For those who thought Basquiat’s unstructured, graffiti-inspired pieces was the last artist to push the artistic value of text and scribbles, they haven’t come face to face with Joy Miessi’s work. Oil bars, pastels, digital art and also filmmaking each add to the controlled chaos of Miessi’s repertoire. With Neon, she broke down how her experience with identity has powered the energy in her work and an emphasis on art as a medium for dialogue.
A lot of your work seems to center around your dual identity. Can you describe the two sides of your identity? I guess I never see it as separate as the intersection makes up me. My parents are Congolese however I was born here in the UK. Often referred to as first generation or of the African diaspora. I am British but made to feel other because of my race. I am Congolese but left feeling other because of where I was born. My upbringing has been of the two; Congolese at home, the food we ate, the traditions we held, the way our home looked. But then growing up ‘British’ outside of that, the language/slang, the way we dressed to match the trends and the overall environment. As a child, I never thought to much about it, but now I recognize why I had this looming sense of displacement at home and also when visiting family in Congo. It feels like I don’t fully belong in either place. I make work that reflects my identity, as a mirror, documenting my existence like a diary and so my feelings surrounding my identity is second nature within the work that I make.
I like that people can relate or find a connection within my work and hopefully make them feel less isolated, alone in terms of their identity. When I make my work, it is for myself, it isn’t for an audience, so maybe it’s this unfiltered honesty that people can relate with, topics of gender, sex, queerness, race, beauty.
Growing up, in what ways was your identity challenged or questioned? When did you find yourself becoming most confident in your identity and how did you get there?
In primary school I was the other. I was teased for my lack of knowledge on traditional British food such as Cottage pies (which I now love) and ‘bangers and mash’ and laughed at for the foods I did eat such as kwanga and pondu. From primary school to university, I’ve regularly had the ‘where are you really from?’ question thrown at me. Its peak was probably university, where a lot of people approach me with racist intentions…
Your work centers around ideas of identity and social beauty standards. How would you define the majority sense of beauty in the UK? What kinds of people does it exclude/how is your work a commentary or critique of these standards? I made a piece called Central/ Centralise which reads “EXPECTED TO CENTRALISE MY IMAGE ON MAINSTREAM BEAUTY…” which describes my relationship with ‘beauty standards. Magazines covers, the love interest in movies and Google search results of beauty … mainstream beauty… fails to reflect women that look like me. I’ve grown up feeling like I am far from what beauty is. I am not white, skinny nor is my hair straight. My hair coils towards the sun, my nostrils are round and wide and my skin is black. I am black. Black is depicted as the other. Beauty standards held by media and society has constantly compared me in this lense, and women of color–black women in particular– are often excluded from what is seen as ‘beauty’ in a mainstream sense. I made the piece Central/ Centralise after my trip to Congo where I felt a pressure to change my hair from its natural state and where there was an overwhelming amount of adverts marketing skin lightening products. I comment on what is real, what is happening right now and how I feel in this space, in society. As I am learning to reject these standards, this unlearning is being documented through my artwork for self-reflection.
Can you speak a little bit about the “We Are Here” project that you were a part of and what the mission of this is? We Are Here started out as an idea by illustrator Erin Aniker (@erinaniker). We bumped into each other at another exhibition and started talking about the EU referendum. Erin told me about this project she wanted to push and I was interested so we met up a few times and started developing the project. We paired up with artist Jess Nash (@jess__nash) and curator Ellen Morrison (@ellen_morrison) to bring the project to life. We Are Here is about highlighting the voices of BAME British Women in the current political context. It had felt like the referendum had increased the already present hate targeted at minority groups, from newspapers encouraging fear to racist comments on the street, people used the EU referendum to justify their racism. We created an exhibition, with discussions and workshops as part of the programme showcasing amazing work by BAME Brit women artists. We Are Here is about us, it is about community, it is to show that we are valid, we are British and that we are here.
Are there other artists or people who inspire your work, how so?
At the moment I’m really inspired by the works by Hamed Maiye, Ben Biayenda and Nwaka Okparaeke. The strength and stories within their images that make me what to write narratives to the scenes they’ve created. I’m also continuously inspired by literature and works by Audre Lorde and Alice Walker. They’ve encouraged me to write and explore poetry within my own work.