Vicki Meek - Texas Artist of 2021 - is On Our Radar
Art League Houston (ALH) named Dallas-based Artist Vicki Meek as the 2021 Texas Artist of the Year
Full transparency. Vicki Meek is the sister of a longtime friend who over the years has mentioned her art exhibitions and talks in emails or conversations with friends, who in one way or the other were connected to the art world, either through banking, curatorial, stewardship or the all-important collector. And while I congratulated and celebrated with my friend over the years, meeting Vicki in person over lunch and conversation following an early 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair at Brooklyn Pioneer Works proved to be an experience from which I gleaned her abundance of love and deep appreciation for the Black experience and culture.
I am so appreciative I sat next to Meek at lunch. Between the meal and our chat, our face time together was certainly not enough. I remembered asking, “Tell me about the motivation behind your body of work?” To which she thoughtfully responded, “My art is a celebration of our Ancestors’ perseverance, survival and thriving in spite of their history as enslaved people.”
Following that luncheon I researched deeper, and became more informed about Meek’s focus on cultural memory, identity and social commentary relative to the African diaspora. What really stood out for me immediately following that meet-up was her blog post I am heartbroken, in celebration of the life of Muhammad Ali after his passing, an event that she wrote signified “the loss of an era, because,” as she put it, “he represented the best of a time that was so affirming for so many of us African people.”
Meek dips from a rich, deep cultural well to inform what has been described in a recent installation as her “contemporary shrine to the Black Community.” She credits her parents’ activities as liberation activists, who introduced her to Black cultural happenings such as films and performances by The Negro Ensemble Company; her love of Jazz, especially John Coltrane, as he explored the spirituality of his creativity; her study of ancient African spiritual practices of the Yoruba people, in which she seeks ways to “reconnect African Americans to their African ancestors, since I believe the way to thrive in inhospitable surroundings is by grounding oneself in your culture.”
As she said in an essay, “My personal library is full of books that allow me to touch base with my deepest roots whenever I need to.” These books of social justice narratives such as Biography of Race by W.E.B. Du Bois and Ida, A Sword Among Lions by Paula J. Giddings, as well as important catalogues like The Prevalence of Ritual by Romare Bearden, along with the impact of access to artists like Elizabeth Catlett – her mentor, and Romare Bearden, Jacob Lawrence and Augusta Savage, created a veritable wellspring of influences and inspiration for Meek’s career.
More than four years had passed since we first met. In 2020 I finally mustered up the courage to approach Meek, through her sister, about having a conversation for this newsletter. But it was not to be. COVID raged on and Texas froze over. The Dallas-based artist was busy securing shelter and warmth for her family and in the midst of planning new exhibitions. Then came the news that “Art League Houston (ALH) named Dallas-based Artist Vicki Meek as the 2021 Texas Artist of the Year.”
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“Welcome Vicki Meek, your sister took the time to keep a group of us updated on your exhibition activities. I have researched your body of work and its social commentary and really listened to what you have been saying. It is disturbing to say the least. While the phrase had not yet been coined, it is abundantly clear that you have been screaming “Black Lives Matter” throughout your four decades-long art career.”
Q. I see a narrative of pain in your work, but I also see messages of dignity and hope. Do you believe you are effectively communicating the link from a captured people to the social construct Americans of African descent face today?
A. Actually, my narrative isn’t focused on pain, but more on resilience and perseverance that African people in the Americas have demonstrated. I am always about showing that African Americans haven’t simply survived the trauma, we thrived in spite of it. That is the consistent message in my work.
Q. What feedback or reaction do you receive from society at large? Do you think your art creates a space for people to contemplate – what if this was my child, brother, sister, mother, father?
A. Since most of my installations have been/are interactive in some way, I create an outlet for my audiences to respond. I’ve had varied reactions to my work from pure adulation to outright hostility, but all are illuminating for me as I think about ways to communicate my messages.
For instance, I long ago began incorporating a symbols key in the mounting of my work because most people, Black or white and everyone in between, don’t necessarily understand the iconography I’m using. I have developed a visual language over the years that utilizes various symbols from the African diaspora. I want people to recognize these, along with the symbolism of specific color usage, so that they are reading the content as I intended.
Q. You said your art is for all people. Are audiences from different cultures plugging into your art?
A. I assume so, especially since I’ve shown in spaces where myriad ethnic and cultural populations attend.
Q. In your exhibition Stony the Road We Trod, while your message might seem obvious from the visuals of naked feet travailing stony rocks, please share with us your thoughts as you delve into this piece.
A. My site-specific installation uses the second verse of the Black National Anthem, “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” as its inspiration. Originally created as a poem by James Weldon Johnson, and set to music by his brother John Rosamond Johnson in 1900, I feel this song embodies the history of Black Americans from enslavement to liberation.
I chose the second verse because its essential message is that, despite African Americans’ stony path to liberation in this country, a path that doesn’t seem to get easier over time, we never give up. In light of the current climate of acknowledgment that Black lives matter, I chose to create a shrine to my people, one that uplifts their spirit and reinforces the idea that African ancestors continue to guide, if only allowed. This is my personal acknowledgment that Black Lives Matter.
Q. You taught “Cultural Equity in the Arts” at UMass Amherst. What are some missing elements in the way we as a society learn about and consume culture?
A. In America, and indeed the Western World, culture is synonymous with European cultural norms. Everything outside these norms is typically “othered” and relegated to second tier status when it comes to education. Consequently, Americans do not learn very much about the cultures of most of the world since Europe constitutes a mere fraction of the globe’s population. Therefore, equity is almost impossible to attain given the extreme imbalance that exists when it comes to cultural consumption. Only in popular culture has African American culture been allowed to assume a more prominent place, and then only once the white mainstream has accepted it.
Q. Your social commentary in exhibitions such as #born2die? which you brought to life using baby burping cloths with targets on them, is just soul piercing. As you procreate images like this to tell your stories, what is your personal reaction, knowing this is the history of your people? Do they bring on tears, visceral reactions such as anger? Because, as you aptly recognized, “over 30 years the issues remain the same.”
A. Although my topics are typically addressing some of the many traumas Africans face/faced living in a racist society, I can think of only one topic I’ve tackled that actually brought me to tears and that’s The Middle Passage. I think the reason for this emotional reaction was that so much of my research on the subject brought to light some very brutal illustrations of the transatlantic slave trade that I wasn’t aware of – e.g., the decision by white slavers to switch the focus from capturing able-bodied adults to children because of the realization that it was easier to raise “the perfect slave” than to force that status on a fully developed adult. This practice came about as a result of the need to stem the tide of revolts that were commonplace aboard slave ships. As heartrending as the death of our children is at the hands of the police, I, like so many other Black Americans, have come to expect this treatment and, although it pains me to read about these incidents, I believe I am numb to them in a way, a way that keeps me from having a breakdown every time I hear about them.
Q. Tell us about the cocks with blue feet in your recent exhibition at the Nasher Sculpture Center. For me they conjure all sorts of meaning, and captures my deep attention, but what do you want people to take away from these images?
A. White roosters are a symbol of the ancestors, so I use them in works where I’m referencing the need to stay connected to the ancestors. Blue is a protection color in traditional West African art, so these particular roosters, each labeled on their tails with the name of one of the primary 11 tribes enslaved by Europeans bringing Africans to the Americas, are fully protected.
Q. When did you catch the art bug? When did you know it was art for you?
A. I started making art at a very early age and at age 8 years announced that I was going to be an artist! That’s the age I first started getting formal art lessons at Fleisher Art Memorial School in Philadelphia. I graduated from high school and matriculated at Rhode Island School of Design, later transferring to Tyler School of Fine Arts because it had a better sculpture department. I obtained my BFA from Tyler and went on to secure an MFA from University of Wisconsin in Madison, WI. So I guess I was born with the art bug, LOL!
Q. What does it mean to be recognized as the Art League Houston 2021 Texas Artist of the Year?
A. This is a very great honor and I join a long list of Texas artists who have excelled in their various disciplines. It is significant I think, that I am the first African American woman to receive this honor. That reality isn’t lost on me as we see more and more younger Black women gaining recognition in the mainstream art world.
About Vicki Meek
Born and raised in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Meek is a nationally recognized artist who has exhibited widely throughout her career. She is currently represented by Talley Dunn Gallery, Dallas, Texas. Her work can be found in the permanent collections of the African American Museum in Dallas, Texas; The Museum of Fine Arts Houston, Houston, Texas; Fort Wayne Museum of Art, Fort Wayne, Indiana; Paul Quinn College, Dallas, Texas; Serie Project, Austin, Texas; and Norwalk Community College, Norwalk, Connecticut. Meek was awarded three public arts commissions with the Dallas Area Rapid Transit Art Program and was selected as a co-artist for the Dallas Convention Center Public Art Project, the largest public art project in Dallas. Recently, Meek exhibited at the Nasher Sculpture Center as part of their new public art initiative, Nasher Public, featuring Stony the Road We Trod: A Shrine to Black America, a contemporary shrine dedicated to the Black community. Her exhibition in honor of the 2021 Texas Artist of the Year Award, The Journey to Me, visualizes her development as an artist through a curated series of three site-specific installations extending throughout the Art League Houston galleries.