Culture Is A Weapon. Join the Fight:

Joy Miessi: Cultural Slingshot

The London painter documents the past to carve out a space for their community in the future

/ December 19, 2016

Finding Joy Miessi was like coming upon an oasis in a dry ass dessert of unmoving art. I first stumbled upon Joy’s work while sifting through the many layers of the internet and I was stopped in my tracks when I saw a video of them creating a piece. There was a lure to the process and seeing the real time splatter of vulnerability was so impressive and heartening to me.  After that I followed Joy on all available social accounts so I could stay on top of it all.

I talk a lot about recording our histories, but in the past I limited my imagination mostly to writing. Artists like Joy helped me open doors to other possible documentation methods. They are an inspiring example of other ways to leave pieces of yourself in the ripples. There is something special about saying things with colors and lines. A sort of raw emotion is trapped in the strokes.  Sometimes there aren’t enough words, or there are no words, just feeling.

I was excited to finally get a moment to catch Joy and ask all these questions I had built up about their art, visibility, circular inspiration, and the art world. I caught Joy on the phone just after their 4-5 hour hair braiding session. I had seen them when I was in London a month before, but we were basically passing ships. I think all we got out was Joy saying, “Hey nice to meet you! How do you like London?” to which I replied, “meh its ok” or something along those lines. In my defense I was just really hungry: London is cool.

A painting by London based artist Joy Miessi, in Spark MAg
Joy Miessi, Natural Slow, 2016

RICH GUTIERREZ: How’d the braiding go?

JOY MIESSI: Neckache for sure and I’ll probably have an uncomfy sleep, but protects my hair and the fro next year will be worth it.

You mind introducing yourself to all the possible peoples who will see this? Maybe give me the Who, What, Where, When, Why of you.

I’m Joy Miessi. I’m a painter, sometimes illustrator and overall creative. I’m Congolese but born in London and have lived here all of my 23 years. I’ve always been into arts as kid. Making comics for my little sister and cut out characters for her to play with. This then developed into me making comics and stories in school and I then studied illustration in university. I now freelance and make work based on my experiences as a black person from the African diaspora. My work is like a diary, self documentation of my day to day, a collection of my experiences and visual diary of my life.

I was going to ask if you see you art as a visual diary, it really seems like it. I think that is a big part of what I find so inspiring. Sometimes visual art comes in place of things you can’t say with words.

That’s it exactly. I don’t think I’m great at vocalizing things fluidly so art has been a release, it’s a cathartic release. It’s so much easier for me to say what I’m thinking or feeling through my art then to say it aloud when it often feels like nobody’s listening. I was a very shy child.

What motivates you to create? What are your aims with your art?

What drives me to create work is the release I get from it. It’s relaxing, it feels like pressure lifted. I often make to de-stress, that is often my intent. It’s so flattering to hear that others enjoy what I do though, it’s really encouraging. I find myself inspired by everyday moments, conversations, memories and the people around me.

Often you don’t have a choice in how the viewer interprets the things you create, but I guess I want to know how do you hope it is interpreted?

That’s a really good question. I like that images and artwork can be open for interpretation and made personal to the viewer, it builds a connection between the art and the viewer making the art more relatable. I don’t know how others interpret my work. You can tell me your meaning of it, I’d be interested to hear! I guess I hope that when it comes to my work my identity isn’t erased from that. When I make work about blackness and intersectionality, I don’t want key parts of my identity to be erased from that. My work is also a way of saying I am here and so I don’t want myself or my story to be misinterpreted.

I feel like enough of you is exposed in your work that people couldn’t erase your identity from it even if they tried. I feel as though art has this ability or power to be a cultural slingshot at the status quo. Do you feel like what you do is empowering to people looking for strength?

Yes that’s quite true. I don’t set out with the intention of making political work, but I think it is because I discuss race, gender, culture, sexuality within my work – elements that are a part of my identity, elements that affect my day and how society responds to me – it is automatic for my work to be seen as ‘political.’ When it is just my life as a person of color. I had never thought my work to be empowering but some of the messages I get say otherwise and these really uplift me. Continually making art in a field dominated by people who don’t look anything like me, I’d hope I could bring power, drive and hope to young black female artists out there. I want to tell them to keep going, to tell their story and to make and create and take up space.

I’d like to ask a little more about that, but can’t figure out a way to phrase it in a sensical way. Would you talk a bit about the obstacles of visibility, access and permission? I notice that often black and brown artists work either completely alone or create individually as part of a group for support and visibility. Seems like overcoming mental blocks while simultaneously carving your own space becomes a discouraging obstacle?

Yeah, so the ‘art scene’ from what I’ve known it to be is a white male dominated space. In university, private views, small galleries to big. I could have never visualized myself or my work present in those spaces and sometimes I still struggle to. Occasions where I have exhibited in the past in those settings have felt uncomfortable, especially with very personal work. It often felt like my work was misunderstood and sometimes out of place. But I know I’m not the only one who has felt like this. This year I’ve been so lucky to work with and get to know so many groups and collectives run by WOC and NBPOC [Women of Color and Non-Binary People of Color] for People of Color. The support that I’ve received from these groups and collectives have given me so much more confidence and has drawn a new audience to my work. Groups such as BBZ and publications such as gal-dem are truly inspiring and help lift POC artists like myself by giving us spaces to exhibit and directing opportunities our way. I wouldn’t have participated in a lot of the shows I did this year without groups like BBZ for sure.

2016 Joy Miessi Compilation from Joy Miessi on Vimeo.

Community is so important, in every aspect.

Also the community that follows these groups are the kind of people I feel comfortable showing my work around. They are people of all races, backgrounds, genders, and sexualities who are accepting and respectful of that. These events feel like safe spaces and everyone treats you like home. An exciting network of POC collectives are growing here in London, so it’s amazing that I can witness it and be a part of it somewhat.

I am sure it is imperative for Black and Brown collectives to be around especially in the current climate of the U.K. Could you name a few events, groups or collectives people should look into as well?

Yes, BBZ is the first group I’d recommend 100%. Then gal-dem, Typical Girls, Girls In Film, Born N Bread, many more

Who are some inspiring or influential artists to you past or present?

I have so many artists, my list is ever growing but to name a few Shantell Martin, Jenny Holzer, Dayo Adesina, Alexander Ikhide, Njideka Akunyili Crosby, ah there are so many! And so many that I’ve seen on Instagram that are lesser known but continuously making amazing things. Instagram has actually introduced me to so many new artist inspirations who then only turn out to live across the river from me.

One of your most recent endeavors, Project 56, really struck me, because I am obsessed with recording our histories and retracing parts of us that we may have never seen.

Project 56 was a project started on Congolese independence day this year, 2016. The idea was that within 56 days I would make visual pieces, solutions in response to the research I would collect on Democratic Republic of Congo. Though I was born in London my upbringing still had heavy Congolese influences, as both my parents were born there. Project 56 was a personal project with the aim of me learning more about my heritage, my family, my culture. I explored things from food to music, to my own family stories. It was project made for my family and myself. A reminder of what I had learnt and who I am. I had learnt so much about congolese culture that I didn’t know simply from growing up in London so it was nice to connect back to my family history.

The final piece was a collection of photographs, drawings and writings that I put up on my blog for myself to read and reflect. Growing up in London, being black, often you are made to feel like this isn’t your home. With my English upbringing, this project helped me feel a sense of belonging and more informed of my own culture. “56” is for the amount of years since Congo has been in ‘independence’ since June 1960. I had intended to change the name later, but Project 56 just stuck for the whole entire thing.

A painting by London based artist Joy Miessi, in Spark MAg
Joy Miessi, Sleeping At Night, 2016

What do you hope to do with this project in the future? A show, a book or is it just a document for yourself and family?

Honestly, Project 56 wasn’t meant to exist online, it only did so as a way of me documenting it. I have that habit of getting rid of art if I don’t like it anymore, but with the internet it exists forever! The project doesn’t need to go anywhere or move anywhere as it really is a project for myself and my own understanding of Congo and my family culture. I’m glad others have checked it out though and responded to it! Someone who was also Congolese, but who had also never visited, told me they enjoyed the project as it gave them a glimpse into a part of their background. And I like that it meant something to someone else, so I guess it will just stay online where it is.

I’ve seen you post videos before where you have a soundtrack, what have you been listening to lately?

I love listening to music whilst working, whilst commuting, literally all the time. I’ve been into Solange’s new album. I’ve been relistening to the Cut 4 Me album by Kelela, and going over everything that Little Dragon has ever made.

Any advice to young aspiring artists?  I’ve seen you post videos before where you have a soundtrack, what have you been listening to lately?

To young artists, use the internet and social media to your advantage. Build a portfolio or website or log of your work online and connect with other artists.