T Eliott Mansa: Getting To Know The Artist
A South Florida native, artist T Eliott Mansa speaks from his heart, sharing life’s experiences which have shaped, influenced, inspired both him and his art. When asked where he sets his vision, he replies “I think that I am a modest person, but it is my ambition that gets me out of the bed in the morning. It focuses me.”
“Currently, I am working on creating paintings as power objects, or fetish objects. I think about what power means to me and who has power, what power I have and what power can be actualized within my community.”
His work is scheduled to be exhibited at My Big Black America at the RUSH Arts Corridor Gallery in New York (opens Apr. 19), as well as The Third Eye for META Series 3 at the ARC in Opa Locka (Apr. 26).
Tell me about your upbringing and how you feel that affects/affected your artwork, if at all.
I was raised in what I felt was a middle class existence. My mother happened to be a school teacher at my elementary school, so I was steered towards excellence in education. There was a lot of cognitive dissonance for me, and I would think that any child experiences the disconnect based on their lack of understanding of the ways of the adult world. I was a child of multiple divorces, so I think that the efforts in discovering information about my parents’ relationships led me to be an artist that asked a lot of questions about my environment.
You graduated from New World School of Arts, do you remember when you first felt the urge to create? Do you still have some works from that time?
Art has been a lifelong part of my life. My earliest memory of art making goes back to my pre-school years, studying the drawings that my older brother made. On numerous occasions, my teachers pocketed my drawings in the hopes that I would someday “make it”. I have a lot of the art work I made at various magnet programs throughout my childhood. While I was away in graduate school, my brother gathered it and displayed it prominently on my bedroom walls.
What motivates you? What inspires you?
I am still motivated by a love of my community. By the concerns I have for my community, and the fears that I am not able to make a change. I feel that the one thing I can do is create art, so those concerns make their presence known in my work. I think my inspiration is partially ambition, and primarily my own drive to create and to push my conceptual and material concerns.
No matter how I tried to dabble into the fast life, I was always reminded that there was something different about me. Others recognized it, but I had to learn to value my uniqueness, rather than seek the validation with some form of street cred. I began to see the kind of duplicity that turns friends against each other when fast money and temptation become the norm. When I began seeing my childhood friends begin to die from gun violence, I started to seclude myself in my studio to find my own center, and start over.
What was your experience with attending and graduating from Yale’s School of Art?
I feel like time was different there. I likened it to going to a buffet on a full stomach. The world is at your fingertips and there is only so much that you can actually do within a 24-hour period. I definitely learned how to approach my practice in a different way. I think in the past I approached having the answers, and I wanted to present those answers to the world. Now I think of communicating my concerns as a problem that I am trying to pursue materially. I want to close the communications gap between my intentions and my effectiveness.
Where to you see yourself going with your art? What are you working on?
I think that I am a modest person, but it is my ambition that gets me out of the bed in the morning. It focuses me. I would like to be an international artist one way, so that requires me making certain steps to get there. Part of that is viewing myself as a part of a larger art world. Part of that is becoming more than a local artist. Part of that is being aware in the contemporary conversation around painting and art making.
Currently, I am working on creating paintings as power objects, or fetish objects. I think about what power means to me and who has power, what power I have and what power can be actualized within my community. I am thinking about ways to combine and manipulate materials in a practice that is inspired by bocic sculptures in West Africa. I have been studying the role of slavery in creating modern capitalism, so a part of my material concerns are ways to speak to that. I do this by incorporating advertisements, packaging materials, and other materials that were created for the sake of the market.
Who are some of your favorite artists?
I think my favorite artist right now is Theaster Gates. I envy the way that he has developed a social practice that is so advanced conceptually and formalistically. I paint as if the painting will change the world by changing the mind of the viewer, but that is my own conceit. He has already determined how the community will change before he even starts a work. I also am a fan of Kerry James Marshall, Kara Walker, Titus Kaphar, Mark Thomas Gibson, Kenya Robinson, Tameka Norris amongst others.
Where are you scheduled to you have your work exhibited in 2015?
I noticed that many artists that deal with figurative images of African Americans, [like] Kehinde Wiley, place them within these stunning Victorian backgrounds as if to elevate their status somehow. Yet, I was troubled by the need to elevate black bodies by placing them in European settings. I felt that paintings like these could end up being more about the lack of brown bodies in the canon of Western Art History, than about the stories of the people captured in the paintings.
What are some of your favorite dishes and/or food spots in Miami?
I am a soul food fan, so I enjoy the staples such as collard greens, sweet potatoes. Also my South Florida upbringing allows me to incorporate Haitian cuisine, Ethiopian dishes and a lot of the tastes that you come across here. When I had a studio in Wynwood, I found myself at Jackson’s in Overtown, and Pride and Joy BBQ.
Anything else you’d like to share?
I just would like to remind artists of the power that they have within their studios. Within those walls is the only space where you have complete freedom. I think artists should be aware of that power that they have. That the whole art world is based on their foundation. I would hope that they focus on that rather than this need to be validated by outside forces and taste makers. Brands that are successful maintain their standards by connecting themselves to talented artists. The artists don’t make better art because they are attached to a brand. The brand itself is maintained because of the quality of the artist. I think that without that understanding, a lot more of the artists soul will be open for bartering.
- Workshop: “But is it Really a Painting: A Practice of Juxtaposition” by T. Eliott Mansa (pamm.org)
- Outsider Art: An Interview with Folk Artist Julia Sisi (cookmixmingle.com)
- Mithila Artist Rambharos Jha Shares His Intricate Work (cookmixmingle,com)