Michi Meko’s exhibition Pursuit: Almost Drowned, at Alan Avery Art Company through August 8, presents the artist’s latest paintings, drawings and sculpture in a narrative that mixes a nautical theme with an urban sensibility.
Attacking the stereotype that blacks can’t swim, he uses drowning as a metaphor for survival and ties his theme to historical moments, from the arrival of the last illegal slave ship to recent church burnings.
The exhibition is a high-wire, ambitious effort to find the sweet spot between buoyancy and immersion; between sinking and swimming; and between the deeply personal and the universal.
This visually strong narrative, cloaked in layers of meaning, offers a rich experience for the persistent viewer.
Since moving to Atlanta from rural Alabama in 1999, Meko has established a solid career as a multimedia artist. His paintings, sculptures, public art projects, and performance and sound installations have been exhibited at spaces such Beep Beep Gallery, Barbara Archer Gallery, Eyedrum and the Atlanta BeltLine.
His ideas have flourished with grants from Flux Projects, Idea Capital, WonderRoot and a Dashboard residency in Detroit. One of his drawings was acquired by the High Museum of Art and is now on view in the museum’s SPRAWL! Drawing Outside the Lines exhibition. The show at Alan Avery is his first solo exhibit in a commercial gallery.
Meko, an avid fisherman, conceived the idea for his current work during a fishing trip at Cape San Blas, Florida. Looking at the endless ocean, futilely trying to catch a fish, he became flooded with self-doubt about continuing to make art with little monetary reward. The following morning he awoke with the realization that he could either swim or drown.
“Once I made a decision to swim, everything at Cape San Blas became clear,” he recalls. “I saw where I could take this nautical theme and throw it into an urban environment.”
Engaging in months of research, Meko identified the coded nautical flags and navigational lines as the iconography for a loosely structured narrative about survival. In the mixed media painting November Charlie, a submerged male figure floats motionlessly in a black sea, his face just above the water line.
Colorful flags fill the edges of the work, their meaning unclear. A key provided by the gallery helps to decode them. The flags November and Charlie also mean “no” and “yes,” an oblique reference to the drowning man’s choices to sink or swim.
Meko frequently uses gold leaf to place himself in his art. Here gold leaf, shaped like the African continent, is smeared with red clay representing the South, bringing together the historical past and the cultural present. The painting captures the pivotal experience at the beach in which Meko reflected on his life as an artist.
The artist’s most direct voice comes through in Pontchartrain. The painted collage of texts and images bob up and down in the black water, an allusion to the flooding during Hurricane Katrina. A partially masked self-portrait with a golden aura is overcome by the morass surrounding him, or perhaps the figure is breaking through the surface as a resolute survivor. References to voodoo (High John, black magic, Lazarus, charms, roots, black cat) co-exist on the same plane as a maritime sign meaning “pilot on board.” Deliberately ambiguous, the work leaves the viewer to interpret.
Time shifts back and forth in Meko’s navigation of identity and place. In the large mixed-media painting The Ship I Came Here on Vanished. We Automatic., he links the historical past with an imagined future. In 1858 the last illegal slave ship arrived in the port of Mobile, Alabama. The owners, fearing detection, burned the ship shortly after the human cargo was unloaded.
An anchor-like sculpture made of salvaged metal and cotton bolls, affixed to a charred timber, is the focal point of the work. The gold bands, Meko says, could be read as the prow of the vanishing slave ship but also as a spaceship hurtling toward an uncertain future in a nod to Afrofuturism.
A selection of works on paper explores various water-themed concepts. In The Science of Buoyancy, an image of a white-and-red fish float is energized at the point of buoyancy by scribbled ellipses. The three-dimensional Kit is an assemblage of materials to aid one surviving in the wilderness: a crawfish pot, cotton bolls, an antique quilt, feathers, fish floats and even a carefully pleated waterproof fabric to make a sail. Shaped like a totem, the sculpture marks the self-assurance needed to confront nature’s challenges.
A few days after Pursuit opened, Meko was fishing on the Chattahoochee River with friends. Stepping out of his kayak in what he believed to be two feet of water, he dropped down into a bottomless spinning whirlpool that tossed him around like a toy. While under water, he could see light above and immediately fought for the surface. A friend pulled him to shore and, unnerved by the experience, he sat on the river bank the rest of the afternoon. The phrase “she will take you” surfaced in his mind as a mantra. Days later an anthropologist friend texted him about the African water spirit Mami Wata (Mommy Water), advising him that, if Mami Wata takes you and you survive, you will be a calm and wealthy man.