Tameka Norris is an internationally exhibiting visual and performance artist. Born in Guam, but raised on the Mississippi Gulf Coast and California, Norris’s work touches on the different ways she has experienced “home” in her lifetime. Her most recent body of work, on view at Gallery 1600 at SCAD-Atlanta, explores the devastation of her familial home post-Katrina. Norris has a BFA from UCLA and an MFA in painting and printmaking from Yale.
When I walked into Norris’s new show, “Between Bloodlines and Floodlines,” I immediately understood so much of what the New Orleans artist is hoping to convey. The works here depict the emotional, familial struggle of adapting to life post-Katrina through painting, textiles, and photography. I grew up on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, and I saw firsthand the destruction and displacement caused by the hurricane; Norris’s show is the first I’ve seen to translate the experience so non-objectively. Norris used impressionistic images of battered homes, a hand-drawn twisted chain-link fence, logos of flooded businesses, and Southern symbols to create a space embodying the challenge of finding a home once yours has been washed away.
I spoke with Norris about the show, recent challenges in her career, and how a singing, painting, movie-making woman makes it as an artist.
Matthew Terrell: This is a very ambitious show, and your first one in Georgia! What did you want to accomplish here?
Tameka Norris: This August will mark 10 years since Hurricane Katrina, and I wanted to put together a body of work that showed my span of practice and how I experienced the visual assault of Katrina.
My mother, grandparents, aunt, uncle, cousins, and little sister were all in the Gulf Coast when Katrina hit. A lot of my family lost homes, and the emotional stress caused some family members to die as well.
MT: Very often, photography or video are used as the medium to document a disaster, but you chose mixed media. It’s a powerful choice. Why go so traditional?
TN: I think in many disasters, we see the faces of people, but they are often left unnamed. We saw masses and masses of people in the news after Katrina, and we never knew who they were. It felt so removed from the event that we felt sympathy but not empathy. I wasn’t there, and I had a hard time wrapping my head around what “gone” meant … what it meant that my home was no longer there. Katrina caused a necessity to express and depict something. To be able to let go and occupy myself for hours at a time creating this work was very calming.
MT: I went to Mississippi a few months after Katrina to do some reporting. I found it very challenging to express the devastation because so much of what you see is nothingness. Was this absence hard for you to express?
TN: UCLA gave me a travel grant to go and make work, and there was a lot of pressure to create. But when I arrived, there was so much destruction that there was often nothing to take a picture of. Sometimes you didn’t know if you were a mile or two miles from where a house you knew once stood. There were slabs and staircases. It’s sick to think, but there was nothing to take photos of! The fact that something wasn’t there was just as powerful as if there was a part there. I embedded the names and brands of things that were there into the show. Marking memories of businesses that are gone was important to me.
MT: You lived and worked in New Orleans while teaching at Dillard. Did being near your family change the way you create?
TN: I have a really close relationship with my grandparents, and I feel different when I am around them. When I’m in LA, I feel more like an autonomous artist.
Back home, my family asks me “You’re going out of town, what are you doing?”
“Oh, you know. I slash my tongue open and bleed all over the walls.” [Referring to an untitled work from 2012 that she painted onto the walls of the Studio Museum in Harlem with her tongue after slashing it open with a knife ]
How do you have these conversations with family? In the conservative South, your work means something different. You feel more exposed and vulnerable doing the work. While teaching at Dillard, my students told me that they found a video of me having sex with a dildo on a stack of art history books. I never thought my students would ever see it. It called for a few uncomfortable conversations.
MT: You recently ran into some legal problems with your film Meka Jean: How She Got Good. Where are you with that?
TN: For the Prospect Biennial, I made a feature-length film and installation. I hired students from Dillard and Xavier to help with the filming. One of the collaborators took the hard drive and made unauthorized copies of the film. She felt like she could do whatever she wanted with the content. She said “I want to make my own edit.” And I said that’s not allowed because this is my life and my body and I own it. On paper it’s clear. I own the LLC, everyone who worked on the film signed releases.
It was really complicated, because she was a woman and she was mixed race and she wasn’t from New Orleans. That speaks to a specific type of privilege. Usually the appropriated gaze comes from a male, so this was strangely poetic but fucked up. I hate to liken it to rape, but I feel I was raped of my identity. There’s a lot of shaming people asking me, “Why are you causing trouble getting an attorney.”
Jeff Koons and Richard Prince have no problem exploiting people and going “I got lawyers, bitch! What you gonna do about it.” People shame you so much. They say “you must have done something wrong. You must have missed some sort of paperwork.”
William Pope L. told me “someone else might try to do your work, but only you have the funk.” I have the funk. It’s my life.
“Tameka Norris: Bloodlines and Floodlines” is on view at Gallery 1600 at SCAD-Atlanta through October 2. A reception will be held for the artist on Thursday, September 24 at 6pm.
Matthew Terrell writes, photographs, and creates videos in the fine city of Atlanta. His work can be found regularly on the Huffington Post, where he covers such subjects as the queer history of the South, drag culture, and gay men’s health issues.