Thursday at 3.30 where Mekia will be taking part in an IG Live event with Karen Ashton.
Portraits by Mekia Machine
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