Q&A: Mia Anika Navigates the Topography of Abstraction
By Wit López
Mia Anika is a visual artist, cartographer, and mental health advocate based in Atlanta, Georgia. Her work centers around discovering and exploring inner worlds, the intersections of color theory and mindfulness, drawing inspiration from Julie Mehretu, Mary Lovelace O’Neal, Michi Meko, Radcliffe Bailey and Sam Gilliam. She advocates for holistic approaches to mental health and wellness and invites others to facilitate their healing by participating in the creative process, through journaling and workshops.
We asked Philadelphia based writer and artist Wit López to interview Mia about her work and process. Below is a transcript of their conversation.
Wit López: How are you? How’s life been treating you?
Mia Anika: Life’s been treating me ok. We’ve had our own challenges. My family’s been going through a lot. We’ve dealt with a lot of loss this year in different forms. I think collectively as a society, but specifically, my family. How do you navigate a space where we’re working 24/7, but remotely, and the news cycle being as vicious and ongoing as it is, witnessing a lot of violence, participating or choosing not to participate in protests related to state-sanctioned violence, and all of those sorts of things. I’m fine! [Makes air quotes with fingers] I’m fine! [Laughs]
I’ve had my fair share of challenges, just like anyone else, and keeping it moving has been kind of a mantra. I’d like to quote the Nap Ministry really quickly, “We still need to rest,” and I’m trying to emphasize that more in my daily practice and as I’m going through life.
WL: I have been too! I’ve definitely been resting a lot through all of this and I’m grateful for it. So, your visual art incorporates cartography and, honestly, I think that is absolutely amazing. What led you to incorporating cartography in your practice?
MA: Well, it’s a funny story. I switched from figurative work to abstraction in early 2014 at the start of my senior project and it was funny because all of my advisors were like, “What? You’ve been doing figurative work this whole time and you choose right now to completely switch boards all the way?” I worked my way into abstraction using just color…letting color and my emotions drive the practice of making the work. Cartography, map-making, and using the symbolism, using topographic lines, and things of that nature, to sort of drive a different sort of narrative and explore our emotional journeys that came out of two places: one, a personal need to have a way of journaling that wasn’t bullet journaling, that was more like sketching my train of thoughts as I was going along, and the other way it came about was through a project I was working on with one of my family members. It was a game, he was about 6 or 7 years old and we made this game to calm down, almost a color by numbers game, chasing the line on the paper. I thought, That’s it, that’s the one. That’s going to be the coded language I’m going to try to use to express myself now, going forward.
The cartography project, specifically — I started that one in about 2016-ish and I’m still fine-tuning my practice as we continue to go.
WL: That’s really great. Using the methods in calming down and also as a form of journaling that isn’t what we think of as “usual” journaling or the journaling that we’re socialized to believe is journaling leads into my next question a little bit. You’re also a mental health advocate and I know that methods in calming people down and the “Mental Health Matters” T-shirt you’re wearing right now [laughs], but also, we know journaling is usually something that is also prescribed to people as a way to cope with mental health things. How does your mental health advocacy and the current state of mental health issues in our society influence your visual art practice?
MA: I’m doing a lot of research lately, looking for more research that advocates on behalf of people of color more acutely. And the current state of the world…[deep sigh]. I perceive that there is going to be a lot of need to address grief, to address different challenges that have been exacerbated by isolation, by lack of rest, and the capitalism grind that we are all locked in. I have different friends that are trained, clinical, licensed therapists, so reading up on what it is that they’re sharing and keeping a really heavily research-based part of the practice. Looking into cognitive behavioral therapy, dialectic behavioral therapy, looking at different techniques that are being deployed, and, of course, art therapy. There’s a range of different approaches we can have to addressing and caring for ourselves on a mental capacity and emotional regulation is something I’m acutely interested in and that’s something that I shift to explore in my work. From an advocate standpoint, this has been a really busy year of digital interface and being able to speak to that and do check-ins almost face-to-face, it’s been interesting to see what’s been resulting for some of these therapists and clinicians, they’ve been sharing some of this stuff on social media as well. Finding creative and innovative ways to leverage this technology we’re all using to do meetings and stuff for work, but we’re also using the same tools to check in. The current state of the world — everything is on fire. It’s like the meme of the dog sitting in the chair with the teacup and we’re all telling ourselves this is fine and it’s not.
The advocacy informs my work and there’s two parts to that. Prior to COVID, I did a couple of workshops at churches, community centers, and colleges to explore emotions. There’s a thing called the feelings wheel or the emotional wheel or Plutchik’s wheel of emotions. It’s a tool to let you identify what emotion you are feeling and it’s color coded, which is great. I sort of let the root of the emotion inform the colors in the exercises that I do. That’s for the advocacy side of things. For my art, my palettes usually reflect that as well.
WL: Usually when I think of maps, the first thing that comes to my mind are detailed images of land masses and bodies of water, but what also comes to mind for me are global indigenous mapping practices, which include using the stars as a form of navigation, hair braiding techniques, and even songs, which we know were used during enslavement in the U.S. South, as a form of navigation out of enslavement. To me, when I look at your cartography series, it seems more abstract, and you mentioned earlier that it is abstract, but it also feels that the rest of us who are witnessing your work are not clued into the map’s key. A map usually has a key or it tells you how to read a map. I noticed that your series doesn’t necessarily have a key, so could you talk about your methodology in your cartography series and is any of it influenced by indigenous cartography? Is there a key that is available to the rest of us who are witnessing it or is part of what you created that there is no key and only you can interpret the journey that the maps are for?
MA: I love the complexity of your question because it addresses the practice that I am currently going through and the process I am refining. One thing that was up for debate when I started this was whether or not I would have a key for these maps, whether I wanted them to be deliberately prescriptive in that way. Let’s see, I can start for the process of creating. From a process facing standpoint, I’m combining color, line, and texture, to establish a mood first. The amount of color, the palette that’s chosen, and the texture that I put on the canvas to inform the layout, is meant to evoke a mood first. The lines that go on top of that, some of them are directional and some of them are meant to indicate depth. There are not always necessarily land masses, per se, there’s a lot of movement in my pieces and if I had to describe it, there are pits, there are abysses, there are places where we get stuck and that’s indicated by repeating spirals of lines.
In my work, I’m seeking to explore the development of a mood and that’s very difficult. How do I want to put this? [pauses] You know what, I think that’s it. Responding to that challenge of ‘How is it that I capture the way that I move from being irritated to getting calm.’ I am literally picturing this liminal space and depicting it as graphically as I can. That being said, the textures and the different things that I’m using, the marks, they are meant to indicate something. They are meant to indicate the evolution of thought, the connection of neurons, what is happening in my mind, or what could be happening in your mind. For that reason, I don’t indicate what those marks mean through a key. I may develop a key as we keep going.
There’s this thing called asemic writing, it’s a practice for journaling and a range of different expressive mediums. Basically, it’s a freehand writing. In some of my mark making, there is “language” it just can’t really be decoded or detected, but it looks like writing, to mark a place. That place might be a moment of inspiration, a moment of angst, it might be whatever it is that is swirling around in my head or whatever is directly related to the mood I’m depicting.
Do I incorporate global indigenous map-making practices in my work? I’ve studied a lot of cave drawings from aboriginal practices, so there’s a range of different marks that I use. Some of them are drawn from star maps and constellations, and others are drawn from quilts. I look at different things for inspiration that are usually indicative of some kind of a journey and I seek to translate that in paint.
WL: I appreciate you bringing up quilts, since it’s part of the African American tradition of navigating things. It slipped my mind, but thanks for mentioning that.
MA: There’s a tradition of Black women doing abstraction, a pan-diasporic approach to work, to play, to organizing, just putting things conceptually in a spatial format, not necessarily a chronological or linear way of thinking. I think abstraction should get all the credit that it should get as a form of expression, but also just the tradition of it. The Dogon people decorate their dwellings with different marks for beautification and the markings of Yoruba people and Yoruba practices, Santeria, Vodou, Hoodoo, and other practices. I don’t find that what I’m doing is unique, special, or isolated, it’s not a landmark thing to explore things through map-making. That’s not a novel or completely new concept, it is rooted and grounded in African and African American tradition.
WL: Absolutely! I agree. I think it situates you directly within this very long lineage of that practice. There are roots of it within the continent, throughout the Caribbean, wherever people of African descent landed, it’s there. Your work is situated directly in there. It’s cool.
Last question: how has the pandemic and the social conditions that the pandemic has created impacted your art practice and also your mental health advocacy work?
MA: My workshops are hands-on, so with COVID’s arrival that put a very long pause on speaking engagements or even the comfort and safety of having speaking engagements. We’re all screened in. I’m working from home full-time remotely, to that end, it’s exhausting to be on-screen a lot. I’ve taken steps back to reflect and see going forward what are the best ways to engage. What is the most beneficial and helpful for the group of people that I advocate for? Do I need to just share the work of other people who have informed practices and move that forward and do signal boosting? Is that the best way for me to help be an advocate at this time?
And the production of work, I’ve scaled down, so that I can produce wherever I am. I’ve done a lot of watercolors. The watercolors have been a slight departure, they’re still the maps, but they’re more of a study of the color relationships. How do I evoke melancholy and how do I capture the essence of melancholy? I know that sounds like such an artsy platitude, but it is the core of what I want to do. I’m seeking to develop stronger connections with mood swings and drawing those lines more acutely between the work I’m producing and what I’m speaking on. The last installment of the cartography series, as it stood in the larger paintings, was an exploration of symptoms of depression: brain fog, dysphoria, the feeling of unease, anxiety, mood swings, constant almost nauseating up and down of feeling amazing then feeling awful, and everything in between. There is a piece I’m working on, it’s ginormous. I got a roll of canvas and I unroll a section at a time, so I can paint on it. It’s exploring this mass hysteria that we’re under right now, so however long it will take me to complete that piece — a 10 foot roll by 12 — however long it will take me to continue to build upon that piece. COVID sort of forced our hands in general, I believe, to be more creative and more intentional about our work. I’m going to definitely incorporate and explore these things more as ways to ground my work and make it more intentional and relatable because I am making this work for my health, but a goal of mine is to open up the conversations that we don’t always have as a people about mental health and about maintaining it. Do we need to place labels on things? Do we need to call it “the blues” or call it being pensive? Or do we need more direct ways of addressing this anguish and unease? And there’s going to be a whole lot more of that, I predict, to come following this election cycle and everything else that’s going on. So, what is the best way to have and maintain an informed art practice in a world that is increasingly digital and isolated and to still share your process and find ways of engaging with your audience, not from a capitalist perspective, but from a community building perspective? That is a part of the work as well; it finds its way in there.
About the Writer: Wit López is an award-winning maker and performance artist finding joy in the little things in Philadelphia, PA. For more information on their work, visit witlopez.com, or follow them on Instagram @witnotwhit.