By Sara Lee Burd
Atlanta-based artist Michi Meko remembers the fear he experienced when he learned that being black meant following certain rules to make other people comfortable. “When you are a black teenage boy there is a moment where your elder will tell you how to survive your daily life. This is how you interact with cops, where to go, how to act. There are instructions for your survival.”
Meko makes art as he processes the onerous feelings associated with being recognized and treated as different. To explain his life’s challenge, Meko refers to W.E.B. Dubois’ concept of double-consciousness from the 1903 publication, The Souls of Blackness, which reads: “It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, the sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.” By exploring this aspect of himself, Meko is able to create art “so personal it becomes universal.” He combines themes from history, racial stereotypes, nautical systems, and nature with his own lived experience. In each work he reveals clues to his understanding of a world that he knows was stacked against him even before his birth.
The divisiveness within the arts regarding race and geography is another hurdle. Meko has well-founded concerns over his potential place in the canon of American art. Historically, black artists have been relegated as a subsection of contemporary art. He explains, “When we talk about white artists we just call them American artists. I’m black and I’m American and also part of this whole other culture that is not seen as American in a way.” As a Southern artist he is predisposed to being considered less educated and less connected to the conversations driven by artists in major art centers like New York and London.
To illustrate a point that acceptance in the arts depends on more than talent, Meko compares Robert Rauschenberg and Thornton Dial who were both born in the South in the mid-1920s. The disparate trajectory of these artists’ careers is a story of race, access to education, and opportunity.
Texas born and University of Texas educated, Rauschenberg developed a network of avant garde artists as he moved from Black Mountain College in North Carolina to the Art Student League in New York to travels through North Africa and Europe. In his late 20s, he began making assemblages out of found objects and refuse that were exhibited widely in Europe and the United States. This type of artmaking was in direct conflict with the Abstract Expressionist movement lauded by influential New York art critic Clement Greenberg. Rauschenberg actually gained notoriety by defying Greenberg’s ideal. While Dial worked with the same materials at the same time, his artistic career developed in a much different way.
Dial labored on his family farm in Alabama and rarely attended school. In an interview with Folk/Outsider art collector Bill Arnett, Dial admitted that in his youth “They told me, ‘Learn to figure out your money and write your name. That’s as far as a Negro can go.’” Dial worked as a metalworker and handyman for the majority of his life. In his free time he created sculptures and wall hangings out of scrapyard materials and rejectamenta. It wasn’t until he met Arnett at age 50 that Dial realized that what he was making tells a significant story about life as a poor black man in the south. Deemed Outsider Art, his works became highly collectible in the late 80’s. Using that labeling to define Dial’s art frustrates Meko, “Outsider art, what is it outside of? The mainstream? That’s how groups and aesthetics become segregated.”
While the South has many talented artists making meaningful works, artists require respect and a receptive audience to have an impact. Meko defines his art within the lineage of Southern artists using discarded materials. He regards them as “makers who endow the discarded with powerful spiritual connotations.” Underlying Meko’s art is a focus on the black community’s heroic survival and resilience despite discrimination, destruction, and uncertainty.
In Unsophisticated Splashing Meko creates an abstract scene that explores the struggle black people have experienced by and through water. For Meko, water symbolizes danger, injustice and endurance. The real buoys attached to the work, are hopeful elements that suggest guidance. The only representational element in the composition is the hand of a black man reaching out. The rest of the work consists of gestural layers of paint applied in an urban contemporary style using graffiti drips and tags. The red and white pattern across the top of the artwork implies an American Flag, and long intersecting lines drawn across the work seem to trace nautical navigation routes used for transporting slaves. This juxtaposition illustrates a source of pain for black Americans whose families were torn from their land to serve another in the US.
Unsophisticated Splashing also references the stereotype that black people don’t swim. Meko explains that generations of black southerners missed learning to swim because pools were not available to them. As public works established neighborhood community centers, black neighborhoods were passed by. Meko laments that the stereotype derives from an ignorance of history: “We have to think about why it happened. It’s about access. If you don’t have it, you are not part of it.”
As a boy scout Meko learned the importance of being prepared. He embraced nature and felt safer by learning survival skills. The Kit is a perfectly packed knapsack ready for quick and efficient travel. The work points to the historical instability of black lives in the South, beginning with slavery when people made-do with minimal material goods and lived transient lives as a result of being bought and sold. The sculptural wall-hanging contains a host of objects including bamboo fishing poles referencing Meko’s complex symbology of water and their usefulness as tools to provide food. Other items include a gourd with a Ball jar cap that could serve as dry storage, yards of rope and fabric to construct tents and sails, and a blanket from the early 1900s for warmth. Meko assembled the assorted items into a graceful, symmetrical pack loaded with rich symbolism and functional practicality.
Meko aims to secure his place within the history of American art. The lesson of Rauschenberg and Dial is that being in the right place at the right time helps, but meaningful art will always be meaningful art. He is motivated to elevate the southern tradition of using discarded materials. His work illuminates and honors the past and explores how issues of being black in America continue to affect individual lives and contemporary society. While Meko jokes that “black art is hot right now,” he is not going to rely on that for his success. He plans to continue developing his craft and concepts so that he is remembered not as a footnote, but as a powerful, intelligent voice of truth.