Jackie Milad on Collaborating with her Son, Questioning the Value of Art, and Navigating her Egyptian and Honduran Culture
AS A COLLECTIVE, WE WANTED TO TAKE TIME TO HIGHLIGHT THOSE THAT ARE DOING THE HARD WORK OF PURSUING THEIR OWN CREATIVE AND ACADEMIC GOALS, WHILE ALSO PAVING THE WAY TO FURTHER THE REPRESENTATION OF MARGINALIZED PEOPLE IN THE ARTS AND HUMANITIES. WE HAVE CALLED THIS SERIES, TAKING OUR SEAT. FOR OUR CURRENT FEATURE, WE SAT DOWN WITH ARTIST, JACKIE MILAD.
Baltimore city native, Jackie Milad -she/her pronouns-, creates textured works on paper and canvas. Her artwork has been featured in group and solo exhibitions throughout the U.S. and Mexico. Select exhibitions include: Grizzly Grizzly (Philadelphia, PA), School 33 Art Center (Baltimore, MD), Phoebe Projects curated by Alex Ebstein (Baltimore, MD), Lycoming College (Lycoming, PA), Gettysburg College (Gettysburg, PA), Flashpoint (Washington D.C.), Museo de Arte de Mazatlan (Mazatlan, MX), DiFOCUR de Sinaloa Galleria (Culiacan, MX), Transmitter (Brooklyn, NY), Arlington Art Center (Arlington, VA), Goucher College, Silber Gallery (Baltimore, MD). In 2010, 2016, 2019 Milad was awarded an Individual Artist Grant from Maryland State Arts Council. Milad received her BFA from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts, and her MFA from Towson University. Besides her active studio practice, Jackie Milad also has an extensive career as a curator and educator, where she has committed many years to the education and support of emerging artists.
SPEAKER GUIDE | AB: AKEA BRIONNE & JM: JACKIE MILAD
AB: Jackie, something about your work that really stand out to me, are the symbols that so clearly point towards your own identity and upbringing. Can you expand on that a bit? (For example, I’m thinking a lot about the use of pyramids and the repetition of those forms and the overlaying shapes that allude to a pyramid, in relation to your Egyptian heritage?)
JM: When you grow up in an immigrant household there’s no shortage of cultural symbols and knick knacks. And it makes sense, it’s a way to stay connected to your original home and create a sense of belonging. My parents and relatives adorned their homes with variously sized pyramids, papyrus paintings, busts of pharaohs, evil eye trinkets and religious items such as coptic crosses and pictures of saints. Different from my Egyptian cousins, I also had a variety of Honduran handy-crafts, Santeria candles, and Catholic crosses displayed in our home as well. Of course, my childhood bedroom walls were plastered with an array of pop idols/crushes of the 1980s. All these symbols of culture collapsing on top of one another. Not too different from how I see myself as a multi-racial, multi-ethnic child of immigrants— you are never one thing or a part of one group, just an amalgamation of all of the stuff. As an adult I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about those Egyptian and Honduran touristic objects of my childhood — looking at how those same things/images are casually appropriated by just about everyone in this world. Leaving me to look at these symbols of culture more critically— do these things (miniature pyramids, stuff of Pharaohs) actually tell my family’s history? Addressing this in my current artwork, the outcome is a collage-y mess of recognizable icons, language and abstracted made up symbols. My approach is meant to be playful and experimental. Break down those icons associated with my heritage, re-purposing these symbols, and give them personal meaning, is my way of making them my own and telling my own story.
AB: In your artist talk at the Walters Art Museum, for your work in the Sondheim exhibition (congrats!), you discussed the way you began questioning the perceived value art. That led you to destroy older works and re-contextualize them, can you talk a bit more about the questions that led you to shift your practice and what that was like?
JM: When I was an undergraduate at SMFA I studied Performance Art. It’s those early experiences with performance art that I saw how artwork can respond directly to its surroundings. I really liked the idea that an undocumented act of art could be made and exist only in memory. I also liked that it allowed me the space to learn from re-iteration—and failure. Years later, in graduate school I experimented with making drawings on old brittle paper, using chalk on chalk boards, and acrylic on top of oil pastel. I spent a lot of time making work I knew would have a quick life and a death, so to speak. From there something shifted back to performance art and I began making minimalistic figurative drawings on paper meant as scores or instructions for performance. This progression happened over the course of 15 prolific years. I had a period in my life after the birth of my son in 2011 until 2015 when I didn’t really make art, instead I focused my energy on being a new mother and my full-time job as a curator. I held on to an extensive archive of works on paper. The static quality of these latter figurative works really puzzled me, especially after my son Piero, at toddler age began to draw on top of them when I wasn’t looking. The older work felt void of me, and my identity. That’s when I started to really question their purpose and preciousness. I think archiving art is important – I believe in the preservation of culture—so, don’t get me wrong—however, at this point in my artmaking I need my work to be responsive to the world around me. Cutting up my older works to use as collage material for newer works was the right approach—creating a never-ending cycle. I see it as a regenerative process.
AB: In that same work, you cited your son as your “collaborator.” Can you talk a bit about working collaboratively with your son, especially the ways in which it challenged your noted concerns around juggling motherhood and being an artist? (also something you discussed in your artist talk).
JM: My collaboration with Piero happens very naturally— for now. I know this interest of his will likely wane as he approaches 9. But while I have his interest, it has been quite a learning experience for me. To be real, I trust his opinion and his creative choices. Maybe it’s the outcome of so many Saturday art classes at MICA or being the only child to two artist-parents, but he’s surprisingly insightful and sensitive with his feedback and making. It is because of Piero I really began to open up to making more expressive and responsive work-- and more personal work. Being an artist parent is challenging in many ways, but somehow, I got very lucky to be able to share this with him right now in his life. But hey, I’m sure he’ll make a great accountant or astronaut later in life.
AB: You're also a curator, I'm curious....do you see curation as it own medium? What do you believe is the role of the curator vs the role of the artist? Are the two separate?
JM: It’s my opinion that these roles are very different and very separate—but obviously work in tandem with each other. I personally don’t think of curating as a medium of art-making— I see myself as a facilitator, an administrator, even a matchmaker… I know that sounds boring as hell. But, really when I work with artists it is not about me, at all — my number one priority is to give the artists what they need in order to produce work and/or to feel properly represented. To feel their work and ideas are carefully considered and protected. Likewise, thinking strategically about the context and the audience. What would serve the audience — what do they want to see, what do they want to learn— not dictating or acting as some sort of know it all-- because how boring is that?!
AB: Can you explain your process of curating a show? What do you start with? How do you settle on a theme? What are the aspects of putting together a show, that most people don’t consider?
I always start with one artist. It’s usually rather intuitive. It’s usually a situation where I can’t stop thinking about their art. As I prepare a show I talk to the artist, visiting their studio, talk about their process, read everything I can about them and their ideas. I look at their previous shows and artists they’ve shown with. It’s like falling in love. From there, a theme will arise and I will begin to find more artists, and go through the same process of research with them. At the same time I carefully consider the audience and the context of the venue — who are they and would this match make sense to them if I brought this show to their space? Would it be challenging in a good way? Of course all along, the logistics are rattling off in my mind— budget, costs, programming, travel, shipping, artist fees, timeline, etc. Wow, it’s an intense process, probably why I'm taking a long break from it these days.
AB: As a curator, what would be your dream curatorial project, if funding and location wasn’t a factor?
JM: That’s easy — a re-staging of Anish Kapoor’s, Svayambh. And if we could do it anywhere—-let’s do it in the Center Hall of the White House.
Additionally, Jackie has a few upcoming shows. Please check them out if you’re in the area and able to. We look forward to following her work!
Solo Exhibition: C. Grimaldis Gallery (Baltimore) - September 26 - November 2
Solo Exhibition: Langer Dickie Gallery (Chicago) - October 26 - November 26
Group Exhibition: Harvey B. Gantt Art Center (Charlotte, NC) Curated by Dexter Wimberly, - November 2 - May 2020