One of the most powerful effects of art is that it holds up a mirror to society so that we can reevaluate the world and our place in it. A single image from a single artist can stimulate people intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually so there is a certain weight that an artist has to carry. Some bear that load like Atlas while others crumble under the pressure.
One artist that has fully embraced this critical responsibility is painter, curator, writer, and educator Mira Gandy. The University of Southern California alum proudly uses her artistic voice to challenge viewers to see the conventional ideas of beauty, race, sexuality, and media influence in a new light, but she presents her work with enough nuance that the art produces self-discovery rather than dictation.
Her unique vision of the female perspective and contemporary mainstream culture has led her work to be featured at the Lankershim Gallery, Helen Lindhurst Fine Arts Gallery, and her current collaborative exhibition, Art Takes Seoul with Ahrum Clairborne, is now showing at the Knox Gallery in Harlem. The new show features collages, paintings, and mixed media installations by Gandy and a one-person play by Clairborne. Gandy and Clairborne’s respective takes on growing up in the 1980’s at the same time a new culture called hip hop was overtaking New York City explores the theme of forming one’s own identity vs dogmatically adhering to familial/societal traditions.
Mira is preparing for the closing reception for Art Takes Seoul this Thursday, December 13, but before she winds down the show she gave an interview with DZI: The Voice to talk about the exhibit, her influences, and how art positively changes lives.
Yohance Kyles: When did you discover your voice as an artist?
Mira Gandy: I have always had my voice as an artist since I was a small child. When I grew up I was very vocal about being an artist. My father was an artist. Even back then I was drawing or painting female figures. So, my voice was there. It was just a smaller voice (smile) that continued to grow as I did.
YK: How has growing up in New York influenced you as an artist?
MG: Growing up in New York City was such a stimulating and creative experience for me. I am from the village. Born in the East Village when it was called “Alphabet City”, and raised in the West Village. NYC is like no other place in the world. I was so influenced by the art that was found everywhere. I looked from graffiti to the Guggenheim, and I grew up around artists, musicians and actors so it allowed me to feel free to express myself.
YK: You spent time studying in Paris. How is the Parisian art scene and culture different from American art culture?
MG: When I went to Paris it was a dreamlike experience for me. I was young and living in Paris. In terms of art, I was able to see the great works of art I had only read about. The Mona Lisa and Rodin, Picasso and Gauguin and it was really amazing and also eye-opening because there is so much hype about the masterpieces, but when you see the Mona Lisa, and it is so small, it’s surprising. And most people don’t know that until you see it. I enjoyed going to Montmartre and sitting with the local artists and watching them. One of my best experiences was walking on the Pont Neuf when the artist Christos wrapped it and being in awe of the sheer magnitude and concept of it all.
YK: New York has a notoriously saturated art community. How were you able to break out and become one of the leading artists in the city?
MG: Well, everything is saturated in NY. It’s NY! And everyone here is working hard in whatever field they’re in. Art is no different. For me I feel that the richness found here is what makes New York so freeing. There is not just one art community here, but many. It’s many rivers that flow into one big ocean and for me that offers a lot of areas to dive into and swim. I spent time going out to exhibitions and openings of interest to me, and museums and really spent time engulfing myself in everything that I found interesting. I was given an opportunity to write a column for the New York Beacon by Audrey Bernard, which enabled me to meet many contemporary artists and really be out there in a different way, which has lead to more opportunities.
YK: What is it about the collage medium that attracted you to use that style in your art?
MG: Collage for me is so tactile; I really enjoy using my hands, and getting dirty when I am creating. The feel of the paint the ripping of the paper or magazines- the stickiness of the glue. I am also a very image driven person. Photographic images are such signifiers especially when used in advertisements. A single picture of something can mean so many things. With collage I can transform one picture into something else, take something recognizable and repurpose it or manipulate the image. I also like to work in layers and that is something collage also allows me to do.
I feel women have that ability to bring out the humanity in others. We have an inherent power that enables us to endure many things and we are beautifully complex.
YK: Your work focuses a lot on the female form and sexuality. What is the message you want to convey through your art?
MG: My work deals with social and political themes but seen from a female perspective. I have always felt we experience the world in a different way. I feel women have that ability to bring out the humanity in others. We have an inherent power that enables us to endure many things and we are beautifully complex. Women can be smart, beautiful, sexy, strong, vulnerable, confident, inventive, and triumphant all at the same time. The messages I want to convey through my art are that as a woman I can be me, unapologetically.
YK: You’ve had some prominent people like Samuel L. Jackson and Valerie Simpson purchase your work. What was your initial reaction when your pieces started to attract celebrity collectors?
MG: Of course I was happy, but what is most important to me is that my work affect people’s heart and mind. So whomever they are I really want them to look at my piece and live with it and feel as if they have a part of me with them. It really is about that first.
YK: Your latest exhibition showing at the Knox Gallery is a collaborative effort with playwright/performer Ahrum Clairborne. How did you connect with Ahrum and what was the inspiration behind Art Takes Seoul?
MG: Ahrum and I met through my mother Irene Gandy who is a theatrical publicist, producer, and press agent. I actually met Ahrum’s play first before I met her. My mother gave it to me to read and she kept telling me that I had to meet Ahrum and we had to work together because she was so impressed by her work and her person. She said Ahrum reminded her of me. It took two years before Ahrum and I met and my mother was right, we are soul sisters! lol!
When Ahrum and I met we discovered we had things in common, growing up NYC in the 80’s, and we both shared the same philosophy about creating art. We believe that art has to come from the soul, you have to put your whole life into it and that will connect with the viewer. We wanted to bring her art and my art together in an authentic way and we wanted to come together- an African American visual artist and a Korean American playwright/actress- and use our art to change people’s perceptions about differences, race, identity and life’s obstacles. Ahrums’ play was the catalyst for the work in the exhibition. It inspired me and brought up feelings of nostalgia and my memories of growing up in NYC. I also was moved by her personal story, so some of the work is a direct response to experiences she went through.
YK: Art Takes Seoul also features some of your multimedia pieces. Can you just speak on your decision to explore a different medium and your creative process for those works?
MG: My decision to explore new medias came from the ideas that I had and wanting to express these ideas in a medium other than painting. My video’s really were born from the ideas surrounding television and what I was watching or listening to growing up and it seemed right to bring the viewer into that world in a very tangible way and evoke the sort of nostalgia about that time through the moving image. I have been interested in video and film because it is a medium that speaks to me. I can’t start a painting until I have a visual image in my mind about what I want to paint and so I felt it was an easy transition. My digital compositions came about when I found a picture of me taken when I was in high school and I wanted to find new ways to approach collage. For me the digital compositions are collages in a way, as well as the compilation of media images in the video.
It’s not like math where there is a right and wrong answer. With art 1 plus 1 doesn’t have to equal 2, it can equal 11 and that’s the awesome thing.
YK: You’ve spent a lot of time working in youth outreach and community-based programs. In your opinion, how does the practice of art bring positive change into people’s lives?
MG: Art is the great equalizer, because everyone can view it and find something they can relate to without ever being educated about it. It taps into our humanity; we feel something inside when we look at art. On another level the act of creating art is therapeutic. I have worked with gang members, homeless youth, post-incarcerated women and children of all ages, and I have seen instantaneous transformation in people’s spirit. They become hopeful, peaceful, happy, and feel a sense of accomplishment. And that is something that can’t be taken away. I constantly encourage kids and adults to allow themselves to create something. Where else do they get to do this? When I teach I tell my students they are not allowed to use the word “ugly” or say they hate their work, because their art is a reflection of them. If they talk about their art that way it’s as if they are taking about themselves. It’s not like math where there is a right and wrong answer. With art 1 plus 1 doesn’t have to equal 2, it can equal 11 and that’s the awesome thing.
YK: Who are some other contemporary artists that you are a fan of?
MG: I am a fan of Mickalene Thomas, Mark Bradford, Hank and Deb Willis, Kehinde Wiley, Wangechi Mutu, and Cindy Sherman.
YK: What are some you favorite pieces that you’ve created?
MG: My current pieces are always my favorites at the time. In a month if you ask me I will probably be less enthusiastic. Lol!
YK: What’s next for Mira Gandy?
MG: Making art is always first priority so I am going back into the studio to work on two series I put on hold for to do Art takes Seoul. I’ll be continuing my art column, and I am starting a new art blog. I will be traveling between NY and LA and making plans to take Art Takes Seoul to LA for 2013.
Art Takes Seoul will be showing at The Knox Gallery until December 13.
The Knox Gallery is located at 129 West 129th Street 10027. For more info click it.
For more info about Mira Gandy and her work click it.
Check out a video of Mira discussing her time at USC: