Tameka Jenean Norris
Words Emily Gosling
“Rapper, video hoe, certified audio engineer, certified massage therapist, phone sex operator, stripper, prostitute, a sexually exploited, uneducated woman, porn star, occasional drug dealer, barista, customer service call center agent, professor, and art star” forms something of an exhaustive and exhausting CV. According to artist Tameka Jenean Norris, these were the roles she explored along the eventful journey towards her artistic practice today.
Her work manifests itself through media including painting, video, photography, music, performance, installation and “the internet”, coming together to examine ideas around blackness, or what she terms the “invisibility” of blackness. It’s frequently confrontational stuff: she describes photographs of herself exercising as simultaneously “exorcising stereotypes of race, gender and class”, while performance pieces have involved everything from “liking” to “fucking, crying and mimicking.”
Country Girl in the Big City, Landscape, 2016, fabric, canvas, acrylic paint, thread, 54 x 108 in
Norris received an MFA in Painting from Yale in 2012, while her BA at UCLA saw her major in art and take a minor in African American Studies at the same institution. This sharp engagement with historical contexts and the rigorous painterly approach are evident in her body of work today, as shown in a recent show at London’s Ronchini Gallery.
We meet ahead of the show’s private view in November, and Norris has been in town for the past week having travelled from Iowa to install the show, Cut from the Same Cloth. She’s also popped over to Hyde Park’s festive behemoth Winter Wonderland, learning her lesson not to drink mulled wine and ride rollercoasters.
While her work is always in some way making the personal political, some works here are startlingly new and in reaction to the recent election of Donald Trump. While this has been a blow to most of us, Norris feels it even more strongly as a woman, and more so as a woman of colour. The piece is entitled Memorial to My Black Joy, and takes the form of a little bouquet of plastic flowers poking out from a pile of dirt. “Hashtag black joy and the idea of black Twitter, and the vocal space emerging for black people and Black Lives Matter as a movement is really interesting because in the past black leaders would be killed and that would destroy the movement, people like Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, a lot of people from the Black Panther party were undermined or killed” she says. “The interesting thing about black lives matter is there’s no one place or person, it lives as a hashtag. Black Twitter is regular Twitter, but it’s intellectuals and normal people talking about things. The piece talks about how tough it is to get up every day and know how historically black people and women were treated– I embody both.
“Joel, You Want a Hamburger”, 2016, fabric, canvas, acrylic paint, thread, oil pastel, 50 x 50 in
In most cases black identity lives firmly within a stereotype. Black people aren’t allowed to be complex and layered, they’re allowed to be black, that’s it
“Tameka, I Thought You Were Bougie”, 2016, fabric, canvas, acrylic paint, thread, 48 in x 68 in
“There are multiple races in my family but in the world I’m a black woman, that’s how I’m seen, and I see myself as a multiracial woman of colour. It’s exploring how I find joy when I’m being bombarded with things that my grandmother and my grandmother’s grandmother’s grandmother was bombarded with. There’s still segregating, the Flint water problems [https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/flint-water-crisis], privatised prisons are overly incarcerating men of colour essentially for slave labour. It’s a memorial for my joy and the people in my family who have passed.”
Much of this new work on show deals with ideas of what it means to be a black woman in the world. Norris was the first in her family to go to university, and found herself in the “white” world of Yale. Returning to her native New Orleans, that meant renegotiating her place in the city, and in her own family. She became “other,” but in a different way to the “otherness” of being a black woman in an Ivy League institution: “I come from a poor middle class family, and in order for me to do what I’m doing, go to Yale, I had to leave my tribe and my community, my village, and then that creates a separation from myself and my family.”
She examines this through a series of multimedia paintings of family members, created in a dark room from projections of photographs found on Facebook. The figures are decorated with quotes embroidered on by women in an Iowa shopping mall, in a scripty font that hints at ideas of femininity and domesticity.
The home also resonates through installation pieces beneath the images – fluffy pink slippers here, slivers of tattered patterned fabric there, little fridge magnet lettering, a sewing machine sitting quietly on the gallery floor. “In most cases black identity lives firmly within a stereotype. Black people aren’t allowed to be complex and layered, they’re allowed to be black, that’s it,” says Norris. “I was trying to create images in a way that shows these people in a nuanced way, not in a stereotype. It’s also thinking about a type of feminism, I never really new my grandmother outside of the house.”
Grandma Bernardine, “I’m Making Water”, 2016, fabric, canvas, acrylic paint, thread, oil pastel, 48×48 in
A lot of the conversations around feminism are based around academia: can the women be feminists if they can’t tell you a textbook definition of feminism?
Amber, “I wanna come to N.O an Hang out & party now that I’m off on weekends”, 2016, fabric, canvas, acrylic paint, thread, 54 in x 54 in
The women in the images are at once humanised and distanced through their depictions. Some are accompanied with quotes lifted verbatim – spellings and all – from Facebook statuses or messages. In just one phrase and photograph they reveal a multilayered snapshot of these women’s lives, and a wider panorama of the realities of their community. Norris explains: “In the black and diaspora communities it’s a lot about ‘making do’.” She points to an image of Kim, smiling and warm, but accompanied with poignant words. “She’s suggesting she’s strong, she’s been through a lot but she’s tough. She’s making do with what she has. She recently said to me ‘Tameka, I thought you were bougie [bourgeois]’. But my name is very ethnic and categorically belongs to a lower class, if a name can do that, which they can. Now my Yale degree is my ‘whiteness,’ but before I’d use my middle name, which is French, for job applications so I wasn’t overlooked. So it’s kind of ironic to read ‘I thought you were bougie.’”
Does she feel any tension, or even guilt about presenting these personal messages from her family? “Well some of them don’t know,” says Norris. “But in Kim’s case, she wants to start a business in crime cleaning. It’s a huge ambition for someone who didn’t complete a basic education, so I’m hoping to use some money for work that sells to meet some immediate needs like taking the course for the diploma. But I wonder if that’s enough, and if I give it, will it change anything? I really admire these women. There’s something really profoundly strong.”
Kim “I’m Thankful n Blessed not to Look Like What I’ve Been Thru”, 2016, fabric, canvas, acrylic paint, thread, 50×50 in
A motif running through the show is the idea of a fence, the sort of “rickety” criss cross metal type that can be easily crushed with a hard kick. It’s a nod to the idea of a barrier you can see through, but one that “prevents people from getting through to the other side. It’s symbolic for an imaginary space you can’t get past.” These barriers are even evident in movements such as Black Joy and Afropunk, says Norris: they seem to attract certain people – the Urban Outfitter, American Apparel wearing girl with a certain type of hair. “Is the girl in the hood on food stamps, is she allowed to have that kind of joy? Is the girl who works at the grocery store who goes to community college, is she allowed to have Black Joy? There’s a certain privilege and status around who’s allowed to have that joy. A lot of the conversations around feminism are based around academia: can the women be feminists if they can’t tell you a textbook definition of feminism?”
Images of the men in her family are relegated to a back room, separated from the women to hint at the real-life parting of the genders often through the males’ incarceration. The works on paper look to give these men a name and an identity, where the media would portray them – as the series’ name suggests – as Killers, Criminals, Perverts, Heroes and Hustlers. They’re painted from Facebook photographs, or from mugshots Norris found online.
The works forges new identities not just for Norris’ family, but for people of colour more widely. As she discussed, these build up nuanced portraits of people and of places, and demonstrates art’s power for quiet yet profound activism and discussion. She tackles tough and knotty issues, but also ones that demonstrate a certain resilience and wonder at what it means to be alive. A fabric sculpture of woven textiles demonstrates “the fabric of our lives,” Norris explains. “there’s a beginning and an end and all this shit in the middle: in some places it’s warm and fuzzy, in some places it’s almost broken, and you can see the bumps. In some places it’s really beautiful.”
Jesus be a Fence Between Me and These YT People, 2016, fabric, canvas, acrylic paint, thread, 58 x 58 in