Tameka Norris just produced her first feature-length film. She plays herself in Meka Jean: How She Got Good. The narrative has a lot in common with The Moviegover, a novel by Walker Percy. Like Walker Percy, Norris grew up in the Deep South, and went away to seek her fortune. Like Binx Bolling, the book’s protagonist, Meka Jean reveals what it means when New Orleans is the city you call home.
We recorded this conversation with Norris when her film debuted during the international exhibition Prospect.3 New Orleans, in 2014. She presented the project as a multi-chambered installation at May Gallery, a nonprofit art space in the district known as the Upper 9th Ward.
Sound Editor: Kris McConnachie
CATHY BYRD: New Orleans-based artist Tameka Norris just produced her first feature-length film. She plays herself in Meka Jean: How She Got Good. Her narrative has a lot in common with The Moviegoer, a novel by Walker Percy. Like Walker Percy, Tameka grew up in North America’s Deep South and went away to seek her fortune. And like Binx Bolling, the book’s protagonist, Meka Jean reveals what it means when New Orleans is the city you come home to.
TAMEKA NORRIS: I wanted to somehow document with a film installation the process of what it means to come back home. The story is about a character who is turning 30 and having these life revelations in the process of returning from the Korean War and moving back home to New Orleans around Mardi Gras. It’s this idea of hovering over yourself, over your life, seeing how people see you, seeing others seeing you, and those sort of bizarre relationships that happen when you become very detached from a place and space and then return.
CB: Producing a feature-length film has been your most ambitious project ever.
TN: I really saw my experience as parallel to what it means to come home. And although I’m very proud of the final product, more than anything, the process of making these art objects, the process of making the film, having over 20 people on payroll at any given time, were new experiences for me—things I’ve never had to deal with as an artist.
CB: Tameka’s film debuted during the international exhibition Prospect 3 New Orleans in 2014. When we meet her at the May Gallery, a nonprofit arts space in the district of New Orleans known as the Upper Ninth Ward, Tameka is dressed in character. She is wearing bright specially-designed clothes and a hat topped off with a giant bow. Inside the multi-chambered space, there is handmade seating to match: soft and inviting beanbag chairs pieced together with the same shiny fabrics.
TN: These were sewn by a lovely woman named Jorita Johnson, who also designed the hat with my materials. She’s kind of helping me bring more of a visual language to Meka Jean through this sewing and by allowing me to have sculptural objects that I can wear. I kind of see them as three-dimensional versions of my paintings. Being here in New Orleans, it made me think about the accessibility of my work. I’ve been thinking a lot about my students, for example. I teach at Dillard University and I’ve done lectures at Xavier University. These are two historically black colleges. Or imagining my grandmother interacting with a painting and realizing that she’s looking at it on a wall, but maybe there is a more tangible and usable way to approach making things. Visual language is something you have to learn. It’s really a privilege, right? It’s sort of an elite characteristic to be able to have visual language and to break down imagery in that way. I wanted to make the work in a very simple way, just accessible. And what’s more accessible than a beanbag chair.
CB: We enter a darkened room where a film projection fills one entire wall. At the edge of our view, in an adjacent space, there is a flickering grid of monitors.
TN: The feature is an 80-minute film. Then there are three other channels that are what I’m calling environment, which are interiors and exteriors between London, New York, and obviously lots of New Orleans and Mississippi. These are the four places that I’ve been in the last year. There is another channel that is sort of the rehearsal. Once you watch the feature, everything sort of breaks down when you exit that space. You are seeing the environments and you’re seeing the takes. What does it mean to perform oneself, one take, two takes, three takes? I believe it plays with the believability or non-believability of what’s happening in the narrative itself. There were no professional actors in the film. Everyone who is in the film essentially played themselves. My grandparents play my grandparents. The taxi driver is just a taxi driver, and we just prompted him five minutes before. We called a taxi like you just call a taxi, and we just go, hey, so I’m an artist and we just want to remake the fact that I’m coming home from London right now. Can we shoot this? And will you sign this release? You see the character in London doing interviews. You see the character have a horrible panic attack. You see her go to New York and put on a show, and then you see her get out of the taxi and now she is just arriving home.
CB: Is this your home?
TN: This is my home. It’s right up the street.
CB: Tameka portrays a range of characters in her performance art. But this time, to play a version of herself, she reached back to her childhood.
TN: Tameka Jean is my first and middle name, so Meka Jean is a name that was given to me as a very young child. It’s the name that somebody would yell if I needed to get back in the house right now. Thinking back to my childhood, there was a part of me that was always quite performative. A couple of years ago on a birthday, my mother made this scrapbook for me. It was images of me from an infant until maybe the teenage years. You can tell from the images from when I was three and four that I would make up costumes and sing into a hairbrush. I was a ham. I very much wanted the spotlight. That went away for a very long time. With this film, I am hoping to expose some of myself. I certainly believe it happens, but before I made this film I thought that you would see a polished version. I thought the person that I would be introducing, Meka Jean, would be the version who was in the Too Good for You music video. She is having fun. She is wild, not a care in the world. That is who I thought Meka Jean would evolve to be. But I realized that I had to sit a little bit longer in the evolution.
CB: After earning art degrees at the University of Southern California and Yale School of Art, and presenting your work in the US and abroad, is coming home complicated?
TN: I left as a kind of vulnerable teenager in lower socioeconomic circumstances with no education, just a statistically typical young woman of color. I moved to Los Angeles, moved out of a small town to a big city. And any possible mishap happened. But then returning and coming back as an Ivy League-educated, world-traveled artist who shows internationally, is a big adjustment not just for other people, but for me. The title, ironically, is quite complicated because getting good is so relative. I very naively approached this thinking, well, I have my Ivy League degree and I’m going to move back home, and I’m going to make change here and it’s going to be so easy. I’m out of school. I’m going to find a man to love me. I’m going to start making the best artwork I’ve ever made in my life. But lo and behold, that is just not quite how life works. Coming back home, I reverted back mentally to this other space based on being around my family or being in a certain neighborhood, and it’s really challenging. I had to really think about how do I want to be treated when I walk into a room. How do I want to be treated as a woman who is conducting business? If I’m not being treated fairly or respectfully in a room, then I will create a new room. I’m so proud of this project as it is. But how I have grown as a person through this process is huge. I could have never expected that that would be the biggest outcome.
CB: Aware that your life is a work in progress, you often refer to yourself in third person.
TN: I think Tameka Norris is still very uncomfortable with her newfound privilege, with her newfound education and her ability to articulate in ways that maybe the younger version of myself was not. And I think Meka Jean is like, “Girl, yeah, of course. You earned this. You deserve this. You worked for this.” “How She Got Good” becomes rhetorical, because I think if there is a landing point, then it means that it’s done. But I think I don’t get good, I just get better.
CB: Tell me what you want the viewers to get from the experience. What is your goal with the piece?
TN: That is a good question. I’m still asking this work: what it wants, what is it, where is it going. So I don’t quite know yet. I’m still figuring that out.