M.I.A. is political, ferocious and controversial (her rants against The New York Times have been well-publicized, lauded and critiqued). A celebrated hip-hop artist, she’s performed with the who’s-who of American hip-hop and her songs have been featured on Hollywood movie soundtracks. But what about M.I.A., the graphic artist?
Jugni Style takes a peek into a little-known pop-art book of some of M.I.A.’s critical graphic artistry from before she was singing about Paper Planes and hanging with the “Rap Pack” of hip-hop.
At the turn of the 21 century, M.I.A., or Maya Arulpragasam, was a rising graphic artist completing her first exhibition on street graffiti and political resistance. Many of the same images featured in the exhibit were later seen in her debut video, Galang, but Pocko Edition’s little known book, M.I.A. provides wonderful insight into the formative political ideas of one of Sri Lanka’s most popular artists.
The first half of the book is filled with spray paint and grafitti images of Tamil Tigers (of whom Maya’s father and cousin were members) and men brandishing weapons, but there’s more at work here than simply constructing a “menacing Other.” In one picture, Maya cuts out the caption for an Olympic shooting event and overlays a picture of a masked gunman in order to demonstrate how de-sensitized certain societies have become to “normalized” violence for sport.
In another image, an anonymous yet strident face of a woman is juxtaposed against the anonymous and hidden faces of men; in a sense literally giving a “face” to the neglected history of female resistance in Sri Lanka. In this way the cover of the book, which features an androgynous looking M.I.A. in “whiteface” brandishing a gun, raises the immediate questions of race, gender, sexuality and politics that weave their way throughout the book.
In the second half of the book, Maya asserts her need to return home to Sri Lanka, a country she left as political refugee when she was 9 years old, in order to complete herself. She writes about her favourite cousin, Jana, and the parallel lives they lived. At the same time that she was entering art school, Jana was joining the Tamil Tigers. And while she was “trading [her] rebellious spirit” for Gucci shoes, he was training for a suicide mission. Maya asks what would have happened to her if she stayed in Sri Lanka and what follows are flipbook images of the political assassination of a female protester. Maya wants the visceral impact of these pictures to be disturbing yet contemplative, and she succeeds.
The graffiti nature of Maya’s work is integral to her message. It takes politics out of the structures of government; it takes “art” out of the walls of a museum and puts it back into the public street. Maya writes that over-familiarity with traditional political imagery breeds boredom:
Thinking ourselves visually sophisticated, icons and the ideologies they represent are absorbed by our throwaway, consumerist culture. Camouflage and Che have become the uniform of the high street, interchangeable with any other act of decadence.
This book is intentionally difficult. It continually forces you to make tough decisions, and makes even those with strong political convictions question why they believe what they do. It seems to argue that when Che and camouflage become “museums,” when they become the repositories of “acceptable’ political protest, then they must be destroyed so that new, more resonant forms of imagining resistance can take place. This may be a difficult path for many readers to tread, especially when one could argue that M.I.A. (and Maya herself) have become commodified like previous forms of resistance.
M.I.A. is available online through Pocko Editions, London.
Story By: Naveen Girn | All images ©Pocko Editions.