Bridget Conway: Can you give a statement of your work—what you’re trying to achieve this semester? How has your work shifted in the past few years to get to the point it is at now?
Zenobia Marder: At this point, I’m a mixed media artist who began with a focus on film photography. My work took a radical shift after spending a semester abroad in South Africa, where my school shut down due to student protest action. I had an internship at a gallery, where I curated performance art pieces and worked with a lot of people in fashion photography in South Africa. I was also really inspired by the work I saw that was being produced in South Africa, and the way people were aesthetically presenting themselves. Then when I got back last semester, I was in a mixed media class taught by Pipo [Nguyen-Duy] and we had a project on identity. I had been really obsessed with these plastic bags that I saw a lot in South Africa. They’re called Ghana Must Go bags [seen left], and they’re basically used in communities of color all around the world, primarily in Africa and China (they can also be called China bags) as utilitarian storage. In Nigeria [during] the eighties, there was a huge forced migration of Ghanaian immigrants, and they all had to leave the country almost immediately. There’s this famous photo of them all waiting for boats at the border of Nigeria with hundreds of these plastic bags, because they were the easiest, weirdly stylish, utilitarian way to store all their belongings quickly. I’m Chinese and Jamaican of African descent, so this material tied into the project. So, that’s where my obsession with specific materials began, and I shifted toward exploring my work through mixed media, rather than just what I see in my surroundings or a narrative I could come up with through a photo.
BC: What goes through your mind when choosing the materials you use for your mixed media pieces? What are some examples of materials that mean a lot to you and your work?
ZM: I realized that crafting with specific materials based on what they mean to me, as well as the meaning embedded in the material, could transform and really elevate my work. When we had a piece on identity [in Pipo’s class], I made this cape that hung all the way from the ceiling to the floor all made out of these Ghana Must Go bags. It also had other items related to my identity, like a yam coated in resin, covered with a root that’s used to cure alcoholism in China, and stuff like that. I also started making quilts: I got really into sewing and its process. I’ve always been really interested in fashion and specifically the way Black fashion is realized in both the Americas and in Africa; so this semester, I’m working on the larger project of examining garments as an object of resistance and a kind of weapon in the diaspora. In using certain materials, I’m thinking about aesthetics as a weapon and Black aesthetics as a weapon, and Black performance of wealth—and what that means in a colonial perspective. In addition to my quilts and fabric pieces, I’m working on things like sculptures in materials that are important to me, like terra cotta [seen above]. I’m using a lot of salt—putting salt on clay, soaking objects in salt, putting salt on garments—because of its healing properties, but also because of a Jamaican saying, “sucking salt,” which functions as a way to signify pacifying oppression. I’m also using a lot of synthetic hair: One of the pieces I have up in the Fischer Gallery right now is a corset shirt made out of synthetic hair, as well as some other objects that go along with it [seen right]. Fashion, sculpture, mixed media pieces, installation—specifically the way I place objects in a room and a few found objects are really important. I’m obsessed with extracting meanings out of materials, and complicating those meanings in my work.
BC: How do you want viewers of your work to feel, especially in these large, immersive installations?
ZM: I want viewers of my work to be attracted by a certain beauty, but I also want my work to make viewers uncomfortable. Fascinated—but confused. For example, when people see this collage of cowry shells and denim [seen right] finished, it will be scary. It’s so overwhelming: the amount of shells on the piece, and the monotonous pattern, and the way it will look like a seascape in the end. This is another piece where materials are really important—the cowry shells I’m attaching to the collage were used for European traders to buy slaves in the Transatlantic Slave Trade. It was this luxury item that was used as African currency that the European traders thought was completely ridiculous, but exchanged for human lives. Cowry shells also grow on organic matter in the ocean: including dead human flesh. If the Europeans killed one of their slaves or one of their slaves died, they would cut up their limbs, toss them in the ocean, and shells would grow on the bodies, and the Europeans would buy more slaves. If I’m using these objects that are so encoded with meanings, I have to be aware that not all my viewers are going to associate these meanings with the materials; so how do I incorporate encoding or text into my work, to draw my viewers to the experience of the work I want them to have?
BC: You’ve written before about your work containing juxtapositions between organic and artificial materials. How is that present in the work you’ve been making this semester?
ZM: That was one of the things I was focused on in my earlier work, and since then I’ve really sharpened my focus and become finalized in my approach, but I am [still] interested in that. For instance, I’m [currently] making pieces out of synthetic hair. At first that hair appears to be organic, but if you go closer, you might realize it’s not, or you might think it’s totally organic and I’m making this piece out of organic material. In reality, it’s actually synthetic Kanekalon hair, which I, and many other African American, Caribbean, or African women, wear on their hair to cover up their actual hair to look nice and presentable—and still, to a certain extent, [to] have these long, straight tresses that adhere to European standards of beauty. If I’m going to use these juxtapositions between the organic and the artificial, I want it to be subtle. I’m creating these shorts, and the fringe on them is inner tubes from bikes, and the big piece of material on the side looks like skin, but is actually plastic latex. I also want to create a cape made out of the same latex, where it looks like it’s made out of flesh… Even this quilt is more performative. In making this quilt [seen above], I chose that color of the red mulch because I really loved how organic it looked, kind of like blood, but it’s actually just plastic. Then I printed the image onto plastic, which I etched onto this quilt, which is made out of leather, a more organic material. I feel like I might not always be aware [of] when I’m approaching these juxtapositions, but they still exist in the work and push my argument forward.