Mandy Messina visited by Erin Latham

The best part about studio visits is having a conversation with someone you have conversed with many times, and coming away with a completely different view about their life, work, and ideas. This month, I visited Mandy Messina, friend, artist, and #nextdoorstudiosOKC member. Mandy is a thoughtful, kind, idea driven, individual who creates work that challenges societal norms and asks viewers to be better than what they have been. I can attest personally that every time I sit down to chat with Mandy, I leave the conversation ready to change the world for the positive. Her work is considerate of individuals in society, while it seeks to understand how we got here and how we can change the given structure. Mandy is an interdisciplinary artist from South Africa, living in Oklahoma. Her work deals with mimetic systems and access points into a given structure.

How did you find yourself here, in Oklahoma?

I came to here because my partner Aaron is from Oklahoma, we didn’t necessarily think about where we were going to be based we ended up here. There were some situations that made it appealing to stay near Aaron’s family. We met in South Korea and were both teaching English. I began a job with the Oklahoma Visual Arts Coalition and it was a hard and fast introduction to the Oklahoma art scene. The small size of the staff at OVAC allowed me to learn a lot about artists in the state and opportunities. It heightened my confidence because I had access to see the submissions of other artists’ imagery and information and I could see the quality across the state. Having access to other artists enhanced my conviction in making work.

Has relocating here affected the work you are making?

Yes, I felt more comfortable making art here after college, because I felt a sort of trauma with my art during the last two years at school. During the last period at school I was trying new media/content. What was expected of me was to create work that centered on themes of being a person of color and what my professors imagined what that experience was like. It frustrated me that I was not allowed to pursue purely conceptual work. It may have been the way I read the situation, but it wasn’t a positive experience towards the end of my coursework. The consideration of art here in Oklahoma is broader than what I was exposed to in school. Moving here has altered the context of what I understood art to be. The stakes aren’t as high in the creation of art, and artists are establishing factions of different media, so that there is a place for everyone.

I appreciate Oklahoma, I’m grateful for it, but there’s also just enough of a conservative restriction to the state that keeps me making and wanting to push certain elements in my work. Sometimes I am ready to leave because of the conservative lilt, and other times I am able to channel that, and use it as something to create a disruption. It’s enough pressure to push out an idea that challenges the accepted norm.

Is the work driven from content in this way then?

Totally content. A lot of my work tries to stay in an experiential range- like writing a story, the best stories you write are ones that come from experience. It’s disingenuous to try to speak on behalf of someone else’s experience, which is a trap I fall into often. I come up with theory-based ideas frequently, and then realize that it’s not fair for me to speak on behalf of other people. I’m aware of that in my work, it’s a process because of the subject matter I am dealing with, and wanting to get my ideas across without putting words into others mouths. I tend to create politically informed work because that’s the lens I prefer. I’m interested in materials, but I think that the aesthetically pleasing nature of materials is less interesting, than the connotations attached to the materials themselves. For example embroidery- there was a certain time in history when only a specific group of women had access to it, and becoming refined in the art of needlework was an upper class activity.  In that time craft was something they spent time with, materials like needlepoint and applique. These materials have a specific connotation to them, and as a woman making embroidery that’s something I consider.  I’m also concerned in the subversive nature of needlework in art. Lately, more people are altering the context of craft based and needle based work, specifically men who are using the media of cross stitching and embroidery  to create a dialogue about the materials.

How and why did you begin using fiber art?

The needlework was a circumstantial thing. I’ve always been drawn to textile-based works but became captivated after our third year of University in South Africa.  We were expected to write a monograph about a South African artist, and I was lucky enough to interview Billie Zangewa.  I loved her work; she creates applique pieces using silk remnants to illustrate the mundane experiences along with poignant moments in her life.  Aesthetically it appealed to me, and was in the back of my head for a while. When I came over to the US I had the idea of the “Visa” series and I tried to create it in the same manner as Zangewa, but I didn’t have the finesse, material-wise it just looked like a mess. I knew I had to find a different avenue.

When I first moved to the United States, I wasn’t allowed to work because I didn’t have work authorization yet, I was able to use a lot of my time creating. Eventually we moved to Oklahoma and I didn’t have access to a studio space.  My partner and I were living in a situation that I am grateful for, but one that didn’t afford me space to create large works. I had to work out of a small handbag, I had all my embroidery thread and supplies in there. It was a combination of no studio space, and having to create work in small bits of time around my job and my living situation. Aaron and I were also sharing a car and I began to utilize the time during the commute to work and the time spent waiting for him to get off of work, to create needlework. 

How does the role of the system play a part in your work? Do the systems of aesthetics and the systems of bureaucracy relate to each other? Do they formulate something specific in your work?

System and structure, I’m not sure where it started. In university I made a recurring theme of mimetic objects for example the images of tiny people who make up a larger person. I was interested in the works of Do Ho Suh and impacted by his use of the mimetic. I continue to use that idea in the works today; the “Visas” piece has tiny stitches, which build up to create the final work. I even consider the use of small amounts of time and energy, used to create the larger whole as part of the mimetic process. The other structure in my work is the governmental processes, and civil engagements, that make up everyone’s experience. I am curious about how an individual is meant to fit into a particular society, community, or system. More specifically, how I, as an immigrant fit into Oklahoman society/community and how I function in the US and global structure as an individual. I’m also engaged in points of access in government and how each place has the same basic structure of documents, but are all slightly different based on their aesthetic. The distinctions between the bureaucracies are curious with how we are all taught in a specific structure but come out differently. For example how we all learn the same alphabet and writing structure but each of our handwriting is slightly different. The idea that at what point in the structure does the uniqueness of the individual fit into the rigidity of the system.

Recently you were involved in a project with local students and artists, what was the project?

Jarica Walsh and Katie Pendley two local artists, put together an exhibition entitled “Symbiotic” that paired local artists with students at the University of Oklahoma. Pairs were chosen by the curators of artist who had likeminded practices, or styles. I was paired with Bella Blaze, a student artist who is working on interdisciplinary and mixed media work that centers on consistent narratives. Bella and I had several ideas throughout this process, but we focused on one idea that came to fruition through game structure. We created a chainmail game, and we simultaneously sent each other packages with associated challenges to one another, and returned them back and forth. Bella developed a consistent narrative with their mailed pieces, but I had room to play, so I sent them things like, bad IKEA instructions for a sculpture, or instructions of making a game within a game. Each time I was able to look at what I did before and change it, if it didn’t “work”. Through this back and forth a few ideas came about, that I am excited to see come into creation.

Symbiotic, Detail

Symbiotic, Detail

Symbiotic, Detail

Symbiotic, Detail

Your ideas for this show seemed to branch away from traditional fiber works, did this exhibition help to create other ideas you’d like to explore?

Yes. Through the back and forth a few ideas came about, that I am excited to see come into creation. The first idea was focused on the unresolved colonial history of Oklahoma and the treatment of Indigenous people. The University of Oklahoma has a long history with Indigenous people, and their treatment. Being an outsider to this history but seeing it reflected in South African student protests right now, I am interested in colonial legacies and how Indigenous people function within the state, and country. Bella and I planned to utilize the space we were given to help a specific population. We wanted to create a space wherein we could work with a specific group, Indigenize OU, on what they need to continue day to day operations. This is something I am planning to explore in the future, possible with other groups of people. The second idea we focused on was (LARP) live action role-playing and meshing the boundaries of art/life into a game scene or art piece. 

Did working with a student artist give you any insights? Has it factored into how you are thinking about the future of art?

I have realized that there is so much potential in Oklahoma and people don’t necessarily see it because progressive individuals in university settings are making it. I have so much confidence and excitement for the next generation of artists that are coming up in Oklahoma.

How has working/living in several other countries had an effect on the work you are creating?

I have lived and worked in several places but I would recommend Teaching in South Korea to anyone who is interested, it was two of the best years. Obviously, there are a lot of small issues foreigners might have in South Korea, that can make it difficult, but it’s a wonderful experience. Korea was the one time that the bureaucratic nature of moving to another place was really easy for me. I became interested in the aesthetics of how the lay out their documents, and the process you have to go through.

Has this played a role in works you’ve created since being there?

Actually, I think more so, that I was influenced by the aesthetics of the documentation I needed in several countries I visited. Specifically the way in which self mediated imagery is employed in official documentation, or how image conscious some of the countries I lived in are.  For example I have a Japanese visa photo that looks almost nothing like me, because the photographer edited it so much. He insisted that instead of taking an everyday photo that there needed to be some consideration of this photo, he insisted on styling my hair, and later when I received the image it looked as though he had lightened my skin tone and faded things. It was almost as if he had put a soft filter on my photo. It’s fantastic but it doesn’t look much like me. It was an interesting experience, but it totally fit into one of the East Asian aesthetic ideas that are applied to images there. Similar to that is the image conscious nature of Korea. In the girls’ high schools, there are generally mirrors, when you walk in the front entrance, so that you can adjust your appearance in order to present your best self. In one of the school’s I worked at there was a scale next to the mirror. I’m not sure what that says to the girls or about the image consciousness of the society exactly.  These image conscious ideas have influenced the work I’m making.

Your artistic practice and exhibition record have been super prolific lately. Can you tell us about some of your recent and upcoming projects?

Recently I’ve been adding performative aspects into my work. I created my first performance based piece at the AHA Festival of Progressive Arts in Santa Fe, entitled “SHIFT ALT DELETE” I toyed with the idea of turning myself into a Foreign Service Officer and forcing people to fill out forms of an imagined country. People could then come and create their own fake IDs, either using a false identity or their own. I reimagined a speculative history based on the idea of a three-tiered process. The documentation was either based on: what if a country was run as a corporation, what would have happened if all colonization was flipped and African countries had colonized European, or the idea of sovereign states but independent countries and existing next to each other.  The work was the recreation of documentation for each of these ideas. People could dress up in costumes pertaining to the ideas and then have their id printed on the spot.

SHIFT ALT DELETE

SHIFT ALT DELETE

SHIFT ALT DELETE

SHIFT ALT DELETE

What are some of the other projects you’re working on?

I’ve been asked to create a project for “Inclusion in the Art”. They asked me to do a lecture series or a workshop. I am excited for this, because I love teaching in the respect of taking in information and processing it to benefit the audience. What they are trying to do in the black community in OKC is to expose people to different ranges of art making. You can create an experiences for people to take in. I’m lining up artists to help drive this point home.

I also have a six-week residency coming up in Northwest Oklahoma, in Alva at a University, in a rural, conservative, small town in which the only international people are the ones on the campus. I proposed an idea in which I want to link the emergence of Science Fiction and Colonialism. I’ve been reading and thinking about in 19th century when there was a scramble for the colonization of certain parts of Africa and Asia, at that same point you began seeing Sci-Fi in literature. I read an article that spoke about questioning the idea that white Sci-Fi authors always seem to imagine the subjugation of themselves in science fiction. It’s always some other “alien” race that comes and causes harm to the normal society. Which is opposite to the reality of what has happened throughout history. I haven’t decided exactly how to create this work but would like to use some sort of textile/fiber art context. I am also likening the idea of current society and the images we are presented that exclude people of color to the Sci-Fi/Colonization project.

I love this idea of addressing the issue of how we create the “other” in literature, society, and life. Is this something that pervades the work you are making?

Yes. I am interested in how we alienate each other outside of what is the societal/social norm.  I’m influenced by artists who deal with issues of the invisibility of whiteness, or how the idea of whiteness has become what is normal or regular and this becomes invisible through the language we use, and the conditioning of society. I recently purchased a magazine with a person of color on the cover and was frustrated at the lack of representation of other people of color within the pages. I want to create a piece that addresses this idea alongside the Sci-Fi project in order to link the two and to exhibit my frustration at not being represented.

I’ve also been recently introduced to the idea of Kai Zen. Each day you begin to try to become 1% better at something. So eventually you become so much more efficient. I began thinking about it on a larger scale with my life, and the overall society as a whole. There are a lot of things in society that are moving at a warp speed right now, which is good because it’s making up for lost time. Ideas like Black Lives Matter and the improvements within the LGBTQ community, for example.  Certain people in society, especially here in the South, are finding these things to be moving too quickly, and threatening their way of life, but in reality society seems to finally be slowly improving, we are Kai Zening. All this lost time is exponentially getting faster and faster. I’m finding that my own growth is happening in trying to find gentle explanations about this, for people I meet in my life, and my job, that aren’t comfortable with all ofit. It seems like sometimes this is amplified here in Oklahoma, and it makes it a great place to have these conversations.

For more information on Mandy, please visit her website or check out her instagram

Additional Images: